Despite the implication of their name and the regularity with which they appear behind coffee bars, for topping dessert-like beverages with snowy mounds of dairy goodness, cream whippers are good for more than whipping cream. In restaurant kitchens the devices are prized for making and keeping delicate sweet or savory mousses, sauces and foams, which would be difficult to create or to maintain for any length of time with more traditional equipment. At home, I find them particularly handy for creating easy, lighter or lightened interpretations of high-calorie indulgences like dessert toppings, ranch dressing, cheesecake and more.
How Cream Whippers Work
Cream whippers, also known as “cream siphons” or just “siphons,” work fairly simply. A liquid is placed in the siphon canister, which is then sealed tightly with a gasket-lined threaded cap. A metal cartridge or “charger” containing highly compressed nitrous oxide (N2O, aka: laughing gas) is slipped into the charger sleeve, which is then fitted onto a threaded site on the siphon canister cap. As the charger sleeve is screwed into place, a hollow pin in the center of the threaded site punctures the charger, ushering the nitrous oxide into the siphon canister where it dissolves into the enclosed liquid.
When the canister is inverted and the discharge lever squeezed, the gas escapes—forcing the liquid out with it—through a narrow passage, expanding as it leaves the siphon and leaving behind a foamed and frothed liquid.
Benefits of Siphon Aeration
In classic aerated preparations, created by whisking either by hand or machine, substantial amounts of fat and/or egg play a key roll in stabilizing ethereal structures, hence the calorie and fat content of such indulgences as whipped cream, chocolate mousse and hollandaise. Because aeration in a siphon occurs in a closed system and the rapid expansion of the nitrous oxide as it is transferred from the charger to the siphon canister causes rapid chilling, many aerated liquids no longer require stabilization. Those that do can take advantage of such stabilizers as gelatin or agar (a good alternative for vegetarians), replacing some or all of the fat and egg to create light, airy, stable results, with fewer calories, less fat, and cleaner, brighter flavors, which would otherwise be masked by tongue-coating lipids. (Because dissolved gelatin and agar require chilling to set their structures, and whisking creates friction—which retards cooling and allows incorporated air to escape before a gelatin or agar structure can be formed to hold it in place—such ingredients can generally not be used to sustain foams created by traditional whipping methods.)
As an added benefit, many delicate mixtures that would only keep for a few hours or maybe a few days, can often be kept for several days, sometimes more than a week, in the airtight confines of the siphon canister, without breaking down.
Siphons can also be incorporated to give volume and body to mixtures that are not usually aerated, such as salad dressings and dessert sauces. Once air is incorporated into these mixtures, they coat and cling more effectively to other foods, their flavors open more readily on the palate, and because a good portion of their volume is calorie-free gas, they go further than they would in their regular liquid forms.
Guidelines to Using a Siphon
In creating recipes for the siphon, I have found it best to just tinker, letting trial and error guide me to the right balance, but here are a few guidelines:
- Three teaspoons of powdered gelatin is equivalent to about 2 teaspoons of most powdered agars, and 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon of powdered gelatin (1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon agar) is about all it takes to create a nicely textured, easily discharged foam or cream from one cup of fat-free, unstabilized liquid. (For liquids containing fats, including those found in chocolate, cheese and peanut butter, or any eggs or thickeners, such as cornstarch, you may find that you need less, if any, gelatin or agar.)
- Do not use more liquid than the siphon directions indicate, e.g. 1 cup liquid for half-pint-size, 2 cups liquid for pint-size. Excess liquid prohibits proper aeration and expansion and could lead to explosions.
- Mixtures that are too thick will clog the discharge nozzle; too thin or under-stabilized and they may go to liquid within seconds of discharge.
- Some shaking of the canister before discharge is generally necessary to create a robust, homogenously aerated substance, but too much shaking can create a mixture that is too thick to discharge.
- Cool to warm liquids generally aerate better than very cold or hot liquids, and many foams benefit from a half hour or so in the refrigerator, after aeration, before discharge.
- All liquids should be thoroughly strained and free of any globs or chunks before they are placed in the siphon or clogging will occur upon discharge.
- If a liquid has not aerated thoroughly after one charge, shake the canister a bit and try again. Failing that, the mixture may be charged again. If it is still not sufficiently aerated after a touch more shaking, the recipe probably needs adjustment. Do not charge the canister more than twice.
Also, for safety’s sake, never remove the canister cap before all of the gas has been discharged. Either invert the canister and hold the lever to discharge all ingredients before opening. Alternatively, hold the canister upright over a sink or garbage can with one hand cupped near (but not directly over) the discharge nozzle in order to catch any liquid discharge, press the discharge lever and allow all of the gas to escape before opening the canister.
The chief manufacturer (and, I believe, originator) of cream whippers is Isi, an Austrian company that also makes soda siphons, which use carbon dioxide cartridges to carbonate liquids. (They’re different sizes, so it would be difficult to manage, but just as a note of caution, carbon dioxide cartridges should never be used with cream siphons, and nitrous oxide cartridges should never be used with soda siphons.) In addition to their standard cream whippers, which are for making cold preparations only, Isi has also introduced a line of insulated whippers that purportedly keep contents cool or hot for several hours and can be safely heated while sealed and charged in order to dispense warm, frothy soups and such (I’ve yet to try one). The company also provides a number of simple recipes on their website for use with their whippers.
A few other companies make the standard, cold-preparation whippers, but I’ve had only passing experience with them, and they’re generally priced about the same as Isi versions. Cream siphons are expensive and rarely available at deep discounts, even on eBay, especially once you factor in shipping costs, but chargers, though expensive when purchased in standard quantities of 10 to 12 pieces per box, are readily available online in heavily discounted bulk quantities of anywhere from 50 to 500 cartridges. For serious eaters, kitchen tinkerers and taste-waist negotiators among us, they’re a worthwhile investment.
Need a suggestion for what to use your cream whipped for? Try my recipe for airy ranch dressing.