Is sour cream usually pasteurized?

Sour cream is a dairy product made by fermenting regular cream with certain kinds of lactic acid bacteria. The bacteria sour and thicken the cream, giving it a tangy, acidic taste. Sour cream has a smooth, rich texture and is commonly used as a condiment or cooking ingredient.

Most of the sour cream sold commercially in grocery stores is pasteurized. Pasteurization is a process of heating food to a specific temperature for a period of time in order to kill harmful bacteria and increase shelf life. For sour cream, the milk or cream is heated to at least 161°F (72°C) for 15 seconds or more during the pasteurization process.

Quick Answers

Here are quick answers to common questions about pasteurization and sour cream:

  • Is sour cream sold in stores pasteurized? Yes, most commercially sold sour cream is pasteurized.
  • What is the purpose of pasteurizing sour cream? Pasteurization kills harmful bacteria and increases shelf life.
  • Does pasteurization affect the taste or texture of sour cream? Pasteurization slightly affects the natural bacteria in sour cream but does not significantly change the texture or tangy taste.
  • Can you buy unpasteurized sour cream? Yes, some specialty stores sell unpasteurized sour cream, but it is less common and has a shorter shelf life.

Pasteurization is considered the standard process for industrially produced sour cream sold in supermarkets, big box stores, convenience stores, and other major retail outlets. The pasteurization process ensures the sour cream is safe for consumers by eliminating potentially harmful bacteria that could cause foodborne illnesses.

Pasteurization Process for Sour Cream

Here is an overview of how pasteurization works with sour cream production:

  • Regular cream is first cultured with lactic acid bacteria like Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus to develop the tangy, acidic flavor of sour cream.
  • Once the cultured cream reaches the proper pH and taste profile, it goes through a high-temperature pasteurization process.
  • Pasteurization involves rapidly heating the sour cream to at least 161°F (72°C) for 15 seconds or more in order to kill pathogenic bacteria.
  • Higher-temperature, shorter-time (HTST) pasteurization is commonly used for efficiency and preserving more flavor.
  • After pasteurization, the sour cream is rapidly cooled and packaged.

Throughout the entire process, strict quality control measures are enforced to ensure the sour cream is safe for consumption. Pasteurization destroys disease-causing bacteria like E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria, which are sometimes found in raw dairy products.

Effects on Taste and Texture

Although pasteurization does slightly alter the natural bacteria originally cultured in sour cream, it does not significantly change the overall tangy taste and smooth, creamy texture that consumers expect from sour cream. However, some sour cream connoisseurs claim they can discern subtle flavor differences between pasteurized and unpasteurized varieties.

Here are some ways pasteurization may affect sour cream:

  • Kills some of the beneficial probiotic bacteria originally cultured in the cream.
  • Creates a less pronounced tart, tangy taste.
  • Produces a slightly thinner texture.
  • Extends shelf life from about 2 weeks for unpasteurized to 4-6 weeks when pasteurized.

Despite these minor effects, pasteurization is an essential safety process for commercially sold sour cream. The heating process eliminates potentially dangerous bacterial contamination while still retaining the distinctive tangy sour cream flavor, creamy richness, and utility in cooking applications.

Unpasteurized Sour Cream

Though less common, unpasteurized sour cream is available at some specialty food stores, farmers’ markets, and directly from local dairies. Here are some key points about unpasteurized sour cream:

  • May contain a wider diversity of beneficial lactic acid bacteria with probiotic benefits.
  • Typically has a more tart, tangy, and complex flavor profile.
  • Has a thicker, richer texture.
  • Must be kept refrigerated and has a shorter shelf life of about 2 weeks.
  • Pose higher food safety risks if contaminated with pathogens during production.

Consumers seeking an authentic, closer-to-natural sour cream taste often prefer the unpasteurized versions when available. However, proper storage and handling are especially important with raw sour cream products to avoid foodborne illness risks.

Food Safety Concerns

Raw, unpasteurized dairy products carry an increased risk of transmitting foodborne pathogens like Salmonella, Listeria, Campylobacter, and E. coli if contamination occurs during production. Contaminated raw dairy has been linked to many food poisoning outbreaks due to the lack of pasteurization to destroy pathogens.

Populations especially vulnerable to illness from contaminated raw dairy products include:

  • Infants and young children
  • Pregnant women
  • Older adults
  • Individuals with weakened immune systems

The CDC and FDA advise these high-risk groups to avoid consuming unpasteurized dairy products, including sour cream. Raw dairy is legal in some U.S. states but banned in others due to health risks.

