From milk, of course! Cow milk contains about 4-5% fat content depending on the breed and how the herd is fed. Cream rises to the surface naturally when the milk is left to stand after milking. This layer of cream used to be skimmed off the top with a ladle. Today, cream is separated from milk using a centrifugal cream separator. To produce cream with 5%, 10%, 15% or 35% fat content, the cream is mixed again with skim milk to obtain the desired percentage of fat. Depending on the use, various additives such as carrageenan, cellulose and locust bean gum are added to thicken and stabilize the cream.
Each cream has its use
Light cream (5% m.f.), coffee cream (10% m.f.) and table cream (15 to 18% m.f.) add a rich and smooth texture to a variety of food and beverages consumed on a regular basis: coffee, hot cereal, scrambled eggs, quiche, hot chocolate, milkshakes, rice pudding, crème caramel, and so on. They can replace milk in practically all recipes, including pastries. The only downside? Lumps may form if this type of cream is mixed with acidic or alcoholic ingredients. Choose a country or cooking cream to avoid the lumps.
Creams with 15% or 35% fat content are specially formulated to be heat, alcohol and acid resistant. They contain more guar gum, locust bean gum plus mono and diglycerides (an emulsifier) than other creams, which prevent them from being lumpy. This is definitely the best choice for cooking.
Country and old-style creams
Like cooking creams, “country” or “old-style” creams have more thickening agents than regular or whipping creams. Available with 15% or 35% fat content, they are ideal as a topping for fruit and other desserts and are also heat and acid resistant (although somewhat less than cooking creams) because their thick consistency protects against the formation of lumps.
A specialty of cuisine in the Normandy and Brittany regions of France, crème fraîche is produced with the help of lactic bacteria, which sours the cream and gives it a thick consistency. It is a bit like our sour cream but is less acidic and contains more fat, around 40%. Real crème fraîche will not curdle or turn during cooking. It is traditionally used to prepare meat or poultry dishes, sauces, cream pastas, potato dishes or as a fruit topping.
Clotted cream, also called double cream or Devonshire cream in England, is the richest cream of all, with a fat content of 48 to 55%. Almost as firm as butter, this delicious cream is produced when fresh, unpasteurized milk is slowly heated at a low temperature; part of the water evaporates while the cream rises to the surface and forms clots. Expensive and hard to find (only specialty stores keep it in stock), it is spread on scones at tea time. It’s rich... very rich!
Oops! My sauce turned!
Cream sometimes curdles during cooking and is said to have “turned.” Small, whitish lumps are proteins in cream that bond together and become visible in the presence of acidic or alcoholic ingredients, or even tannin (phenolic compounds found in, among other things, potatoes, red wine and tea). Creams with less protein have a lower risk of turning. Creams with a fat content of 35% are more stable than creams with a lower fat content because they contain proportionately less protein. If you want to lighten a recipe, you can always choose a cooking or country-style cream with 15% fat content. These are the only creams that stand up well during cooking.
The only cream actually designed to be whipped is, you guessed it, whipping cream. Its liquid consistency and 35% fat content allow it to rise and expand when beaten. Be careful not to over whip the cream or you’ll get butter!
Tips for successful whipped cream
Choose the right cream. It’s easy to get mixed up when faced so many choices of cream at the grocery store. Make sure to choose a whipping cream, not a cooking, old-style or country cream. These types of cream have a 35% fat content and are not meant to be whipped.
Use superfine granulated sugar. Or even icing sugar which dissolves quickly. Add it toward the end of the beating process. Cream rises better and has more volume if sugar is added toward the end. Simply add fine granulated sugar if volume is not an issue, but do it early in the beating process to give it enough time to dissolve.
Use really cold cream. It is even recommended to chill the bowl and beaters in the freezer for a few minutes. Why? The cream could turn into butter if it is too hot!
Use the whipped cream right away. It is best to use whipped cream just after it has been made. However, it can also be prepared in advance and stored in a covered bowl in the fridge for several hours. If it separates, just whip it again for it to regain its original texture.
Beware of imitations!
Products like Nutri-Whip and Cool Whip are master mixes of water, hydrogenated oils, sugar and thickening agents, but do not contain a single drop of cream. Though it is not made with real cream, Nutri-Whip is still an interesting alternative for people who are vegetarian, lactose intolerant or allergic to milk because it contains no dairy ingredients. New vegetarian products are also available, such as Belsoy Cuisine, a creamy preparation made from sunflower oil and soya (the vegetarian equivalent of 15% m.f. table cream).
Did you know that whipped cream freezes well in individual portions? Fashion mounds or rosettes of whipped cream on a parchment-lined baking sheet and freeze. Then transfer the portions into a plastic freezer bag or container and store in the freezer. Place the frozen whipped cream on a dessert just before serving. The cream will thaw in minutes and return to its original texture. Handy!
By Christina Blais, nutritionist and professor of food sciences