Why It Works
- Due to its high fat content, heavy cream is better equipped to form and hold stiff peaks.
- Using refrigerator-cold cream builds a stronger network of bubbles as it whips.
When I was a kid, I thought whipped cream came out of an aerosol can, ready to be squirted onto anything and everything at a moment’s notice. I didn’t know until I was much older that you could make the stuff yourself with just a bowl and a whisk. Then, I learned about infusing the cream with different flavors (I went through a six-month period of only making maple whipped cream, for which I have no apologies). Later on, I discovered that I could whip cream in a number of ways―using a stand mixer, food processor, whipping siphon, and even in a jar―all of which added flexibility to my whipped cream repertoire.
Making whipped cream is easy; the hardest part is deciding how. What should you sweeten your whipped cream with, and more importantly, do you even need to? How should you infuse the cream with flavor? Is it better to use a stand mixer or a food processor? How do you keep the whipped cream from weeping? While I can’t provide step-by-step instructions for every single way to make whipped cream, the following guidelines should help you make the best whipped cream for whatever the application (and yes, sometimes that is squirting the can right into your mouth, no judgment).
What is Whipped Cream?
Whipped cream is a foam―a mass of bubbles suspended in (in this case) a liquid substance. When you whip cream, you are incorporating air into it in the form of bubbles of gas. As we've explained in our article on whipped cream science, by whipping cream, “a network of fat globule–surrounded air bubbles develops and the stable, somewhat solid structure known as whipped cream is born.” The whipped cream will go through stages of development: first, soft peaks whose looser consistency is best suited for folding into mousses, followed by stiff peaks, which has a firmer, fluffier shape ideal for piping and frosting. If you decide to whisk past stiff peaks, you will end up damaging the network of fat globules and destabilizing your foam. Although it might be salvageable by adding more cream, it’s best to keep on whisking to make butter, and then start fresh with a new batch of cream.
In order to achieve this spreadable, shapeable cloud-like structure, the cream must have a fat content of no less than 30 percent. Don’t bother trying to whip half-and-half and light cream as their lower fat percentages (10 to 12% and 18 to 30%, respectively) aren’t strong enough to form and hold air bubbles. In the US, this means you can use whipping cream (30 to 35% fat) or heavy cream (at least 36% fat). Due to its higher fat content, I recommend picking up heavy cream because it has the ability to form a stiffer, denser foam.
Along with fat content, temperature plays an important role. According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, “even mild warmth softens the butterfat skeleton of a cream foam.” Thus, cream meant for whipping should always be kept cold, around 40°F. In The Art of French Pastry, Jacquy Pfeiffer and Martha Rose Shulman write, “the colder fat is, the harder it is, thus the stronger its structure.” Since whipped cream is stabilized by its own fat, refrigerator-cold cream does a great job of holding onto those air bubbles. (While it won't have a huge impact on success, it can help to chill your equipment beforehand which I’ve found reduces whipping time.) Using warmer cream will only create a loose network of bubbles prone to collapse.
Flavoring Whipped Cream
Whipped cream takes extremely well to a variety of flavorings. Over the years, I’ve whisked up many batches of sweetened, flavored whipped cream and truth be told, no two are the same. I may sweeten one with maple syrup (I stand by this), add a dash of almond extract along with brown sugar to another, or cold steep cherry pits in the cream before whipping. In my dogged pursuit, I’ve come up with the following guidelines for how best to go about sweetening and adding flavor to your own. That said, I don’t believe it’s entirely necessary to add sugar or flavoring. Plain whipped cream can stand on its own, especially when paired with sweeter desserts. In these cases, the whipped cream helps cut through the intense sweetness for a more balanced overall effect.
- Sweeteners: There are a good number of options: powdered sugar (conventional and organic), superfine sugar, granulated sugar, and brown sugar. Although it dissolves quickly, I tend to avoid powdered sugar due to its saccharine flavor, which I find off-putting. That said, powdered sugar contains cornstarch (or tapioca starch in the case of organic powdered sugar), which helps stabilize whipped cream. (It’s worth noting that organic powdered sugar also imparts a light butterscotch note as it’s made from raw cane sugar.) I much prefer using superfine or granulated sugar for its clean flavor. Since granulated sugar doesn’t dissolve as quickly, I add it right at the beginning to give it more time to dissolve. Brown sugar whipped cream is a delicious option, although its caramel-like flavor can overpower delicate desserts.
