Of all the ingredients that introduce a snap of acidity to a recipe – lemon, lime, passion fruit, verjuice, vinegar, yogurt – it is soured cream that brings with it a touch of richness, too. Even a spoonful stirred into the pan juices will turn a straightforward sauté into something memorable.
Soured cream is not a pot of cream that has gone sour. You know that. It is single cream whose clean, piquant flavour has been deliberately created by the addition of lactic cultures. (Called sour cream by most of us, it is generally sold as “soured” cream.) As an ingredient in the kitchen it brings more to the party than a pot of double cream. Where cream takes the edge off the flavours in the pan, softening their bright notes, soured cream does the opposite, sharpening, lifting, lightening the existing flavours.
The bum note is that soured cream tends to curdle slightly, or turn the sauce grainy. You could faff around with cornflour or arrowroot to prevent this, but I don’t see the point. There will be a little graininess and we just go with it. The trick to minimising the effect is not to boil the sauce once the cream has been added.
Soured cream dresses a salad of crisp ingredients with little need for anything else. The acid notes of lemon or vinegar are already there, as is the emollient that makes the dressing coat the salad, but I do occasionally stir in a little olive oil to make it less clumpy to toss. You can flavour it with herbs, particularly dill, fennel, caraway and celery seed. Spices incorporate well, especially cumin, coriander seeds and cardamom, but toast before adding.
If I have a pan full of roasting juices I generally leave them as they are, but if it’s the weather for it or I fancy something richer and smoother, then soured cream is a possibility. Added to a sauté pan used to cook chicken pieces, a few spoonfuls gives an instant sauce without the need to reduce or thicken.
In a sweet sense, soured cream is most at home in a cheesecake, either baked with the eggs and cream cheese or as a cool, piquant white layer on top, but it isn’t bad as a stripe in a trifle or a swirl in a fruit fool. However, it is used most in my kitchen with chicken and vegetables. As you might expect, the sharpest of the dairy products is happy in a beetroot soup and one made from carrots. (I sometimes serve a dollop with my beetroot cake.) It also makes a fine dressing for a coleslaw, bringing a luxurious coating to the cheapest of our vegetables from cabbage to celeriac, producing a crisp and clean tasting side dish.
A small pot of soured cream made its way into a chicken sauté at home this week, and was further sharpened with a few sliced gherkins. The recipe, made with a glass or two of riesling and some tiddly little mushrooms, was just short of being a stroganoff, and with all the glorious piquancy you would expect. Floury potatoes would be my own choice, though others may prefer rice.
Shopping for soured cream is easy enough in a major supermarket, but otherwise it can be hard to find. You can make a near substitute by stirring a few drops of lemon juice into a pot of cream, but it must be done with care and the flavour isn’t quite the same. It’s an emergency tactic. In many ways crème fraîche has taken its place. It is certainly easier to track down but, good though it is, it doesn’t have the same clean, bright tang to it. And that is the whole point.
CHICKEN WITH SOURED CREAM AND GHERKINS
I used large free-range chicken legs for this. You could also use breasts or drumsticks.
small shallots 12
chicken legs 2
butter a thick slice
button mushrooms 250g
soured cream 150ml
Pour boiling water from the kettle over the shallots and set aside for 10 minutes to soften the skins and make them easier to peel. Season the chicken legs then brown them lightly on either side in a little butter. Peel the shallots, then add to the chicken pan, letting them colour nicely on all sides.
Halve the mushrooms, then add them to the pan, letting them colour lightly. Slice the gherkins into thick pieces then add to the pan together with the wine. Leave the wine to come to the boil, continue cooking at an enthusiastic bubble for 3 or 4 minutes then lower the heat to a gentle simmer.
Let the chicken simmer for about 20 minutes then stir in the soured cream, keeping the heat quite low. Allow to warm through, check the seasoning, then serve with potatoes or rice.
BEETROOT AND FENNEL SLAW WITH SPECK
You could cook the beetroot if you prefer, but it will make the salad sweeter with the loss of some of its vital crunch.
Serves 4 as a light lunch
onion 1, large
white-wine vinegar 3 tbsp
beetroot 300g, raw
fennel 2 small bulbs
soured cream 150ml
olive oil 3 tbsp
speck 6 thin slices
Peel the onion, slice thinly into rings, then put in a small bowl with the vinegar and set aside for 20 minutes. This will remove the harshness from the raw onion.
Peel the raw beetroot, slice into the thinnest possible rounds and place in a mixing bowl. Remove the fronds from the fennel and set aside, finely slice the bulbs and add to the beetroot, but do not mix yet.
Put the soured cream in a small bowl and beat in the olive oil. Season with salt and black pepper. Drain the onion, discarding the vinegar, then add it to the beetroot and fennel. Introduce the dressing, slowly and lightly mixing it into the vegetables (over mixing will result in a pink salad.)
Pile on to a serving dish, add the slices of speck and then the reserved fennel fronds.