A Beginner’s Guide to Creamy Dips
Because we could all use a little more cream and dip in our lives
Having spent my formative years in New York City, I have a soft spot for creamy dips, or as some New Yorkers call it, schmear. Once you’ve sold your soul to the local bagel shop—and its display case shimmering with tubs chock full of pastel fluff—you can never quite go back to the plain selections at supermarkets again. From buttery maple-walnut spreads to 101 variations of scallion cream cheese, if there’s one thing NYC bagel shops taught me, it’s that there’s a shade of schmear for every mood.
Now that I don’t live in a city of a thousand bagel shops, I’ve started making my own spreads and dips at home. Venturing into the horizon of homemade dips I learned that the crux of creamy dips—what makes them succulent and ambrosial enough that our fingers keep crawling back—isn’t necessarily the cream cheese itself. The composition of a creamy dip and New York have much alike: both rely on the symbiosis of its diverse inhabitants. Beyond cream cheese, there are so many full-bodied alternatives like yogurt and feta that stretch the world of creamy dips to no end. Even tofu provides enough velvety mass for garlic and herbs to cling onto.
Whether you’re having a few friends over for drinks or gearing up for a big sports game or a Friday night in with a movie, nothing hits the spot better than a good ol’ chip/crudite/pita-and-dip. For this article, we’re breaking apart the fundamental traits of a creamy dip so that you don’t ever have to run out of finger-lickin’ snacks again.
Meet your base ingredients
To ensure your dip has body and dimension, you need a sinewy base that can hold its consistency, regardless of what you throw into it. The base shouldn't just dictate the texture, but also enhance the flavor profile without overshadowing the other ingredients.
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Although you could just as well spice up regular yogurt, I suggest using Greek yogurt as it’s thicker, creamier, and tangier, aka all the qualities I look for in a creamy dip. Since Greek yogurt already contains such a well-rounded profile, it doesn’t require much work to dress up other than tossing in spices and herbs to give it a bit more oomph. Mix in fresh herbs to make a refreshing summer dip or add caramelized onions for a silky lip-smacking schmear to dunk chips in. You don’t want to sacrifice any of the natural creamy texture either, so full-fat is essential for yogurt-based dips. If you’re feeling any guilt, remember that Greek yogurt is packed with protein and probiotics, so at least you’re getting your daily dosage of that in.
Homemade non-dairy yogurt
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If yogurt is a product of fermenting milk, then sour cream is what you get from fermenting cream with lactic acid. The baked potato condiment tastes almost identical to Greek yogurt, save for lower acidity in its composition. When I think of sour cream, I think of something that is big with a whole lot of volume and depth, and requires hearty scooping mechanisms like carrot sticks or radishes. Sour cream is a great base for dips that want to be boisterous and the center of your dinner party. It lends itself incredibly well to intense ingredients like bacon, sharp cheeses, kimchi, and miso.
Soft cheeses: whipped feta, cream cheese, ricotta
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In the realm of creamy dips, soft cheeses don’t get enough credit. In addition to being some of the most versatile ingredients to cook and bake with, the range of textures and flavors with soft cheeses is expansive, making these dips some of the most special ones. Whether it’s a meek and mild cheese like ricotta, or a robust and punchy one like Gorgonzola, using soft cheese will inevitably yield a multidimensional concoction that won’t be easy to replicate. Plus, they work well as either savory or sweet dips. One of my favorite soft cheese dips relies on honey and pistachios to bolster its complexion—but more on that later!
Vegan cream cheese
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Due to its custardy consistency, silken tofu is a popular vegan alternative for cheese and dairy-based spreads, so why shouldn’t we use it to make a plant-based dip? Of all the items on this list, tofu is the most mellow and delicate, which means you can pack a ton of flavor into it without worrying about weighing it down with your fixings.
Unlike the other bases which can be whipped together by hand with a whisk, I suggest using a food processor to really smooth out the tofu bits into a light satiny spread. A common ingredient used to amplify umami in tofu is nutritional yeast, and I highly recommend shaking heaps of this stuff into your tofu to give it a cheesy and nutty makeover after blending.
The importance of acidity
For those of us who didn’t snack on limes or lemons growing up, acidity on its own can sometimes be overwhelming. So much that it’s not uncommon for home chefs to forget this crucial element when cooking. The thing about acidity is that it can’t work its magic unless enmeshed with other ingredients. Consider the rancid shock of biting into a lemon slice versus squeezing one into a glass with water and sugar. The lemon slice is too sour on its own, but when mixed with water and sugar, it can transform saccharine liquid into a delightful and peppy beverage.
The most important thing to note about acidity is that it provides contrast, which cuts through the chalky richness of some of these base ingredients. Brighten a bowl of sour cream by squeezing a lime over it or swirl ume plum vinegar into the mix. I like to think of acidity as the element that rounds out the hodgepodge of flavors in a dish so that we’re not left with something overly salty, overly sweet, or straight up bland.
Customizing your dip
Before we dive into the vast expanse of flavor pairings, go ahead and sprinkle generous pinches of salt and pepper all over your base. I mean, lots of it. If you’re feeling adventurous, remember there are numerous sources of salt, like miso, fish sauce, capers, and olives, that you can easily swap in for the standard table salt.
Some dip ideas to get you started
Healthy: Greek yogurt, beetroot, grated garlic, za'atar, fresh mint, olive oil
Herby: Greek yogurt, lemon, fresh parsley, fresh dill, grated garlic, olive oil
Sweet and creamy: ricotta, crushed pistachios, honey
What’s your favorite creamy dip and how do you spice it up? Tell us in the comments or upload a picture!
Published on September 13, 2019