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Let me be clear: I am not asking about their applications. I know some really good recipes where you use one or the other. I know you can replace them with each other in some recipes, not in others. That is not what I am asking about.

My question is about how they are different in their constitution. I have read that to get sour cream you ferment cream with a few different subspecies of Lactococcus lactis. Sometimes rennet or acid (lemon juice or vinegar) is used, but authentic sour cream requires the fermentation with bacteria (which converts cream's lactose to lactic acid). When I look up recipes to make cream cheese, I get the same instructions. You take cream, again you ferment it with a couple subspecies of Lactococcus lactis, you strain it to get rid of the water, and you get cream cheese. The only difference I see is that in the US, sour cream usually has a 20% fat content, whereas cream cheese has a fat content of 33% or higher. The other different thing is when making the cheese, "sometimes" some milk is added.

But this cannot be the only difference. Otherwise we would not call one of them cheese, and another of them cream (considering the fat content, even those names seem ironic). I would appreciate if someone can shed some light and give some insight.

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There are differences in base ingredients, as well as in the method used for production. The production of cream cheese starts with milk (or a mixture of milk and cream), which is curdled after which the whey is removed. Typically, rennet or acid are used to curdle the milk, so that one can separate the whey from the curds. Cream cheese can be fermented before curdling, but I do not believe this is common.

Sour cream is cream that has been fermented with lactic acid bacteria.

The difference in names is thus also explained: sour cream is cream that has gone sour, while cream cheese has undergone a fairly typical cheese-making process.

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  • Thanks. The description of manufacturing process in Wikipedia has a surprising lack of references (other than the one about fermentation temperature). The process still kind of seems the same (what with the use of Lactic acid bacteria). But I think I get the difference. Basically they use more milk in it, which contributes proteins, which in turn make this a cheese. Whereas sour cream is just cream. I wonder though why don't all cheeses taste sour? Is it because they wash it? Do they wash cream cheese?
    – NurShomik
    Commented Jul 23, 2020 at 3:59
  • @NurShomik The processes are the same only in the fermentation step. Ingredients and method (the cheese is strained, the cream is not) are different. Regarding the acidity of cheese: presumably, this has something to do with the ripening process most cheeses undergo, although lots of cheeses have a slight tang. I also just found this page on lactic acid fermentation which might help clear things up even more.
    – LSchoon
    Commented Jul 23, 2020 at 7:38

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