Updated: Dec 11, 2018
Ah sour cream... A nice dollop of this slightly tangy, thickened dairy is a classic topping for baked potatoes, beef goulash and hearty stews. Some even swear by it in baking – for the moistest banana bread and lusciously rich cheesecakes!
What about yoghurt? With its creamy consistency and sourness that is oh so versatile. We love it on fresh fruit, nuts and granola for breakfast. On baked potatoes, beef goulash and hearty stews… In baking for moistness… In banana bread too! Does that sound like the above?
Most of us have heard of sour cream and yoghurt. But what really sets them apart? On the surface, they both appear to be the same thing – thickened dairy products that have a sour flavour. And in some recipes they appear to be interchangeable. So are they the same thing? The short answer is no. Let’s find out why:
What is Sour Cream?
An iconic flavour – Popular chip companies stake their name on the pairing of this with spring onions.
According to Wikipedia, Sour cream is a dairy product obtained by fermenting regular cream with certain kinds of lactic acid bacteria (bacterial culture), that also create its characteristic sourness. Traditionally, it was made by letting cream that was skimmed off milk ferment at a moderate temperature.
This process of ‘souring’ cream intentionally also helps in preserving it. Traditional sour cream has about 20% fat, where low-fat or fat-free options replace the butterfat with artificial thickeners and stabilizers such as starch, gelatin or plant gum. Modern food processing has also seen such thickeners and stabilizers appearing in the ‘regular’ versions of sour cream, which are used as a replacement for a lower fat content.
Sour cream is prominently seen in Central and Eastern European cooking, where it is featured in stews. Immigrants brought it to American cities in the 19th century and in due time it became a natural choice for dips, salad dressings, toppings on baked potatoes, and ingredients in cakes.
What is Yoghurt?
Yoghurt, while appearing similar, is made by the bacterial fermenting of milk. Similar to sour cream, a bacterial culture (different strains from those used in sour cream) is added to the milk, causing it to ferment, thicken, and develop pleasant sour flavours. Also like sour cream, low-fat and fat-free options are available, where artificial thickeners and stabilizers are added in an attempt to recreate the texture of regular yoghurt in the absence of fat.
As milk is used in the process of making yoghurt, its fat content is significantly lower than that of sour cream – about 3% if whole milk is used. This creates a less rich flavour, with the sourness being more pronounced.
Interestingly, yoghurt is more widely used than sour cream around the world, and can be seen in Eastern European cooking, Central Asian cooking, Indian food, and North African cuisine. It is found in a variety of foods such as drinks, soups, baked goods and sweets.
When to Use
So when should we use sour cream, and when should we use yoghurt?
We’ve identified that the main difference between the two is fat content, with sour cream having on average 6.5x the fat content (comparing traditional sour cream vs. traditional yoghurt). This is due to the base dairy product being used – cream (with a fat content of ~20%) versus milk (~3% fat content).
This fat content not only serves to enrich the food we eat, but also reduces the amount of sour tang we get from our cultured dairy products.
This makes the answer relatively simple – when you want to achieve a rich, luxurious mouth-feel and flavour, where fat isn’t a concern – use sour cream. Another thing to consider is the amount you are using. If you are consuming a small amount of it at a time – say a spoonful in hearty goulash, or on top of a baked potato, maybe a slice of cheesecake for the day – then depending on your dietary requirements full fat sour cream may be acceptable.
However, if you are looking to cut fat from your diet, or prefer having a more sour flavour from your dairy topping, use yoghurt instead. Examples include when you are making a light salad dressing, toppings for your tacos or in a fruit smoothie.
In baked goods, do note that swapping out sour cream for yoghurt will reduce the amount of fat, but it may also result in a drier crumb. You may have to adjust your bake timing or recipe to reflect this.
What about low-fat sour cream or reduced fat yoghurt?
Generally, when you decide to get a low fat sour cream and low fat yoghurt, you are choosing to forego the fat (real, natural flavour), and replace it with artificial additives. My personal advice is to just go full fat, and use less. If you want to reduce the fat, get yoghurt instead of sour cream (All-natural yoghurt). Doing so reduces your fat consumption by 6.5 times, or 85%, and you don’t have to worry about sweeteners, stabilizers, or unwanted additives.
