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Sour Cream: Mitteleuropa to Tex-Mex
Sour cream adds a creamy tang to any dish. Learn what goes into producing this classic condiment with Groupon’s exploration.
Sour cream seems about as familiar to American palates as milk or mayonnaise, but it wasn’t particularly popular in the US until the mid-20th century. And, although it’s dolloped onto tacos, burritos, and enchiladas, it’s not a Mexican tradition, either. Instead, sour cream was originally a favorite ingredient in Eastern European cuisine, and that, oddly enough, may form the historical link to its use in Tex-Mex cooking; Joe Valdez Caballero, who popularized the use of sour cream on enchiladas, worked his magic at the El Chico Restaurant chain in Dallas, Texas, a city with strong German heritage.
Sour cream starts its life as light cream, the layer of butterfat that rises to the top of not-yet-homogenized cow’s milk. Originally, dairy farmers would let the fresh cream sour on its own, allowing naturally occurring acids and bacteria to furnish the signature thickness and piquancy we’ve come to enjoy. Since demand has grown, however, dairies have developed a more mechanized process that’s faster to produce and safer for consumers. Once the light cream forms on top of the milk (which takes at least 12 hours), dairies pour the liquid into a centrifuge, a rapidly rotating container that separates the cream from the milk in the same way a tilt-o-whirl separates adults from their dignity. Then they pasteurize the freshly separated cream by heating it to about 280 degrees Fahrenheit for two seconds, killing detrimental bacteria without heavily affecting taste or texture.
Once the intense heat has wiped out any bad microbes, modern dairies artificially induce the souring process by infusing the fresh batch with good bacteria from lactic acid, which meddle with the cream’s molecular structure until it possesses a whole new texture and flavor. As this transformation takes place, dairies chill the condiment for 12 to 48 hours, depending on their preferred level of sourness. Before adding final thickening agents such as gelatin, they’ll once again pasteurize the cream to stop the souring process and lock in the distinctive tanginess that enhances baked potatoes, tacos, stroganoffs, and pranks where you ask your older sister if she wants some hand lotion alike.