Mascarpone vs Crème Fraîche

Mascarpone vs Crème Fraîche

I don’t think you’ll find anyone here that’ll argue about what’s better – mascarpone or crème fraîche.

After all, what’s not to love?

Both are creamy, decadent and perfect for savory or sweet recipes of all kinds.

But besides the fact that they are both derived from fresh cream (yum!), there are some things that make each of the delectable dairy delights unique.

The main difference between mascarpone and crème fraîche is that mascarpone is type of cheese, very close in texture to cream cheese, which is thicker and slightly higher in fat content. In contrast, crème fraîche is a type of cream, very close in texture to sour cream mixed with yogurt, that is not usually as thick and lower in fat than mascarpone.

But for many the differences between these two are so slight that they are often indistinguishable for many of us with less sophisticated palates. So, if you’re in a pinch, the odds are good that you can substitute one for the other without too much worry.

With that said however, there are indeed differences between them and in this article, we’ll take a deep dive and uncover just what makes each of them so unique and beloved!

Differences in History and Origin

Mascarpone is an acid set cream cheese that originates from an area of Italy long known for its cheese producing prowess – the Lombardy region. It is thought to have first been produced in the 17th century. In addition to mascarpone, the region is also famous for other well-known types of cheese like gorgonzola, tallegio, robiola and more. 

Although the precise origin of “mascarpone” is not clear, the general belief is that it’s a derivation of the word “mascarpa” or the slightly altered “mascarpia”.

The first of these, mascarpa, is a variety of milk that’s produced from the whey of an unrelated cheese, known as stracchino, while mascarpia, is a local word used to describe ricotta cheese. Unlike stracchino, which is closer in taste and texture to mozzarella than mascarpone, ricotta shares many of the same qualities even though ricotta is derived from whey whereas mascarpone is a product of cream.

Like mascarpone, crème fraîche finds its roots in the French equivalents of the Lombardy region – Alcace, Loire and Normandy.

The literal translation for crème fraîche is “fresh cream” so it should probably come as no surprise that its origins are simple. The earliest forms of it were little more than the natural result of leaving fresh milk out overnight. Cooler temperatures during the evening hours allowed for natural separation of the cream as it rose to the top of the milk container making it easy to collect.

There are two basic types of crème fraîche – a thickened (fermented) version and a liquid version. The thickened type is known as crème fraîche épaisse while the liquid type is called crème fraîche liquide. While you may have experience with both types, the thickened cream is the more likely candidate for comparison to mascarpone.

Differences in Taste and Texture

In terms of mouthfeel, mascarpone is cherished for its creamy, balanced finish putting somewhere between the richness of butter combined with the smoothness of regular cream cheese. Some might argue that it comes close to the taste of crème fraîche but with more acidity and a characteristic hint of sweetness that doesn’t feature as strongly in crème fraîche.

Like mascarpone’s relationship to butter and cream cheese, the mouthfeel of crème fraîche could best be described as being midway between its closest cousins – sour cream and yogurt. However, crème fraîche is not often associated with having an overtly tangy taste but one that’s far more subtle. 

Differences in Production

Mascarpone is a product of the cream derived from cow’s milk.

In order to separate the cream from the whey, the mixture is first heated, then citric acid or lemon juice are added. This process, known as acid-setting, enables the whey to be separated from the cream while curdling what remains. Though technologically simple, the process is effective, quick and results in fresh mascarpone within a couple of days.

Like mascarpone, crème fraîche is also derived from cream, but instead of heat, it uses a bacterial starter culture (just like yogurt) to impart its characteristic flavor and thickness. In situations where the starter culture is not readily available, active culture buttermilk can be an effective substitute. 

Differences in Fat Content

For better or worse, the high fat content of both mascarpone and creme fraiche give these scrumptious cheeses their creamy mouthfeel.

Although the total fat content two varies slightly between them, they each have a significant amount per serving.

With mascarpone, a standard serving size of one tablespoon (approximately 28 grams), contains about 13 grams of fat which makes its fat content approximately 46% per serving.

For creme fraiche, a tablespoon serving yields about 12 grams of fat or roughly 43% per serving. 

Differences in Usage

Given the French origin of crème fraîche, it should come as no surprise that it’s used a wide variety of sweet and savory dishes both as an ingredient and a topping. Thanks to its high fat content, crème fraîche holds up well under heat for use in sauces and soups or for baked goods like cookies or bread.

Mascarpone is perhaps most widely known as an ingredient for desserts such as tiramisu and cheesecake but like crème fraîche, it’s high fat content adds to its flexibility as an ingredient in hot or cold recipes.

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