- Wet Stir-Ins: Extracts, oils, waters, and alcohol are easy ways to boost the flavor of whipped cream. Less is more in most cases both because these ingredients are typically highly concentrated in flavor, and because introducing liquid that lacks fat can result in a looser whipped cream. Syrups, like honey, maple syrup, and lemon syrup, can also be used. One thing to keep in mind is these syrups double as sugar, so lay off on adding another sweetener.
- Dry Stir-Ins: Ground spices, cocoa powder, instant espresso powder, and freeze-dried fruit powders fall under this category. These powders will dissolve quickly into the cream as it whips. It’s important to note that adding large amounts may alter the final texture, plus depending on the ingredient, you could end up with bitter-tasting and unpalatable whipped cream. I recommend starting with small increments, tasting as you go.
- Pastes: Smooth peanut butter, Nutella, cajeta, dulce de leche, and tahini paste are wonderful in whipped cream. To work them in, you can add the paste from the get-go, whisking it in with the rest of the ingredients, or beat the paste with the sugar first, then gradually add the cream. Each paste has varying levels of sweetness, so you will need to adjust the amount of sugar.
- Infusions: This category runs the gamut and includes fresh or dried herbs, whole spices, coffee beans, tea, citrus zest, toasted coconut, nuts, and seeds. You can infuse the cream hot or cold, though it's often better to do one or the other depending on the ingredient. Some ingredients, like delicate fresh herbs, work best with a cold infusion to preserve their bright flavor. For dried herbs and whole spices, hot infusions are the best way to coax out their flavor. Meanwhile, tea and citrus zest can work both ways, yielding different results. To cold infuse, stir the ingredient into the cream and refrigerate anywhere from four hours up to a full day. To hot infuse, warm the ingredient in the cream, cover, and let steep for up to 30 minutes. Then, strain out the ingredient and chill the cream until cold.
- Salt: The addition of salt is entirely optional, but I find that just a pinch makes the whipped cream pop and helps balance the sweetness from any added sugar. For each cup of cold cream, I like to use 1/8 teaspoon of kosher salt or a hefty pinch of fine sea salt, which accentuates the overall flavor of the whipped cream.
Methods for Making Whipped Cream
There are four main methods for whipping cream: whisking by hand, in a stand mixer, in a food processor, and using a whipping siphon. Each one has benefits and drawbacks, which I will outline below. No matter the method, the cream must be whipped quickly because incorporating air as fast as possible keeps the cream relatively cool. In addition, it’s important to use enough cream so that the whisk makes contact with all of the liquid. Otherwise, counterintuitively, it will take longer to whip, which will give the cream more time to warm up, harming its ability to form a stable foam.
- Hand-Whisk Method: I am a big proponent of whisking cream by hand. It gives you more control over the process, providing you with an intimate view of your cream as it progresses through the stages. This makes it nearly impossible to over-whip cream. The only equipment needed is a bowl, a balloon whisk, and some elbow grease. Those who have never whipped cream by hand may at first lack the proper wrist and arm motion to do it rapidly, but with practice, cream can be whipped by hand in a comparable amount of time as a stand mixer.
- Stand (or Hand) Mixer Method: This method is ideal for making a large amount of whipped cream (and it’s a great fallback method if your arms are fatigued). Plus, using a stand mixer guarantees the cream will whip quickly, helping to maintain its temperature. But, this advantage is also its drawback: it’s extremely easy to over-whip cream this way, especially if not paying full attention to it (because a stand mixer can operate without any oversight, it's easy to momentarily get distracted while it's running and let the cream go too far). If you choose to go this route, don’t walk away or check your phone―stand there patiently and watch as the cream transforms into a fluffy cloud, stopping to check the texture as needed. And while we generally don't recommend hand mixers at Serious Eats (they can't do much a manual whisk can't do, and also can't do a lot of things a stand mixer can do), they are an obvious stand mixer alternative that achieves similar results.
- Food Processor Method: A food processor incorporates less air than the methods described above, resulting in a dense, thick foam that is stable enough to use as a frosting. Plus, with its smaller air bubbles, processed cream keeps well in the refrigerator, lasting for one full week without weeping. However, like the stand mixer method, it can quickly turn the cream into butter if one isn’t vigilant. Normally, whipping cream doubles its volume but this doesn’t hold true with the food processor method. Because the blades of the machine aren’t great at aeration, the yield matches the amount of cream added.
