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A Date with Dairy

Chefs' Yogurt & Creme Fraiche Love Affair

Jordan Karnes

Hailing from the Normandy region in northern France, crème fraîche speaks to a certain quality of life, one that doesn’t cut corners, and never minds taking the long way home. “It all goes back to French cooking,” says Chef Gordon Drysdale of San Francisco’s Café des Amis. “There, it’s a part of the whole lifestyle. French cooking calls for a lot of butter and cream and sauce, but it’s always in proportion. And there, of course, you’re walking to and from the restaurant and in the end, you feel great. More and more, people are realizing – ‘crème fraîche isn’t as bad for me as margarine or sour cream.’ And especially out here on the West Coast, people know better. They can finally relax and enjoy real, honest ingredients. They’re not buying into fake food anymore.”

French connection, American affection

While sister to the better-known and less expensive sour cream, crème fraîche is a sophisticated European dairy that offers chefs a full taste and a world of possibilities. It can be whipped without a problem, will not curdle or separate at high temperatures, and is available in a range of textures – from a viscous cream to a firmer body.

Originally made in France with un-pasteurized heavy cream and Lactobacillus cultures, crème fraîche owes its unique flavor to its aging process. Once the cream has thickened and soured, it is pasteurized and matured, boasting a rich, cultured, full-bodied flavor that is as versatile as it is unrivaled.

“The tanginess and creaminess of crème fraîche often goes with spicy dishes, making them milder and adding another dimension to them,” says Chef Masaharu Morimoto from Napa’s Morimoto Restaurant. “My Yellowtail Pastrami is coated with Togarashi, which is Japanese red pepper spice. My Lobster Masala (recipe, page 24) is very spicy, too; I use eight spices. I use yogurt in the marinade for my Angry Chicken, too. Again, this marinade consists of intense spices, but with yogurt the taste gets milder without killing the flavor of spices.”

Just south at Berkeley’s Revival Bar + Kitchen, Chef Alicia Jenish has also integrated both crème fraîche and artesian yogurt into many menu items. “We make our own crème fraîche and love to use it in dressings and vinaigrette for salads. I also use crème fraîche and yogurt to complement hearty meat-based dishes. We do a lot of whole animal butchery at Revival. If I butcher a goat and make a braise with it, I will complement the braise with a goat yogurt sauce. I think yogurt and crème fraîche are becoming more popular because it is a lighter way of adding creaminess to a dish in comparison to using heavy cream.”

Across the Bay at Café des Amis in San Francisco, Drysdale serves a horseradish crème fraîche with braised lamb shoulder and cabbage, creating a sensation he describes as both “biting and cooling.” In addition, Drysdale also adds a sherry flavored crème fraîche to his classic shellfish bisque. “The soup alone is rich and full of the sea, and the crème fraîche offsets the sea-faring flavor of the soup with mouth-filling flavor.”

“Crème fraîche is the best adjunct to light fare,” Drysdale continues. “Especially in California where people are really conscious of what’s on their plate. But a tablespoon or two of crème fraîche and you’ve added a whole new dimension of richness. It’s a total, complete flavor that not only rounds out your dish, but makes it pop.”

“With crème fraîche, you can really control the acidity of the tang,” notes Chef Jeffrey Jake of Napa
Valley’s Silverado Resort. “In my carrot soup I infuse crème fraiche and the North African spice ras el hanout because the carrot is sweet and earthy and the crème fraîche brings a nice acidity. We’ve got a lobster salad with tarragon, topped with a dollop of crème fraîche in the middle. For a fattier fish like salmon, I’ll take that off the grill, garnish it with a basil-infused crème fraîche, and serve it with micro greens or a salad. Bitter greens, Belgian endives, celery root, tossed with a little lemon and crème fraîche and, again, you get a great creamy, acidic dressing. The flavor affinities are endless.”

At Frances in San Francisco, Chef Melissa Perello couples applewood smoked bacon beignets with a maple crème fraîche and chive. “The best part of using crème fraîche,” says Perello, “is that a little goes a long way, and it has the ability to make a simple dish more elevated and sophisticated.” Perello encourages kitchens to “keep experimenting and playing around with different textures and flavor profiles. Be creative. Use the ingredient to add tang, body and as an alternative to ordinary whipped cream.”

