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Aug 8, 2012 11:42 PM

Types of cream and their uses

I don't know beans about cream, and in my local markets the options are limited to half-and-half and heavy whipping cream. Often recipes will call for whipping cream, or heavy cream (or double cream if British) but are they the same thing? I'm hoping folks would like to share their advice on cream varieties and usage (also substitutions, when possible, for buttermilk, yogurt, sour cream, etc.).

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  1. Half and half is, as the name suggests, a mixture of milk and cream. It's good for coffee and making things with a little more richness -- but you can't whip it.

    Heavy cream, whipping cream, and double cream are not exactly the same, but can be substituted one-for-one. They will whip up.

    Do be careful, though -- heat all creams gently, as the protein levels are *very* high, and creams will bind and curdle when heated at high temperatures. This will cause your sauces to break, leaving you with white lumps (the cooked proteins) in watery liquid. They'll taste fine, but the texture will be shot.

    You really can't substitute any of the creams for buttermilk, yogurt, or sour cream -- these three are fermented products, and have an acidic tang to them, so they will behave completely differently in a recipe than straight cream. (You can freely substitute any of the three, but you can't substitute cream for yogurt, for example, or vice versa)

    2 Replies
    1. re: sunshine842

      I would be wary of subbing buttermilk for sour cream or vice versa. They both have a tang, but sour cream has WAY more fat and is obviously thicker than buttermilk - they don't behave the same way in baked goods, and certainly not in dips, etc. Straight yogurt is too thick to sub for buttermilk too - it needs to be thinned first.

      1. re: biondanonima

        Yep. I was coming from the taste/characteristics side, and skipped right over consistency.

    2. Oh, and you should note if your creams are ultrapasteurized - if they are, the heavier ones will not be 100% cream but included stabilizers. Regular pasteurized cream has more flavor and does not need stabilizers....

      Heavy cream in the USA is about 36% butterfat; whipping cream is around 30% - that's the threshold under which cream will not whip (at least natural cream; don't know about stabilized UP cream).

      It's very useful to have good heavy cream on hand. You can thin it with milk to create various levels of dairy. See this table I made here years ago:

      1. British whipping cream and double cream are not exactly the same thing. Double usually has a fat content of 48% whilst whipping is lighter at 35%. I'm usually happy to use whipping cream if I'm ,erm, whipping it. But if I'm going to cook with it, say in sauce, then I use double as it's less likely to split.

        1. I substitute Carnation Evaporated milk for half-n-half. It cuts the fat while still giving you the mouthfeel of cream. I just did it in a corn chowder the other day. It can be whipped, if everything is very cold, the milk, beaters, bowl...
          Here's another thread about evaporated milk:

          1. For coffee and cereal, I prefer Light Cream to Half & Half. Besides liking the taste and feel, I believe it is also lower in fat and calories. I also enjoy it very lightly drizzled over fresh peaches and strawberries when they're a little past perfect ripeness.

            It seems to be getting more available than it used to be, and I usually buy 2 quarts at a time at BJs. Even the newer 7-11s around here offer it at their coffee areas..

            7 Replies
            1. re: MacTAC

              Light cream has more fat and calories than half and half.

              In the US, cream is legally differentiated by its fat content.

              In the United States, cream is usually sold as:

              Half and half (10.5–18% fat)
              Light, coffee, or table cream (18–30% fat)
              Medium cream (25% fat)
              Whipping or light Whipping cream (30–36% fat)
              Heavy Whipping cream (36% or more)

              1. re: C. Hamster

                yes, and industrial products are almost always at the low end the range at each point

                1. re: Karl S

                  What do you mean by Industrial products?

                  1. re: chefj

                    Supermarket and convenience store milk, for example. As opposed to the products of small dairy farms purchased at the dairy or farmer's markets. Large operations have an incentive to make sure they convert every possible amount of cream into cream or butter (better ROI); small dairies may (may, not necessarily) prefer to give their customers slightly richer-than-industrial quality in order to attract and retain customers. (Really wonderful small dairies will offer creamtop whole milk that has not been homogenized - a truly superior product in flavor, mouthfeel and even digestibility.)

                    1. re: Karl S

                      Most of the brands in supermarkets around here are local companies and collectives and the fat contents vary from dairy to dairy. The larger suppliers here actually have higher fat content in the heavy cream than the small dairies do.
                      Of course homogenization has nothing to do with fat content.

                2. re: C. Hamster

                  "Light cream has more fat and calories than half and half."

                  Guess that's why I like it better :-)

                  1. re: MacTAC

                    IIRC, in Canada it's the other way around - light cream is lower fat than half and hafl.