Who invented Sour Cream? (Invention Timeline Explained)

People love to garnish their food because it enhances the flavor. Sour cream is one such ingredient that is quite versatile as it can also be used in various recipes to thicken the sauce, create a complementary dip, or tenderize baked goods. In addition, sour cream is tart and tangy and is a terrific source of vitamin A, riboflavin, calcium, and phosphorus.

However, have you ever wondered where and when sour cream was invented and how it came to be? In this article, we’ll take a quick dive into its history, evolution, and other facts that make sour cream one of the more versatile ingredients available to home cooks and chefs worldwide. 

Who invented sour cream?

Many historians point to the Russians as the probable inventors of sour cream before the 1600s. They surmised that they derived sour cream from the Mongolian alcoholic drink kumis, made from mare’s milk. 

Food historians also stated that the early versions of sour cream were made when someone left fresh milk to sit at room temperature, and the cream rose to the surface. Naturally occurring bacteria within the milk soured the cream, giving it its tart, tangy taste. The product spread in central and eastern Europe, and home cooks added sour cream to soups and stews such as goulash and borscht to thicken them and add a flavor dimension. European immigrants brought the ingredient to continental America, where it became a popular base for salad dressing and dips. It was also used as a topping for baked potatoes and other goods. 

Sour cream’s key contributors (and evolution)

  • Mongolians
    Mongolians created the basis for sour cream 

    Mongolians created the basis for sour cream when they made their alcoholic drink kumis. They crafted kumis from fresh mare’s milk and fermented it while they churned and stirred it. Naturally occurring lactobacilli acidified the milk. The yeast turned it into an alcoholic drink for consumption.

  • North Caucasians 
    North Caucasians created kefir 

    Food historians also point out kefir milk as a possible basis for sour cream. North Caucasians created kefir milk as they fermented milk (goat, cow, or sheep) by adding kefir grains. The yeast and bacteria in the kefir grains ferment the milk and create a thick sauce.

  • Russians 
    Invented sour cream

    Historians say that Russians created sour cream when they let fresh milk sit at room temperature, and the cream rose to the top. The naturally occurring bacteria in the milk soured the cream and gave it its tangy flavor profile.

  • Central and Eastern Europeans
    Adapted sour cream into smantana or smetana

    Central and Eastern Europeans adapted sour cream and made their version, which they called smetana. Smetana was made by souring heavy cream. They used the product mainly for baking and cooking, although they also used it for other recipes.

  • Immigrants 
    Brought sour cream to the United States and other countries

    Immigrants brought sour cream and their homeland recipes to the United States and other countries, thereby popularizing the ingredient and helping improve other dishes with its addition.

When was sour cream invented?

Food historians say the Russians probably made the first sour cream before the 1600s. They stated that Russians probably based their sour cream on the North Caucasian kefir milk or the Mongolian alcoholic drink kumis. North Caucasians derived their kefir milk from combining kefir grains with either goat, cow, or sheep’s milk, while the Mongolians fermented fresh mare’s milk while they stirred and churned it. The lactobacilli acidified the milk while the yeast gradually turned the concoction into an alcoholic drink. 

The Russians incorporated sour milk into their recipes for soups, stews, and baked products. They also slathered the ingredient into bread. They also added it to fillings for their dumplings, such as pelmeni and varenyky.

A brief history of sour cream

Food historians point to the Russians as the likely inventors of sour cream before the 1600s. Although they still couldn’t concretely agree on the origin of sour cream, they say that the Russians could have based it on either the North Caucasian kefir milk or the Mongolian beverage kumis. Someone left fresh milk at room temperature, and the cream rose to the surface. The result was a thick cream that tasted tart and tangy which the Russians took a liking to, and they incorporated it into their recipes. 

The Russians and the Central and Eastern European countries used sour cream heavily in their recipes. They called their version of sour cream smetana. They placed it in appetizers, soups, main courses, and desserts. They also served it with dumplings such as pierogi, pelmeni, and varenyky. Russians also added it to savory pancakes to elevate the flavor. They thickened casseroles, vegetable stews, and beef Stroganoff with it. They also served it with caviar and other delicacies.

Immigration brought the recipes to different countries. The British and the English improved upon the process and integrated different techniques to create various types of sour cream available in the market. As a result, manufacturers churned out different types of sour cream with varying fat content, affecting how cooks used them in dishes. 

