Heavy Cream vs. Sour Cream: Differences and When to Sub

Despite having “cream” in their names, sour cream and heavy cream are two quite different products with different uses.

Heavy cream is much thinner and somewhat sweet, while sour cream is yogurt-like thick and a bit sour. Unfortunately, that also means they aren’t direct substitutes.

You can sometimes substitute sour cream with heavy cream and some lemon juice or vinegar, but that works only in several uses. And it’s even more difficult the other way around.

Interested in learning about the differences, similarities, and when substituting makes sense?

If so, this article is for you. Read on.

Sour cream vs heavy cream
Heavy cream and sour cream on a measuring spoon

When to Substitute

Heavy cream and sour cream aren’t interchangeable, but swapping might be an option in specific contexts.

It’s much easier to sub heavy cream for sour cream by adding a bit of an acid, like lemon juice or vinegar. But, of course, the texture will still be different, so that substitute works only in certain dishes.

Things are even complicated the other way around, as you can’t whip sour cream, and thinning it with milk and sweetening it with sugar don’t help all that much.

That’s the overview. Now, let’s jump into the details.

Can I Use Sour Cream Instead of Heavy Cream?

You can’t whip sour cream, and using it as a substitute for heavy cream is quite tricky.

You can try combining four parts sour cream with 1 part milk to make the texture similar to that of heavy cream. Then you might add half a teaspoon of sugar per cup to adjust the taste.

Having that mixture ready, you can use it in baked goods, like muffins, cakes, or foods cooked on the stove, such as pancakes or egg scrambles.

Making pancake batter from mix
Using sour cream instead of heavy cream is okay in pancakes, if you get the texture right and add a bit of extra sugar

That said, go with this sub only when making dishes you’re familiar with. You need to know what texture of the batter you’re shooting for when making the cake or pancake batter. This way, you can adjust things by adding more milk (or water) or flour if necessary.

And assume that whatever you’re cooking might not turn out that great. It should be okay to eat, but the flavor most likely won’t impress anyone.

That said, if you need a quick heavy cream substitute that doesn’t whip but is quite rich, combining three parts milk with one part melted butter works better. Or you can use less butter if you want to reduce calories.

Three cupcakes frosted with whipped cream
You can’t sub in sour cream when making whipped cream

Can I Substitute Heavy Cream for Sour Cream?

You can substitute heavy cream for sour cream by mixing heavy cream with one tablespoon of lemon juice or a half tablespoon of white vinegar per cup. This substitute should work well in cooked and baked dishes, but it won’t work in toppings, dips, dressings, and creamy sauces.

In other words, using this substitute depends heavily on what you need the sour cream for.

It should work okay for baked goods, like muffins, cookies, scones, and the like.

The taste is similar, and lemon juice or vinegar provides the acidity to activate baking soda. The texture will be much thinner, but it shouldn’t be a huge issue in baked goods, which are usually quite forgiving.

Or you can always add a bit of flour to thicken things.

Muffin batter and two raspberries
When making muffins, it’s often okay to sub in heavy cream if you know what you’re doing

Unfortunately, this sub doesn’t work in toppings, creamy sauces, and dips. Those rely on the thick texture of sour cream, and simply combining heavy cream with an acidic agent won’t cut it. In those dishes, you can try substituting cream cheese for sour cream.

(For similar reasons, buttermilk isn’t a good substitute for sour cream, either. It’s got a bit of the acidic and tangy flavor going, but the texture is quite different.)

So before using this mixture, know the purpose of sour cream in whatever you’re cooking. If it’s supposed to make the dish creamier or make the sauce or dressing nice and thick, you need something else.

In many cases, a thick yogurt makes a decent sour cream alternative. It’s tangy and dense, so the taste and texture are similar. Plus, yogurt contains less fat, so it’s a good option if you want to reduce the calories at the same time.

Iceberg lettuce salad
Sour cream works great in simple salad dressings; heavy cream is way to thin for that

Heavy Cream vs. Sour Cream: Differences and Similarities

There are many differences between heavy cream and sour cream, but there are also a couple of similarities. I divided all the info into a couple of categories, so it’s easier to find what you’re interested in and skip parts you don’t care about.

Taste and Texture

Both taste and texture of heavy cream and sour cream are quite different.

Sour cream is like a thick yogurt that’s rich, creamy, and definitely not pourable. Compared to it, heavy cream is much thinner, and you can pour it just fine.

(You can sometimes find thick heavy cream that’s actually quite similar to sour cream texture-wise, but in most cases, heavy cream is thin and pourable.)