But while these artesian creams cover a myriad of savory surf and turf recipes, chefs are also using them as a gourmet addition to sweeter menu items. “I think the rise [in popularity] has come from [the] awareness of how great they both can be in their many forms and uses,” notes Los Angeles’ Son of a Gun chef Vinny Dotolo, whose frozen lime yogurt with graham cracker crumble and toasted meringue is a consistent customer favorite.

“Our baking program incorporates yogurt into our breads so you don’t get a dry muffin when you’re baking with buckwheat or whole wheat,” says Jake of his Silverado kitchen. “You get not only the benefit of yogurt, but less fat and a moister flavor.”

Crème de la crème

Clearly, the question isn’t whether or not Americans are ready for artesian dairy; just in 2010, Greek yogurt was deemed one of the fastest-growing grocery categories, according to SymphonyIRI Group, a marketing intelligence company. Rather, the subject top chefs are asking about is how best to prepare this increasingly popular ingredient. As evidenced on the West Coast, more and more kitchens are integrating yogurt and crème fraîche into jaw-dropping culinary compositions, thanks in part to the ingredients’ additional qualities.

“I think West Coast diners enjoy eating yogurt because of the health benefit of the live active cultures it contains,” notes Jenish of Revival Bar + Kitchen. And it’s true: the cultures, or probiotics, found in yogurt and crème fraîche help establish flora in the body, which provide all sorts of intestinal and digestion support. This is no surprise considering “the number of people who know what they’re eating now has definitely increased,” notes Drysdale. “People are realizing that what you put in your body makes a difference in how you feel. The resurgence of an ingredient like this goes hand in hand with people understanding moderation with whole foods. It tastes better and your body likes it, too. Out on the West Coast here, we’re dealing with a more food-educated population. People know more about what they’re eating, and they know what’s good for them.”

Happy cows (and consequently delicious dairy) come from California

The increase in appetite for artesian dairy has been on the rise for years, having taken hold with the growing appetite for rustic cheeses, and has Californians looking to nearby farms for local tastes. “Northern California has this mantra of local, traditional, seasonal,” says Drysdale, “and if you’re not looking in these directions, you might as well get out of business. More and more, it’s what people want. Go 60 miles in any direction and you’re in farmland. Produce and dairies – you name it.” He looks no further than Atascadero, on California’s central coast, where Kendall Farms has been specializing in one product and one product only since 1987: crème fraîche.

At Revival Bar + Kitchen, Jenish uses Straus Family Creamery’s Yogurt Cheese, hailing form Tomales Bay in Marshall, California, as a base for her starter of heirloom cucumbers and almonds, served with a piquillo vinaigrette on a toasted pita. Jenish’s inspiration is deeply rooted “in classic techniques using local and seasonal produce, meats and dairy. I develop more contemporary dishes with yogurt and crème fraîche.” 

“There’s no corner cutting,” says Drysdale of his small farmstead choice. “If you want quality ingredients, you’re gonna pay for it – but it’s worth it. I only have one body, and I’m not going to fill it with fake ingredients. Crème fraîche is the real deal, and our bodies can handle it. There’s a great way to do things. You have a choice.”

Down in Los Angeles, Chef Dotolo agrees. “Dairy costs are really high in California so anytime you use dairy it’s adding an expense, but it’s usually worth it.”

As to whether or not his customers mind the artesian upgrade, Morimoto doesn’t blink an eye: “Crème fraîche certainly sounds better than sour cream to city foodies!” Jake agrees, “It’s nutritious while adding another flavor profile – which it certainly does. It adds a lot of flavor in just one ingredient.” Whether cooking, baking or adding a finishing touch to a dish, chefs agree, keep yogurt and crème fraiche as staples in your kitchen fridge and culinary creativity will flow, keeping both your diners’ waistlines and palates happy.

Straus Yogurt Cheese with Heirloom Cucumbers & Almonds
Inspiration for Executive Chefs