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I have lots of great recipes that call for crème fraîche, but for some reason, it's very difficult to find it in my neighborhood. I hear that sour cream is an acceptable substitute. However, in my view, if whoever originated the recipe wanted to use sour cream, they'd have called for sour cream in the first place! So I don't want to just substitute sour cream for crème fraîche by default.

I have also heard that many types of yogurt can be used, or crema mexicana, or many other products. I imagine that certain products are better in certain recipes than others, in terms of substitution. What are the properties of crème fraîche that can be emulated by which other products?

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The main difference is that crème fraîche has more fat (35–40 %) than sour cream (20 %). The result is that sour cream may curdle sometimes if you heat it up. In almost all cold dishes, there is little difference in taste. If you wanted to make sour cream taste even more like crème fraîche, you could add a little bit of butter to it, or mayonnaise (in a savoury dish). I would just use sour cream if I were you and not worry about it. You can also make crème fraîche yourself out of cream and yoghurt (ratio 100:3 in weight), takes about 24 hours; stir, cover, stir again every 6 hours. –  Cerberus Nov 28 '13 at 22:49

3 Answers 3

up vote 1 down vote accepted

Creme Freiche is just heavy cream inoculated with buttermilk. From http://www.splendidtable.org/recipes/homemade-creme-fraiche:

Ingredients

1 to 2 tablespoons cultured buttermilk
2 cups heavy cream (pasteurized, not ultra pasteurized or sterilized, and with no additives)

Instructions

Combine the buttermilk and cream in a saucepan and heat only to tepid (not more than 85F degrees on an instant reading thermometer). Pour into a clean glass jar. Partially cover and let stand at room temperature (between 65F and 75F degrees) for 8 to 24 hours, or until thickened. Stir and refrigerate at least 24 hours before using. The cream will keep about 2 weeks in the refrigerator.

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This jives with some of my experience - on Thursday I approximated creme fraiche by letting a tablespoon of skyr sit in a cup of heavy cream all night. It worked well for what I was attempting. –  abby hairboat Nov 29 '13 at 22:00
    
Are those Fahrenheit or Celsius degrees? –  Agos Dec 5 '13 at 8:44
    
SORRY! Fahrenheit. Just slightly warmed at first then room temperature, it's not picky beyond that. –  Jolenealaska Dec 5 '13 at 9:06

It's true. It is sometimes hard to find crème fraîche. One of the stores in our neck of the woods brings them in from across the ocean weekly on a plane!

My gut feeling is that if you whip the heaviest cream you can find (35%) with 'some' butter milk, you'll get awesomely close to it.

You could also experiment with adding a bit of butter milk to heavy cream and resting it a day or so in the fridge then whipping it up.

If you can find Mascarpone cheese (without the chemicals), it may also substitute well.

I think the bacterial culture in butter milk is same as crème fraîche, but not sure that sour cream or yoghurt would be. In my experience, neither sour cream, nor yoghurt will taste as good as crème fraîche if the recipe calls for it. Even plain cream does better than those two in these cases.

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I agree. Plain yogurt isn't a bad idea either, which is probably closer than the OP's sour cream. –  Chris Nov 29 '13 at 0:43

A thick creamy Greek style plain yogurt is a great substitute for baking and the yogurt will last a longer in the fridge

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