Smetana is a staple dairy product in Central European and Eastern European cuisines. It is however more used in Russia, Poland and Romania. Smetana is similar in appearance to creme fraiche, but its taste is closer to sour cream. It is known as “Russian sour cream”. Smetana can be easily made at home if done in advance.
What is smetana?
Smetana (in Russian: сметана) is a dairy product similar to creme fraiche. It is widespread in Central and Eastern Europe. It has a similar appearance to crème fraîche. However, crème fraîche generally contains 28% fat. The Russiann sour cream, on the other hand, is much more fatty and generally contains 36% to 42% of fat. But it is possible to find varieties of smetana with a fat content varying between 10% (liquid) and 70% (thick).
Polish and Russian practice is to compare the fat content to choose between varieties of smetana. It is nicknamed “Russian sour cream”. However, its taste is much less sour than sour cream found in the supermarket.
Smetana is made by separating the fat from the milk by decanting and preserving the cream. Cow’s milk is traditionally used to prepare it. In Romania, however, buffalo milk is preferred to cow’s milk.
How to make smetana
Homemade smetana can be prepared in 24 hours. For larger quantities of milk, it takes a few days of preparation.
The container with the milk is placed in a cool, dry place for several days. The fat content in the milk rises. Then, you can skim the milk fat. Of course, this settling time can be greatly reduced, in particular by industrial processes which use centrifuges called skimmers.
What is the difference between smetana, creme fraiche and sour cream?
Smetana differs from sour cream and crème fraîche in its cooking properties. Indeed, it does not make lumps or curdle, and therefore does not dissociate during cooking. Thanks to this property, it can be easily added to hot dishes.
It is for this reason that it is the ingredient of choice for baking dishes or meat stews, such as beef stroganoff. Indeed, smetana does not curdle under the effect of heat, which is not the case with sour cream found in supermarkets. It is widely used in traditional cooking and baking.
In the United States, sour cream is acidic and contains up to 16% fat. Certain sour creams can have a fat content of up to 20%.
Crème fraîche has a fat content of around 30% and contains no thickeners. It is thicker than sour cream, it has a richer flavor, but it is not acidic like sour cream.
Which cream to use?
The choice between the three depends on how you plan to use it. Indeed, if sour cream has less fat than crème fraîche or smetana, it does, however, contain more protein. Simmering or boiling sour cream causes curdling. In this case, it is better to use creme fraiche or smetana rather than sour cream in hot sauces or soups.
Nowadays, it is sometimes difficult to find good quality smetana. Indeed, to reduce production costs, some suppliers do not hesitate to use food additives to stabilize smetana and make it thicker.
The products obtained are then considered to be substandard and unsuitable for culinary use. In some cases, the presence of these food additives can even spoil certain recipes due to the presence of gelatin, rennet or even plant enzymes. When in doubt, farm smetana remains the safest to use because it is richer in fat and is thicker.
Usage of smetana and recipes
Smetana can also be served as an accompaniment to dumplings or ravioli such as pelmeni, pierogi or even varenyky.
Russian sour cream is also used in crepes like the famous blinis. Other types of pancakes also go very well with smetana. This is the case of naleśniki, oladyi or syrniki. It can also be used as a garnish in savory pancakes.
In baking, the use of smetana adds a typical taste to cake and dessert recipes. Also, there are two typical cakes based on the famous Russian sour cream:
- Smetannik is a cake incorporating Russian sour cream (smetana) and which is known for its fondant side.
- Medovik (Russian: Медовик) is a popular Slavic cake in the countries of the former Soviet Union. It is made up of several successive layers of sponge cake with honey, between which smetana is generously inserted. Sometimes, some recipes use condensed milk rather than smetana. More modern variants use buttercream.
- 1 cup crème fraiche (30% or 40% fat)
- ½ teaspoon white vinegar
- ½ teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- ¼ cup milk
- 2 tablespoons buttermilk
- In a bowl, combine the milk, lemon juice and white vinegar.
- Cover with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for 15 minutes
- In a large container, add the crème fraîche.
- Add the buttermilk, milk, lemon and vinegar mixture, mix well, cover and let stand at room temperature for 24 hours.
- Refrigerate a few hours before using for various recipes.