Sour cream, a culinary workhorse prized for its smoothness and tang, is the starting point for a wide range of sauces, dressings and dips. It’s ubiquitous as a topping on baked potatoes and as a dollop atop a plate of nachos. Lately, however, its Mexican first cousin, crema, has eclipsed it on menus. Made from a mixture of cream and buttermilk, along with the frequent addition of salt and lime juice, the versatile ingredient has captured the fancy of chefs at all types of restaurants.
It turns down the heat. In many dishes, crema adds zest while providing a cooling counterbalance to fiery chiles, as with the chipotle crema drizzled over the Chipotle Yucatán Chicken Salad at TGI Fridays. The Spinach and Mushroom Sopes Benedict at the polished-casual Rosa Mexicano chain benefits from pasilla de Oaxaca crema, and the Shrimp Avocado Baja Tacos, a Lenten special at El Pollo Loco, were finished with roasted Baja crema. At Toups South in New Orleans, goat tamales include charred green tomato relish and fermented padrón cream, and at La Palapa in New York City, poblano crema spiffs up Pechuga de Pollo al la Parilla, or grilled chicken breast.
It’s often paired with cilantro. Cilantro crema is a burger condiment at Relish Burger Bar in Seattle, and it topped the bacalao fritters made with salt cod and potatoes at Bahama Breeze. The latter also features it in Cuban black bean soup and in grilled chicken with cilantro crema. Sunny Street Café, a breakfast-brunch-lunch specialist headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, put it atop a promotional carnitas flatbread, where it offset the guajillo hot sauce. Similarly, the ancho chicken and Jack cheese quesadillas at the Toyota Center in Houston contain a bracing ghost-pepper salsa balanced by cilantro crema.
It’s frequently used with lime, too. The chorizo burger at Meehan’s Public House in Vinings, Ga., is a good example, as is the fried chicken nachos at Chicago’s Honey Butter, where lime crema complements corn pico de gallo and candied jalapeño. At Eden Hill in Seattle, cauliflower “chilaquiles” are made with fermented chile hot sauce, green cabbage curtido, Manchego cheese and lime crema, while the Burger of the Month last December at 10-unit Walk-Ons Bistreaux and Bar, based in Baton Rouge, La., was the Big Buck, made with venison chili, pickled jalapeños, lime crema and Fritos. P.J. Whelihan’s, based in Allentown, Pa., changed things up a bit when it added avocado-lime crema to the chipotle honey grilled shrimp salad special, and at Seed Kitchen & Bar in Marietta, Ga., chipotle-lime crema perks up smoked chicken tacos.
It partners well with many savory ingredients. Some of these are decidedly outside the box, such as the popcorn crema and shishito vinaigrette that grace the crudo at Boston’s trendy Waypoint, or the zucchini crema that accompanies chicken tinga at the nearby Harvard Kennedy School café in Cambridge, Mass. Hush puppies popped up at Chicago’s Roister, where they got a double dose of tart creaminess from both corn crema and plain sour cream. Houlihan’s roasted Brussels sprouts are topped with pesto crema and Parmesan. The tasty beer can chicken burrito at Porch Light Latin Kitchen in Smyrna, Ga., comes with annatto crema, a nod to the owner’s Puerto Rican heritage, while the popular vampire taco at Yard House is stuffed with carnitas, bacon chorizo, chipotle, guacamole and cumin crema.
In a totally contemporary take, Snap Kitchen, which promotes healthful, handmade, heat-and-eat meals for busy customers, replaces conventional sour cream with a vegan spirulina-cashew crema in its Tex-Mex Chicken Bowl. Crema is also compatible with sweet ingredients. At Ronero in Chicago, ensalada de palmito tosses hearts of palm with endive, radicchio, pear, hazelnuts and coconut crema. Seed Kitchen & Bar’s butternut squash soup of the day was crowned with pumpkin oil and maple crema, with roasted pumpkin seeds added for crunch.
Looking ahead, we may see a rise in the use of crème fraîche, the French version of sour cream. It’s a staple in French kitchens, and the rising number of French restaurants around the country suggests that, like crema, it’s ready for its menu close-up.
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta. As one of LinkedIn’s Top 100 Influencers in the US, she blogs regularly on food-related subjects on the LinkedIn website.