The 2 Best Substitutes For Mexican Crema

Gone are the days when recipes simply call for milk or whipped cream. The dairy options for enriching coffees, desserts, casseroles, and sauces seem endless now, from cultured cream to sour, clotted, or heavy. You could toss your hands up and opt for just plain milk, but don't expect to get that special flavor and mouthfeel if you skip the subtleties of creamy deliciousness. However, some of the dairy creams called for in that dish you're craving do have suitable substitutes. That goes for Mexican crema, which pops up in quite a few dishes from across America's southern border.

Mexican crema is a must-have in Mexican dining, serving as a condiment, dip, or more often as a soothing cream to trickle over spicy foods, reducing the heat while adding depth and rich flavor, explains Isabel Eats. Also known as crema Mexicana, this widespread kitchen staple tends toward tanginess but is smoother than sour cream and less prone to curdling, according to Chili Pepper Madness. It's also not as acidic and contains 30% fat, mostly from added buttermilk, compared to only 20% fat in sour cream. This means a creamy texture that's also thinner due to the addition of lime juice and salt. 

Depending on where you live, Mexican crema may not grace the dairy bins of your local supermarket. But don't worry, at least two simple substitutes let you create the same saucy goodness in your own kitchen.

French and American cousins to Mexican crema

True Mexican crema aficionados may say there's nothing like the real thing, but you can get pretty close with a few tweaks to a French favorite, the luscious crème fraîche. MasterClass notes that the French sauce is a cultured cream harboring similar complexity and tangy flavor as Mexican crema, making it an ideal substitute. You can transform crème fraîche for your favorite Mexican dishes by simply adding lime juice or water to thin out the sauce. This also gives it a bit more acidity, according to Isabel Eats.

Spiceography reveals crema fresca and crema agria as additional monikers for Mexican crema, and agrees that crème fraîche is the best substitute. However, availability is often difficult outside of European countries, and there can be an issue with consistency. To convert crème fraîche to Mexican crema, you can also thin it out with milk or buttermilk.

The second suitable substitute for Mexican crema is sour cream, which Isabel Eats calls crema's American cousin. It's readily available in almost any supermarket or corner store and is especially useful when serving hot dishes since sour cream typically does not curdle when exposed to heat. MasterClass notes that the acidity in sour cream is also similar to crema, making it an instant stand-in. However, Spiceography warns that the lower fat content of sour cream will leave you missing the luscious rich flavor that defines true Mexican crema.

More adaptive ideas for Mexican crema

Though crème fraîche and sour cream stand as the two best substitutes for crema Mexicana, a less common alternative is plain yogurt. Chili Pepper Madness recommends adding a few drops of lime juice to taste, which can inject some sour twang in compensation for the relatively bland taste of unflavored yogurt. Finally, you can always make your own Mexican crema from scratch using simple, common ingredients. Chef Rick Bayless, known for creating traditional Mexican cuisine, offers two renditions of crema via a YouTube cooking session. One employs sour cream as the starter while the other is based on buttermilk.

MasterClass favors buttermilk as a primary component and keeps things simple with four ingredients. Their recipe requires combining half a cup of heavy cream with a tablespoon of buttermilk, then covering it with plastic wrap and letting it sit overnight in a warm spot away from any moisture. The next morning, you'll stir in the juice of one lime and half a teaspoon of kosher salt to slightly thin the thickened mixture. Adjust to your own personal taste with extra lime or salt, and refrigerate for up to five days for fresh, smooth, and tangy goodness.