If you thought sour cream was only for nachos and loaded baked potatoes, think again.

By Darcy Lenz
February 12, 2021
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We see it in recipe descriptions all the time, sour cream being touted as a most luxurious element of a recipe — truly, a reason in and of itself that you should make it. Particularly when it's cake. There are good reasons for this … but what exactly are they? 

I'm addressing this topic because more than one person in my life has recently mentioned that the idea of folding sour cream into their desserts sounds, well … weird. I can see that. Especially if you've never done a lot of baking. So let's dig into it. 

First — what even is sour cream? Unsurprisingly, the ingredient is a fair representation of its name: cream that has been intentionally soured with lactic acid bacteria. This souring process obviously gives the product its signature tang-a-licious flavor, but it also thickens it into an extremely thick, creamy consistency. 

In terms of baking chemistry, sour cream is a powerhouse combo of acid and fat. In fact, it's one of the fattiest dairy products you can use in your baking. Both of these elements of sour cream's character make it a truly special (not to mention, hardworking) ingredient in your pound cake

Sour cream is definitely adding moisture to your cakes, muffins, scones, and beyond, but there's a little more to it than that. Here's a closer look at what this generally wonderful ingredient can do for you, and more specifically, your baking. 

Moisture That Matters

Let's start with the most widely recognized job of sour cream in baking, it adds moisture. But so what? Can't milk or buttermilk do the same? 

Here's one thing to consider: thickness. Sour cream adds moisture without thinning your batter the same way that a liquid would. That fact that sour cream delivers moisture without further thinning out a batter results in a cake with a very tender, very fine crumb. 

Richy Richness

As mentioned above, sour cream has higher fat levels than the other common dairy go-tos in baking — milk and buttermilk. Per (8-ounce) cup, both whole milk and whole buttermilk contain roughly, a little over 8 grams of total fat. Comparatively, 8 ounces of full-fat sour cream offers closer to 45 grams of fat. 

As most cooks know, more fat means more richness. This fat content lends a mouth-pleasing, velvety texture to baked goods. Think about a slice of angel food cake versus a sour cream pound cake; both are delicious, but satisfying in different ways. 

That Acid

The acidity of sour cream impacts a number of happenings in the baking process. For one, the acid content helps to tenderize gluten strands (the structural protein architecture in your baked goods), resulting in a more tender final product. Additionally, you'll notice that baking recipes containing sour cream often rely on baking soda as a leavener, as the acid content of sour cream allows it to activate baking soda's leavening powers. Many bakers have observed that baking soda also contributes to a soft texture. Finally, sour cream's acidic nature yields more nuanced — perhaps delicately tangy — flavor in a baked treat.

These are benefits plain milk simply cannot offer. 

Sour Cream vs. Buttermilk

Buttermilk offers similar acid levels as sour cream (a bit more, even), thus it can offer similar effects. However, you'll certainly be missing the hefty fat content. In certain scenarios — such as pancakes, cornbread, or even biscuits — that's actually ideal. In these recipes, leaning on butter paired with a leaner dairy moistener yields a lighter, fluffier product. 

Sour Cream vs. Greek Yogurt

Greek yogurt is often suggested as the most viable substitute for sour cream. This makes sense in that they are texturally similar — though whole-fat Greek yogurt has a notably lower fat content (more on par with whole milk and buttermilk). Sour cream and Greek yogurt do offer similarly detectable levels of moisture to a baked good despite the discrepancy in richness. That said, Greek yogurt has higher levels of casein proteins. These proteins contribute a fluffy structure to cake or quick breads. So when substituting, just keep in mind: Sour cream = more dense and rich; Greek yogurt = more airy and moist. 

Sour Cream and Cheesecake

Cheesecake is clearly a different animal from bundts or cupcakes, but sour cream has a place here too! Combined with even more densely rich cream cheese, sour cream actually tempers the star ingredient a touch, softening its texture. It also adds another layer of tangy flavor and moisture to a cheesecake.