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August/September 2019

Sour Cream

Just how sour should sour cream be?

How We Tested

Baked potatoes and sour cream are a classic food pairing. However, sour cream isn't just a topping for spuds. It's equally at home when dolloped on nachos, chili, latkes, and all sorts of soups. It's an essential base for dips, creating a texture that's creamy, tangy, and the perfect consistency for scooping. We also use it as an ingredient in some of our baking recipes, from cookies to pound cake to coffee cake, to enhance moisture and richness.

But which sour cream is best? To find out, we rounded up four nationally available products, priced from about $3.00 to about $4.50 per 16-ounce container, and tasted them plain, in Sour Cream Drop Biscuits, and in Caramelized Onion Dip.

Tasters Prefer a Milder Sour Cream

Our tasters generally preferred the products they perceived as milder; they liked milky sweetness with just a hint of tang. Tart sour creams received lower marks, especially when tasted plain.

Most of the companies would not disclose their fermentation processes, but Kimberlee Burrington, a dairy expert at the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, explained that the tangier sour creams were likely fermented longer or used specific strains of bacterial cultures that are known to contribute a more tangy flavor. “The tangier flavor of a sour cream could be because the pH is lower (probably from a longer, but not a warmer, fermentation period) or different cultures were used,” Burrington said. “Usually a cultured product that is tangier is also lower in pH.” A lower pH means the sour cream would be more acidic and therefore more sour. A sour cream with less fat could also taste more sour, as fat has a way of “rounding out flavors,” Burrington said. However, when we looked at the nutrition labels, we were surprised to see that all the samples had relatively similar amounts of fat, regardless of whether they contained cream, milk, or a combination of the two—so fat content wasn't a factor in their flavor as far as we could tell.

Fortunately, the ultratart flavor of some products was lessened when we tried them in Sour Cream Drop Biscuits and Caramelized Onion Dip, where other ingredients masked the tanginess. Tasters deemed all the biscuits and dips perfectly acceptable: Biscuits were all “rich” and “delicious,” and every dip was plenty “creamy” and subtly “tangy.”

Zeroing In on Dairy Flavor

All the products in our lineup contained just dairy (cream and/or milk), bacterial cultures, and enzymes, so dairy flavor was front and center for our tasters. Our top-rated sour cream was described as having a “clean dairy flavor” and being almost “buttery.” Tasters thought that two lower-ranking sour creams, both made with organic dairy, had subtle notes of “barnyard flavors” that were a bit distracting when eaten plain. Burrington explained that this flavor could be attributed to several factors, including what the cows were fed, the quality of the dairy, and how long the dairy was stored prior to being made into sour cream. While some tasters liked the “cheesy” complexity of these sour creams, we generally preferred more neutral products when tasting them plain. As with tangy flavor, the proprietary bacterial cultures manufacturers use to ferment and thicken the sour creams—much like they do when making yogurt—could also have been a factor in the flavor.

The Ideal Sour Cream Texture

Our preferred sour cream texture was thick but still spoonable. To understand the differences in consistency, we first looked at the type of dairy used to make each sour cream. Our two favorite products were made using just cream, whereas the two lowest-ranking sour creams were made with a combination of milk and cream. The sour creams made with just cream were described as “thick and luscious,” while the sour creams made with milk and cream were comparatively “runny” and “watery.”

Burrington explained that the type of dairy used to make sour cream is only partially responsible for the product's thickness. Manufacturers start the process by homogenizing the dairy—using pressure to break down and evenly distribute dairy's fat globules—to keep the fat and liquid in the dairy emulsified. Burrington said that the amount of pressure used during homogenization determines how small or large the fat globules end up. Higher pressure results in smaller globules, which typically create the thicker, firmer sour creams our tasters loved. (Since manufacturers would not disclose this information, there was no way for us to confirm it.)

Burrington also noted that some companies will add ingredients such as nonfat milk powder to the milk to help make the sour cream thicker.

The Best Sour Cream: Daisy

Overall, we can recommend all four of the sour creams we tasted, especially for baking or incorporating into a recipe. However, for spooning onto nachos or garnishing soup, our favorite product is Daisy Sour Cream. Tasters described this top-selling product as “creamy and smooth, with the perfect consistency for dolloping.”

The Difference Between Sour Cream, Yogurt, and Crème Fraîche

Like yogurt and crème fraîche, sour cream is a fermented dairy product made from milk and/or cream that is inoculated with bacteria. During fermentation (or “souring” in sour cream's case), lactose—the sugar abundant in milk and cream—is broken down into lactic acid. This lactic acid accumulates, causing the dairy to thicken and form semisolid curds. These curds eventually become sour cream, yogurt, or crème fraîche.

However, these products differ in two key ways. First, different lactic acid–producing bacteria, called “starter cultures,” are used to ferment the milk and/or cream for each product. Different bacteria create subtle variations in flavor. Second, the products are fermented at varying temperatures and for varying lengths of time. Sour cream ferments for less time and at a higher temperature than crème fraîche and for more time and at a lower temperature than yogurt.


Methodology

We purchased four nationally available sour creams, priced from about $3.00 to about $4.50 per 16-ounce container. Panels of 21 America's Test Kitchen staffers sampled them in three blind tastings: plain, in Sour Cream Drop Biscuits, and in Caramelized Onion Dip. Ingredients were obtained from product packaging. Prices shown were paid in Boston-area supermarkets. Results from the tastings were averaged; products appear below in order of preference.


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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.