Among the many culinary innovations that have come out of France, crème fraîche is perhaps one of its most beguiling. Traditionally made from unpasteurized cream that’s left to ferment naturally, crème fraîche (pronounced krehm fresh) is a slightly sour, thickened cream. It’s tangy and nutty, more politely rounded than sour cream, and without so much bite. Its consistency is semi-firm yet compliant.
Use it as a garnish or as an ingredient. Cooks cherish crème fraîche for its ability to endure heat—to readily melt with a remarkable reluctance to curdle, even when boiled hard. This makes it an ideal, silky enrichment for stirring into soups or sauces.
Crème fraîche marries well with both the sweet and the savory, as well as the cool and the cooked. Dollop it on fresh fruit or just about any pastry dessert for a tangy contrast. A classic pairing is with tarte Tatin, a caramelized apple tart. Crème fraîche is refreshing on a slab of ripe tomato with salt and a little fresh pepper or with a shaving of smoked salmon dressed with capers, red onion, and a squeeze of lemon. It’s perfect with potatoes—tucked in a gratin, topped on a steaming baked potato, or tossed with steamed red-skinned potatoes, parsley, and chives. You can serve a dab of it on a little canapé, such as a rice cracker, with a slice of avocado. Whisk it into your beef Stroganoff or use it to finish a braised chicken dish. Dress up a green-chile and-pork burrito, or pair it with-anything elegant, like caviar.
Buy it or make it. Until recently, crème fraîche was a pricey import. But in the last few years American cheesemakers have delivered their domestic versions to market, and many are quite good. But to say that it’s now a cheap and widely available product would be a half truth. It’s about $4 for 8 ounces, and only some food markets carry it in their specialty cheese displays. Fortunately, it’s quite simple to make from scratch (see the recipe for Homemade Crème Fraîche).