Sour Cream Is Such a Magical Ingredient in Baked Goods—Here's Why

It produces tender, moist cakes every time.

Have you ever tasted a slice of vanilla pound cake or rich, creamy cheesecake and wondered what makes it so tender, airy, and moist? The answer is sour cream. While you may think of sour cream as a topping on nachos or baked potatoes, it works wonders in baked goods, too. So, what exactly is sour cream? It's simply cream that has been soured and thickened with lactic acid bacteria, which gives the cream flavor and creates its signature texture, says Tracy Wilk, lead chef at the Institute of Culinary Education. "It adds a subtle tang to the flavor or baked goods. The fat contributes to moistness and richness that makes tender cakes," says Samantha Seneviratne, author of The Joys of Baking: Recipes and Stories for a Sweet Life.

vanilla bundt cake with chocolate-cream cheese filling
Kate Mathis

How Is Sour Cream Used in Baking?

Sour cream is one of the fattiest dairy products; the extra fat content (for example, adding sour cream to a cake instead of milk) will make the cake moister and richer, says Wilk. "Fat, in any form (butter, lard, cream, etc.) shortens gluten strands, which essentially leads to the most tender baked goods," she adds. According to the Food and Drug Administration, sour cream contains no less than 18 percent milkfat.

Recipes That Use Sour Cream

Sour cream is a key ingredient in cheesecake, sweet cheese pies such as our Cherry-Cheese Strudel Pie, and basic cake recipes like Chocolate Sheet Cake with Vanilla Buttercream. In most cases, sour cream is used as an alternative to—rather than in addition to—milk or heavy cream. You'll be amazed at how moist this springtime Rhubarb Crumb Cake is thanks to sour cream. The same goes for the Vanilla Bundt Cake with Chocolate-Cream Cheese Filling that's pictured above.

Substitute for Sour Cream

Seneviratne recommends using full-fat, plain yogurt or créme fraîche in place of sour cream. "In a pinch, you can add lemon juice or vinegar to milk and let it sit for a few minutes until it has thickened. The results won't be exactly the same as sour cream as the fat content and consistency is a little different, but it should work," she says.

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