Here’s how the two compare:

In terms of taste, heavy cream is rich and somewhat sweet. Not a lot, but just enough for one to notice. Sour cream, on the other hand, is a bit sour and acidic. Again, not a super strong flavor, but one that gives many foods that mild acidic kick.

Because of those differences, neither works as a simple substitute for the other and is used for very different purposes. And even if you decide to make heavy cream sour by adding lemon juice or vinegar, using it as a sub works only in certain dishes, as that only fixes the taste difference without addressing the texture issue.

(Heavy cream is a better substitute for evaporated milk than it is for sour cream.)

Thick heavy cream in a container
Thick heavy cream in a plastic container, looks kind of like sour cream


Heavy CreamSour cream
Making whipped creamTopping pies and cakes
Whitening soupsDipping sauces and salad dressings
Baked goods, like muffins, cakes, and piesMaking things more creamy (soups, mashed potatoes, etc.)
Pancakes, egg scrambles, and the likeCooked and baked goods like muffins, scones, pancakes, and cookies

Both heavy cream and sour cream have several unique uses, and the only area where both are used and you can try substituting one with the other is baked goods. In muffins, cakes, and the like, you need fat and liquid to make things happen, and both dairy products fit the bill here.

That’s why I suggested replacing one with the other pretty much only in those recipes.


When subbing heavy cream for sour cream, add lemon juice or vinegar. It not only adjusts the overall taste of the dairy product, but it’s also there to activate baking soda. Heavy cream, unlike sour cream, can’t do that on its own.

For unique uses, making whipped cream is the first that pops up. And as you probably know, you can make whipped cream from heavy cream but not from sour cream.

For sour cream, it shines in making pie and cake toppings, dipping sauces, and salad dressings. All of those rely on the thickness of the product. Without it, the sauces and dressings would end up thin, and that topping would pour right off.

(Okay, you can top your cake with whipped cream instead of sour cream topping, but that’s hardly a substitute.)

Whipped cream
Whipped cream, can’t make that with sour cream


The macronutrient profiles of heavy cream and sour cream are noticeably different, except for the amount of protein. Here’s what they look like (per 100g):

(per 100g)Heavy cream [source]Sour cream[source]
Energy340kcal198 kcal

The most important nutritional difference between heavy cream and sour cream is the amount of fat.

Sour cream typically has 12 to 20 percent fat, depending on the brand and variety you buy, while heavy cream has between 30 and 40 percent. In other words, heavy cream has one and a half to two times more fat than sour cream.

And while you can find a light or fat-reduced version of sour cream, you can’t find a similar option for heavy cream. The reason is quite simple – it wouldn’t whip.

Because of the disparity in fat content, heavy cream is a much more calorie-dense dairy product.

So if you’re watching your overall caloric intake, you should watch closely how much heavy cream you use. And since sour cream isn’t a low-calorie product either, you should probably keep an eye on it too.


The production process for both sour cream and heavy cream starts with cream.

Once you got cream separated from fresh milk, you can turn it into a whole variety of products, including half and half, heavy cream, double cream, and other popular cream varieties. What’s made depends on what part of the world you live in.

For heavy cream, it boils down to reducing the amount of water in the cream so that the amount of milk fat in the product is sufficiently high. Once that’s taken care of, heavy cream is ready, as it’s sold as a “fresh” dairy product.

Sour cream requires noticeably less fat than heavy cream, but there’s an extra step involved in the production process: souring. Prepared cream is inoculated with lactic acid bacteria and fermented at about room temperature for 12 to 36 hours.

The added bacteria turn lactose into lactic acid, making the cream thicker and tasting sour.

To put it simply, heavy cream is fresh cream with a high amount of fat, while sour cream is fermented cream with a significantly lower (but still noticeable) fat content.

The Bottom Line

Sour cream and heavy cream are quite different.

They’re both made from cream, but the former is fermented, while the latter is sold fresh and noticeably higher in fat.

Texture-wise, sour cream is thick and spoonable, while heavy cream is quite thin (thicker than milk, of course) and pourable.

For taste, sour cream is a bit sour and acidic, giving that tangy kick to your dishes. Heavy cream, on the other hand, is rich and somewhat sweet, which works great in all the dishes it’s added to, but it doesn’t offer anything particularly unique in the flavor department.

Finally, you can whip heavy cream, but not sour cream.

Given those differences, it doesn’t come as a surprise that you can’t easily substitute one with the other. And while in some recipes you can use heavy cream mixed with lemon juice instead of sour cream, it’s far from a perfect sub, and you should only use it in a pinch.

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