Common Brands of Sour Cream

Here are some of the major brands selling pasteurized sour cream in grocery stores:

  • Daisy Brand
  • Breakstone’s
  • Knudsen
  • Green Valley Creamery
  • Cabot

All of these popular, nationally distributed brands use pasteurized sour cream to ensure quality and safety. Read the labels closely to confirm if the product is pasteurized or not.

How to Tell if Sour Cream is Pasteurized

Checking the packaging is the best way to determine if sour cream has been pasteurized. Here are tips for identifying pasteurized sour cream when shopping:

  • Look for the term “pasteurized” directly on the container.
  • Inspect the ingredients list for a “pasteurized cultures” or “pasteurized cream” notation.
  • Look for any indication that it is a raw or unpasteurized product.
  • Purchase from reputable, large-scale brands that use pasteurization.
  • Avoid artisanal small-batch sour cream that may be unpasteurized.

If the packaging does not clearly state the sour cream is pasteurized, consider contacting the manufacturer to inquire if it has undergone the pasteurization process.

Pasteurized vs. Ultra-Pasteurized

Some sour cream products may be labeled as ultra-pasteurized. This means the cream has been heated to an even higher temperature of at least 280°F (138°C) for a minimum of 2 seconds.

Here is a comparison between pasteurized and ultra-pasteurized sour cream:

Pasteurized Ultra-Pasteurized
Heated to at least 161°F for 15 seconds Heated to at least 280°F for 2 seconds
Extends shelf life to about 4-6 weeks refrigerated Extends shelf life to 8-12 weeks refrigerated
May have a fresher, more natural taste Can have a slightly more cooked flavor
Commonly found in the dairy case Often sold on shelves at room temperature until opened

Both pasteurized and ultra-pasteurized sour creams are safe options and must be labeled as such. Ultra-pasteurization further extends shelf life but can marginally impact taste.

Uses for Pasteurized Sour Cream

Here are some of the most popular uses for pasteurized sour cream due to its versatility and long shelf life:

  • Topping for baked potatoes, tacos or chili – Its creamy texture and tangy flavor enhances many savory dishes.
  • Chilled salad dressing or vegetable dip – Mix with herbs, spices, or packets to create flavorful dressings and dips.
  • Frosting or filling for cakes – Adds moisture and a pleasant tang to sweet baked goods.
  • Substitution for milk or buttermilk in recipes – Provides moisture, fat and acidity in a range of recipes.
  • Baked goods ingredient – Enhances the moisture, tang and texture in items like muffins, breads and scones.
  • Substitute for crème fraîche or whipped cream – Has a similar creamy rich texture suitable for sauces or garnishes.

Sour cream is a versatile pantry staple and pasteurized varieties have excellent shelf stability. The pasteurization process creates a safe, long-lasting product suited for both cooking and condiment uses.

Storage and Shelf Life

Pasteurized sour cream will maintain quality and freshness for 4-6 weeks beyond the sell-by date if stored properly in the refrigerator. Here are some tips for storing pasteurized sour cream:

  • Keep refrigerated at 40°F (4°C) or below after opening.
  • Store in original container until use.
  • Seal or reseal container tightly.
  • Use clean utensils to remove sour cream to avoid contamination.
  • Do not return used sour cream back into original container.
  • Consume within 4-6 weeks of opening for best quality.

Discard sour cream if significant wheying (separation of liquid) occurs, the texture becomes very thin, or mold develops. Freezing can extend the shelf life for an additional 1-2 months.

How to Make Pasteurized Sour Cream at Home

It is also possible to make your own pasteurized sour cream at home with just heavy cream and an acidic dairy culture. Here is a simple recipe and process:


  • 2 cups (500ml) heavy cream
  • 2-3 tablespoons buttermilk or yogurt


  1. Pour cream into a saucepan and heat to 180°F (82°C). Hold for 1 minute.
  2. Cool down cream to 72°F (22°C).
  3. Whisk in buttermilk or yogurt.
  4. Pour into jars, cover, and let sit at room temperature for 12-24 hours.
  5. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours before using.
  6. Will keep refrigerated for 2 weeks.

The heating to 180°F (82°C) will pasteurize the cream to make a safe and long-lasting homemade sour cream. Allowing the cultured cream to thicken at room temperature develops the sour flavor.


Pasteurization is a crucial safety process for commercially produced sour cream sold in stores. Heating the cultured cream destroys potential pathogens while maintaining the characteristic tangy sour taste. Though subtler in flavor, pasteurized sour cream has excellent quality and shelf life. Unpasteurized versions may offer a more pronounced sour cream experience but pose greater risks if mishandled. When shopping, read labels closely and purchase pasteurized sour cream from reputable brands to enjoy this versatile dairy product safely.

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