What about flavoured yoghurts?
In flavoured yoghurts they taste good mainly due to one additive – Sugar. When a traditional process that occurs naturally is cut short to speed up manufacturing, and the elements that give it flavour naturally are removed, manufacturers have to add in fillers to ‘recreate’ the texture that you imagine yoghurt would be like.
Removing fat from the yoghurt causes the milk solids to separate from the liquid, and they would have to add in thickeners and stabilizers (usually artificial) to bind them back together. That fat also removes the flavour, and you would be able to taste all those additives. To mask them, sugar (or sweeteners) and flavourings are added.
So why would we think natural fat, when consumed in moderation and as part of a healthy, balanced diet is considered bad? Fat, versus additives you and I cannot hope to identify, nor understand how it may affect our bodies in the long term?
Instead of buying flavoured yoghurts, you can just buy plain yoghurt and add in fresh cut fruit or honey. That way, you get the full nutrition of fresh fruit, without any unwanted additional sugar or additives. Feeling creative? Puree or cut your own fruit blends and store them in individual freezer bags for easy access. For best results, buy fruit that is in season.
How can we tell? Read the label.
The simplest way to know what you are buying is to - Read the label. Remember, knowledge is just knowledge, but applying that knowledge is power. If you’ve read the label of sour cream, expect it to read, “Cream, live cultures”, rather than, “Water, Milk, Milk Solids, Cultures, Gelatin, Carrageenan, Acidifiers, Monkeys, etc”.
Sure, it is likely that you would be paying more for such a product. But here’s what you are paying for – The quality of the base ingredient; in addition to the time, labour, energy and effort required to make it. And more importantly, you are paying for the assurance that thought and consideration was put into the process of making it in the best natural way possible. My humble advice would be to use it in moderation, and enjoy its quality.
If these are priced out of your budget, then buy the best you can afford. The last thing you would want is to splurge on your yoghurt and end up having to eat it with saltine crackers or instant noodles for the rest of the week (highly unlikely scenario, but just stating for context).
Is it worth taking the extra time to read the labels? I would say yes, because once you get used to it, you’d only take a minute or two. And generally, once you find a brand you like (because of how they make it and what goes in, not because it is famous), you can just check the price or keep your eyes peeled for an offer on subsequent purchases.
I’ve taken some photos of different kinds of yoghurt and their ingredient labels for your reference. You’d be surprised to see that the most natural ones are not necessarily the most expensive ones. In fact, it is usually the more popular brands that cost more, but may not have the best ingredient list.
DON’T – Simply Buy the Brand
A big misconception is that buying a famous brand would mean the quality and authenticity is assured. Nope.
DO – Buy the Brand AFTER you read the label. Brands are supposed to earn your trust, and as an informed consumer making a purchase, build that trust by reading the label and making an informed buying decision.
Sure, from time to time that once trusted brand may change their recipe due to cost pressures, etc. Not your problem; When that happens, just fall back on your trusty label reading skills and move forward with confidence to the better product that deserves your hard earned money.
Why does it matter?
When you buy food items that are made responsibly, you are showing the food manufacturers/companies what you want in the most powerful way – with your wallets. A good company will make what you want to buy. If you buy and show support of what you want, they will listen.
A company exists to make profit, whether they do so ethically depends on the management of the company. To us everyday folks, the only way to really tell is to read the ingredients label – which they are legally required to disclose – read between the lines, and make our best informed decision.
Sour cream – made from cultured cream ~20% fat content.
Yoghurt – made from cultured milk ~3% fat content.
Avoid low-fat sour cream – just use yoghurt to cut fat content.
Avoid low-fat alternatives in general if you wish to cut down on sugar and consuming artificial additives.
Buy plain and add fruit, or your own sweeteners instead of buying flavoured yoghurt.
Consumption in moderation is the best way to reduce fat content.
Read the labels before you buy.
Buy the best you can afford and use in moderation.
Support companies that make it the natural way by buying their products.
 McGee, H. (2004) On Food and Cooking - The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, Completely Revised and Updated, 49.
 McGee, H. (2004) On Food and Cooking - The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, Completely Revised and Updated, 48.
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