Alton Brown's Secret Weapon Ingredient For Velvety Cheesecake

Whether it's the classic New York-style, a perfectly burnt Basque-style, or not baked at all, the best cheesecakes must have a smooth, silky, velvety texture. Many chefs and home cooks have their own tips and tricks to make the creamiest cheesecake, and pro chef Alton Brown is no exception. His simple and effective secret weapon is sour cream.

While more commonly thought of as a filling for baked potatoes or the base of savory dips, this tangy dairy product is a great addition to tons of baked goods. Its fat, moisture, and acid content enriches and tenderizes all sorts of desserts. Sour cream is one excellent ingredient to level up chocolate cake, and Alton Brown's Food Network colleague Ina Garten uses it in her moist coffee cake. In cheesecake, sour cream boosts both the taste and the texture of the creamy filling in a way that not even heavy cream can compete with.

Sour cream is made by simply adding lactic acid bacteria to cream, but this acid — in addition to the cream's rich texture — is what makes Brown's recipe so special. The light tanginess prevents the cheesecake from tasting overly sweet or cloying, and the result is a more balanced dessert that's rich, but not excessively so. The cake is extra-velvety and the flavor is more complex, for a dessert that feels more grown-up but is still easy to make.

Full-fat sour cream helps cheesecake set to creamy perfection

A classic baked cheesecake usually contains cream cheese, eggs, and sometimes heavy cream to give it a richer flavor and smooth texture. Switching out heavy cream for sour cream means you still get the richness, but with an extra hit of acidic tanginess that complements the cream cheese. If you're using a sugary cookie base for the crust, or a fruity or caramel-based topping, the tartness is even more welcome to offset the sweetness.

As for how much sour cream to add to a cheesecake, it will depend on the individual recipe. Alton Brown uses 10 ½ ounces in his version, where the tangy ingredient is a starring flavor. But if you're worried about the tartness tasting too strong, you could use less, or use both heavy cream and sour cream for the best of both worlds.

You'll want to use a full-fat sour cream to get the best results in terms of texture and taste, so don't go for a low-fat option. Fat is not only the main source of a cheesecake's creaminess, but it helps the cake to set into a firm texture. And the dairy ingredient has another benefit, too: Mixing sour cream, powdered sugar, and other flavorings to make a topping is the easiest way to fix a cracked cheesecake, in case the worst should happen.

Ingredients to substitute for sour cream in cheesecake

Is your local grocery store facing a sour cream shortage? You can make your own, in a pinch. Try combining a cup of heavy cream with a quarter of a cup of buttermilk. The mixture will need to sit and ferment for a day at room temperature in a sterilized jar. If you'd rather just use an alternative to sour cream, there are other ingredients that can bring a similar tangy flavor and smooth, velvety texture to your cheesecake.

Full-fat Greek yogurt is the simplest switch for sour cream, as it can be used in the same ratio or quantity, and the tartness levels tend to be similar. Some brands of yogurt are more sour than others, though. After taste-testing, you may wish to include more sugar in your recipe when cooking with Greek yogurt. Using yogurt will result in a slightly lighter cheesecake, too, as it's lower in fat than sour cream. This means it pairs better with richer toppings like chocolate.

Alternatively, crème fraîche can also be used as a 1:1 substitution, but this French dairy product is also a bit different from sour cream. It will make the finished cheesecake taste more buttery and rich, without the same level of tanginess. Still, it can be worth trying, if you get your hands on some.