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No matter how well you might plan, sometimes, highly necessary ingredients fall through the cracks. Heavy cream, at least for me, is one of those ingredients. Since I don’t use it very often, and most recipes call for scant amounts, I only pick it up when I really need it. This usually means a last-minute scramble to the grocery store, something I like to avoid for obvious reasons.
With that situation in mind—one that I’m sure many a home cook has experienced—let’s walk you through everything you need to know about heavy cream, its uses, common substitutes, and, last but not least, how to make a really simple, two-ingredient homemade “heavy cream” you can whip up for any moment of need.
What is Heavy Cream?
While many people might not consider this knowledge all that important, I think it’s helpful, especially since questions often come up around the differences and similarities between heavy cream, heavy whipping cream, whipping cream, light cream, and even half and half.
What is Heavy Cream?
Heavy cream, also known as heavy whipping cream, is the higher-fat layer skimmed from the top of milk when it's made. Heavy cream contains anywhere from 36 to 40% fat content.
Heavy cream and heavy whipping cream are the same thing. When milk is produced, the heavy cream rises to the top and is skimmed off. It has anywhere between 36 - 40% fat content. Whipping cream (sometimes also called light whipping cream) is similar, but has only about 30 - 35% milk fat. Half and half has a much lower milk fat content, only about 12 - 18%, because it is, as its name suggests, half whole milk (3 - 4% fat) and half light cream (20% milk fat).
How to Use Heavy Cream and Common Substitutes
The more fat in the cream, the thicker the texture, meaning that heavy (whipping) cream is the thickest of the creams mentioned above. It’s also much easier to whip into soft or stiff peaked whipped cream. It will hold its whipped shape longer and better than a lower fat whipped whipping cream will, so whipped heavy cream makes the best choice for piping onto cakes or filling pastries. It’s also a better choice for thickening up cream-spiked pasta sauces or soups as it tends not to curdle when heated like lower fat creams do. In homemade ice creams, chocolate ganache, and caramel sauces, heavy cream ensures smooth, velvety textures that just can’t be had with lighter creams.
When heavy cream’s not in the fridge and there’s no time for a quick grocery run, there are a few common substitutes that be used in certain cases. For savory, heated soups or sauces, cream cheese, half and half, and Greek yogurt (thinned with some milk) can step in. For sweet baked goods, turn to half and half, (light) whipping cream, or a plant-based milk fortified with olive oil. Use coconut cream for amazing (dairy-free) whipped cream-esque frostings, or serve something sweet with a side of tangy, full fat yogurt instead.
How to Make Heavy Cream at Home
To make the best heavy cream substitute at home, you need just two ingredients and about 10 minutes. Here’s how to make one cup of heavy cream:
- Cut 5 tbsp (1/3 cup) butter into small pieces.
- Add to a microwave-safe bowl (or a small frying pan or pot, if you, like me, don’t have a microwave).
- Melt the butter, checking it every 10 seconds if microwaving. Once most of the butter is melted, let cool to room temperature, approximately 3 minutes, swirling or stirring often.
- Add the cooled butter to 3/4 cup milk (preferably whole milk), and stir really well until the butter and milk and are combined. Use as is as a one-to-one substitute for heavy cream in nearly any recipe—it will not work to make whipped cream or ice cream unfortunately.