Sour Cream vs Yogurt: What Are Their Key Differences?

Chances are if you grew up in the United States or anywhere else in the Western world, you grew up eating both sour cream and yogurt. They each hold their distinctive places on the table and one wouldn’t typically think to swap them. 

However, some recipes suggest swapping them as substitutes since their flavors can be somewhat similar. This can cause people to become confused and ask, what are their key differences?

The main differences between sour cream and yogurt are found in their ingredients and flavoring. Yogurt starts off with milk and is typically flavored with fruits, making the yogurt much thinner and sweeter. Sour cream starts with cream and doesn’t have any extra flavoring allowing the natural sourness to speak for itself.

Is Sour Cream Basically Yogurt?

When you look at it from an outside perspective, it can seem like sour cream and yogurt are basically the same things. After all, they’re both dairy products that have been fermented using bacteria. Depending on the type of yogurt, they can also have a somewhat similar sour taste to them.

However, despite this, sour cream is not basically a type of yogurt. It is its own distinct dairy product that is made from a base of cream instead of milk. It is also fermented with a specific type of bacteria that helps it achieve its namesake sour flavor.

Yogurt and Sour Cream Overview

Although most people use one of these products on at least a weekly basis, not everyone knows exactly what they are. More importantly, a lot of people don’t know what would disqualify something as yogurt or sour cream.

What is Sour Cream?

Sour cream is a fermented dairy product that is made from a base of cream. To make sour cream the manufacturer will take the cream and add lactic acid as well as some bacteria into the cream to aid in the fermentation process. This causes the cream to thicken further and gives it the sour taste that sour cream is so well known for. 

Since sour cream is made from a base of cream, it has a much higher fat content than other dairy products. On average, sour cream has a fat content of about 20%. This makes it much richer than products like yogurt and is why it is typically reserved as a dip or topping.

What is Yogurt?

Yogurt is another fermented dairy product, but the similarities pretty much end there. Instead of being made from cream, yogurt is made from a base of milk. To this milk, the manufacturer will add a fermentation culture, enough that it equates to roughly 2% of the yogurt on a dry matter basis. From there the yogurt will be allowed to ferment until it is packaged.

The fermentation process causes the yogurt to thicken and gives it the slightly sour flavor that is so characteristic of yogurt. It also causes more bacteria to grow in the yogurt, making it a great food for improving your gut health.

Since yogurt is made from a base of milk instead of cream, its fat content usually hovers right around 5-10% fat, sometimes more, depending on the maker. You can also find a low or no-fat version of yogurt where the fat percentage is less than 5%.

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What’s the Difference Between Sour Cream and Yogurt?

As you’ve already seen, there are many differences between sour cream and yogurt even if you’re just looking at the dictionary definition. However, that isn’t where the differences end. There are also differences both in the production methods and the way that both dairy products are used. It’s pretty rare to find one substituted for the other.

Production Method

Although they are both fermented, the way that these products are fermented is different and they start with different bases.

Yogurt starts with a milk base that then has bacteria added to it. This gives the milk a thinner texture than sour cream since the base is so much thinner to start off with. Yogurt typically uses a combination of Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus to ferment the milk. After the milk is fermented, sugar and fruit are usually added in to make the yogurt more flavorful.

Sour cream starts with a heavy cream base which helps to create the thick, rich consistency of sour cream. The bacteria that is typically used is called Lactococcus lactis which helps to thicken the cream and give it a nice tang. After the fermentation process is done the sour cream is packaged and other ingredients are not added.

Shelf Life

One of the most important differences between these products is their difference in shelf life. After all, the last thing you want is to eat yogurt that has spoiled because you thought it had the same shelf life.

On average, yogurt will last one to two weeks after its sell-by date as long as it is continuously refrigerated. Once you reach the two-week mark, you should throw the yogurt away even if it still appears fresh. Dangerous bacteria levels could be present in the yogurt without it being visually apparent.

Sour cream will usually last slightly longer than yogurt. On average, sour cream will stay fresh for anywhere from two to three weeks after its sell-by date. The same goes for sour cream, once it reaches three weeks past the sell-by date, go ahead and toss it.

Food Application

Another one of the differences between yogurt and sour cream is the way they are used. 

Since yogurt comes in so many flavors, it is used in a lot more ways than sour cream. Sweet yogurts are often eaten on their own, as a yogurt parfait, or as an ingredient in smoothies. Some people even make their own healthier popsicles by freezing yogurt and dipping it into dark chocolate or another topping.

Although they’re not as common in the United States, there are completely unsweetened yogurts. These yogurts have traditionally been used to make sauces or top savory recipes. By mixing in a little bit of salt, pepper, and dill you will have a delicious dipping sauce that is full of healthy bacteria.

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Since sour cream only comes in one flavor, its uses are far more limited than those of yogurt. Sour cream is typically used as a topping or as a dipping sauce. You’ll usually see it used to top potatoes, salads, and some people even use it as a spread. You can also use it as a dipping sauce for spicier foods, like buffalo wings, to help cut down the spice.

Which is Healthier Between Yogurt and Sour Cream?

Out of the two, yogurt is considered the healthier option. Yogurt has less than half of the fat content that sour cream has and is also teeming with healthy bacteria for your gut. This makes it a great option if you have a sensitive stomach and want to improve your digestion.

If the sugar content is a concern, you can also find sugar-free versions of yogurt. These versions can either be completely unflavored or have a sugar-free sweetener depending on what you like. To add natural sweetness to an unsweetened yogurt, you can always mix in your favorite fruit.

Can I Substitute Sour Cream for Yogurt?

The answer to if you can substitute sour cream for yogurt depends on what type of yogurt the recipe calls for.

If you’re trying to prepare a healthier version of frosting for your kid’s birthday cake, you shouldn’t substitute sour cream for yogurt. The sour cream will be far too sour and salty, likely ruining any sweet recipe.

However, if you are preparing a Middle Eastern dish that calls for yogurt as the base of a savory dish, you may be able to use sour cream. Just keep in mind that sour cream already has salt so you may need to adjust the other ingredients to compensate for that.

You may also want to reduce the amount of sour cream that you add. Sour cream has more fat which means it is more potent in terms of making things creamy. If

Final Thoughts

When you initially compare sour cream vs yogurt, it can be kind of hard to tell the difference. After all, they go through a super similar process but come out of it as completely different products.

In the end, it all comes down to the ingredients that are used and the type of bacteria used to ferment them. Since yogurt starts with milk, it ends with a much thinner consistency and is typically sweetened to make it more palatable. Sour cream starts with, you guessed it, a cream that causes it to be much thicker.

They also use different types of bacteria. Sour cream uses lactic acid for the fermentation process. This creates the signature sour flavor that sour cream is known for and helps to keep it as smooth as possible without adding any extra sugars. On the other hand, yogurt uses a mixture of bacteria that don’t add a crazy amount of sourness to the milk.