The sour cream timeline

  1. Before 1600s
    Russians invented the sour cream.

    The Russians invented sour cream and called it smetana. They made it by leaving fresh milk to stand at room temperature until the cream rose to the top. Many historians say that the Russians used the North Caucasian kefir milk or the Mongolian kumis or airag as the basis for the sour cream. 

  2. 1700s to 1900s
    Russians and Central and Eastern Europeans incorporated sour cream in their culinary culture and immigrated to other countries

    After the invention of sour cream, Russians and Central and Eastern Europeans used the ingredient in their recipes to elevate the flavor profile. They used it in soups, stews, and even desserts. The wave of immigration brought sour cream to England, the United States, and other countries, where immigrants continued to cook using the ingredient.

  3. Mid 1900s
    Sour cream becomes popular

    Waves of immigration and gentrification of Western communities led to the popularization of sour cream. People recognized the importance of sour cream in cooking and baking. More and more people became interested in learning recipes with sour cream and used the ingredient in their cooking.

  4. Present time
    Manufacturers improved on sour cream production 

    Present-day manufacturers churned out different types of sour cream products containing varying fat percentages. Aside from traditional sour cream, manufacturers came up with reduced-fat and nonfat sour cream to cater to different recipes and needs.

Where was sour cream invented?

Historical accounts state that sour cream was invented in Russia before the 1600s. Food historians believe that the Russians based their sour cream, or smetana, on either the Mongolian alcoholic beverage kumis or the North Caucasian kefir milk. 

The importance of sour cream

  • Sour cream improved Eastern and Central European cuisine

    Central and Eastern European people incorporated sour cream into their cuisine and made it better. They expanded their recipes and included sour cream in appetizers, main courses, and even desserts. 

  • Sour cream provided different nutrients 

    Sour cream provided people with a source of vitamin A, riboflavin, phosphorus, calcium, and saturated fat.

  • Sour cream improved various cultural food

    When sour cream became a popular ingredient, many cooks from different cultures found ways to incorporate it into their recipes. Some used sour cream as a garnish; others created dips with it; others used it as a thickening agent for stews and soups; others tenderized baked potatoes with it.

  • Sour cream spurred innovation 

    When sour cream became popular, food manufacturers began to innovate the production process to make it safer to eat and incorporated different techniques to produce various types of sour cream in the market. 

Sour cream by the numbers

  • 1600Food historians point out to the pre-1600s as the time when Russians invented sour cream by leaving fresh milk at room temperature until the cream rose to the top.
  • 18This is the percentage of butterfat that must be in the product for it to be considered sour cream.
  • 12This is the number of calories present in a tablespoon of nonfat sour cream.
  • 7272˚F is the temperature where Streptococcus lactis is added to light cream to incubate until the desired consistency and flavor is reached. 

Five facts about sour cream

  • Traditional sour cream came from soured milk

    The original version of sour cream came from fresh milk, which was left at room temperature until it became naturally sour. The bacteria developed during the fermentation process acidified the milk and thickened the cream, preserving it.

  • Russians called sour cream smetana

    Russians invented sour cream. They called it smetana.

  • Russian cuisine leaned heavily on the inclusion of sour cream

    Russians incorporated smetana in their recipes. They used it on soups, salads, pancakes, bread, stews, and even desserts. 

  • Sour cream and yogurt are different 

    Sour cream and yogurt are different products. Although they share some characteristics, sour cream is made from fermented dairy cream, while yogurt is fermented milk.

  • Sour cream doesn’t have a long shelf life

    You should use store-bought sour cream within one to two days of opening the container. It should also be kept refrigerated.

FAQs about sour cream

  • Is sour cream healthy?

     Sour cream is healthy as long as you consume it in moderation. It is a high-calorie, low-carbohydrate food that is also high in saturated fat, riboflavin, vitamin A, calcium, and phosphorus. 

  • Where did sour cream get its name?

     Sour cream got its name from the production of lactic acid by bacterial fermentation known as souring.

  • How much fat percentage is required for sour cream?

    Manufacturers need at least 18% fat in the product to be called sour cream. 

  • Is sour cream different from yogurt?

     Sour cream is different from yogurt. Although they share some similarities, sour cream is made from fermented dairy cream, while yogurt is made from fermented milk.

  • Why do cooks use sour cream in their recipes?

     Cooks add sour cream to elevate the flavor profile of their recipes. Sour cream can thicken soups and stews and also tenderize baked products. 

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