What’s with the sour cream?

Reader Ellie remarks that the muffin recipe below does indeed look “basic” save for one thing: the sour cream. Is it really necessary? she asks. Won’t it make the batter acidic? First, Ellie, you have a heck of an eye for ingredient lists. Second, yes, exactly. Sour cream will make the batter acidic, but that’s by design. As I’ve written before, contrary to popular belief, acids and bases need not be perfectly balanced in a batter. Granted you want to beware of a very alkaline batter since bases can combine with fats to make soaps…which can really ruin your tea time.

On the other hand there’s really nothing wrong with acidic batters or doughs. Where muffins are concerned they serve both to tenderize and create a pleasant tang. However they also do something else that’s pretty neat: they prevent inclusions like berries and chocolate pieces from sinking to the bottom of the mold. How? Because acid causes egg proteins to coagulate. That makes the batter thicker and better able to hold inclusions in suspension until the muffins hit the oven.

12 thoughts on “What’s with the sour cream?”

  1. Is there anything that can be substituted for the sour cream to achieve the same result? I ask because where I live (France), sour cream isn’t available…and I love muffins!

    1. Hi Jill! Yogurt is a fine substitute. You can also use whole milk plus a teaspoon of lemon juice.

      – Joe

      1. That’s largely correct, though creme fraiche has quite a bit more fat than American sour cream. It’s about 35% fat where sour cream is about 18% fat. But it will work in this instance.

        – Joe

        1. hmm. never thought about the fat content, not that I care. Its just what I found looked and tasted like the same thing, and until I was able to translate better to know better used, I have never had a issue so I suppose for the most it doesn’t matter, and if it did, there is always the light stuff. its 15%, or at least the one I threw in the trash was… There is also something called filmjölk which I substitute for buttermilk as that is the closest thing. The real translation is no longer sold (at least to the public…if I had a bakery. yes), and light A-filmjölk tastes exactly like buttermilk, a little thicker and no flecks but I prefer it to vinegar/lemon juice in milk.

          1. Indeed, the key thing is not the fat content but the acidity. A little extra fat in these muffins won’t make any difference at all.

            – Joe

  2. Although I find a lot of American chiffon cakes too acidic tasting (esp. if one reduces the sugar in the recipe) because of the high amounts of cream of tartar present. There’s also stuff like banana bread and chocolate chip cookies that people seem to associate with a more alkaine flavour – and browner looking because of the baking soda. Is that correct?

    1. Yes I’d say that’s correct, Henry. Though I don’t think I’ve never noticed acidity in a chiffon cake, I have (and do) notice alkalinity in banana breads (my mother’s included). I suppose it’s because I’m accustomed to the taste, but I’ve never found it objectionable. And you’re right, alkalinity and browning go hand-in-hand. It’s as true for quick breads as it is for bagels, pretzels and even hearth breads. Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

      1. Thanks Joe! Although in the case of banana bread, I wonder why people make the batter alkaline, cos really ripe bananas are very alkaline, and if the batter is made even more alkaline with baking soda it would have trouble setting. I had trouble with such a chocolate banana bread recipe, which also contains dutch-processed cocoa. The poor cake just never set.

        1. Hey Henry! I think the reason so many bands breads can taste alkaline is indeed because of the bananas, but not because they themselves are alkaline. While I think it’s true that bananas lose some of their acidity as they ripen, even very ripe bananas still have a pH of about 5, making them mildly acidic. The baking soda in banana bread is designed to react with this acid, but the fact is that it’s hard to know how acidic a given banana is when you’re making a banana bread batter. For that reason I generally go a little heavy on the lemon juice to try mellow any alkaline edge. Sometimes I still get it despite all my best efforts, and I almost always taste at least a hint of soda in there. But as I said, I really don’t mind it.

          – Joe

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