- Whipping Siphon Method: A whipping siphon relies on nitrous oxide (N2O) to produce the airiest whipped cream. Very little work is involved with this method: chill the canister, add cold cream, charge it with a N2O cartridge, shake the canister, and dispense perfect whipped cream. You can also hold a siphon of cream for at least a couple weeks in the fridge, since the aeration doesn't actually happen until the cream is dispensed; this means you can load up a siphon, charge it, and use as needed over the course of many days until it runs dry. In spite of this, there are a few downsides: nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas; in some states, you must be 21 to buy N2O cartridges; and as soon as you dispense the cream, it deflates a tiny bit. It's also difficult to control the texture of siphon-dispensed cream; like cans of the supermarket stuff, the cream comes out with a fluffy but unvaried texture, so if you want control, this isn't the way to go. In addition, a siphon can cost upwards of $100, but on the bright side, it lasts a long time.
Stabilizing Whipped Cream
As whipped cream sits, it deflates, losing air bubbles and weeping liquid as the fat separates out. To keep things fluffy, it’s common to incorporate a stabilizer to whipped cream, which helps maintain its bubbly structure. I tested four common stabilizers―Greek yogurt, gelatin, cream of tartar, and xanthan gum―to assess which ones worked best. I made individual batches of whipped cream with one of the stabilizers and stored them in the refrigerator, checking the texture and taking note of consistency daily. Here are my takeaways:
- Greek Yogurt: I whisked one tablespoon of full-fat Greek yogurt into a cup of cold cream. This whipped cream held up remarkably well: It was more flavorful and just slightly denser in texture with no weeping in sight. As long as your whipped cream benefits from the tangier flavor, I recommend this route because it requires very little effort and you likely have Greek yogurt on hand. If you don’t have full-fat Greek yogurt, you can substitute sour cream or crème fraîche, adding up to 1/4 cup per one cup of heavy cream.
- Gelatin: I dissolved a half teaspoon of unflavored gelatin powder in warm water, then gradually added it to the cream as it whipped. After a stint in the refrigerator, I observed no discernible change in texture and no additional flavors―the whipped cream was perfectly fluffy. Even though it required some extra work, the addition of gelatin yielded the best results.
- Cream of Tartar: I added a scant teaspoon of cream of tartar to a batch of whipped cream cream and although it worked, the whipped cream was slightly grainy with an off-putting metallic taste.
- Xanthan Gum: Xanthan gum is effective in very small quantities relative to the volume of liquid; add too much and it can create unappealingly slimy textures. For this test, I added a little less than 0.1% xanthan gum by weight, which was about 0.4g for 2 cups of cream, hand-whisking it to stiff peaks. I found the cream more difficult to whisk by hand with the xanthan added (likely due to increased viscosity), requiring more effort and taking longer to reach the desired result (obviously using an electric mixer would solve the effort part of that problem). The resulting cream was more dense than plain whipped cream, with a subtly greasy texture, though I didn't find it unpleasant. It held for three days in the refrigerator without showing any signs of weeping or collapse before we finished it off. Unfortunately, most kitchen scales do not have a fine enough resolution or precision to accurately measure such a small mass of xanthan gum; you would need a jeweler's scale that can measure to the hundredths of a gram to weigh such a small amount properly. This is a scant pinch, at most, if you wanted to try doing it by sight, though small variations in amount can alter results in significant ways given how powerful xanthan is in such small quantities.
How to Use Whipped Cream
We probably don't need to tell you this, but whipped cream is extremely versatile. It doubles as a topping, an ingredient, and even as a frosting. Dollop some on top of hot chocolate, combine it with fruit compote for a fool, stuff it between layers of a genoise sponge cake, or spoon it over pie. And, if you’re feeling extra generous, serve it straight up in bowls. Because let’s be honest, we’re all just here for the whipped cream.
Based on feedback, we retested stabilizing whipped cream with xanthan gum and updated our findings in the section, "Stabilizing Whipped Cream."
- 1 cup (235ml) cold heavy cream
- 2 teaspoons superfine or granulated sugar, or to taste (optional; see headnote for more guidance)
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
- Salt (optional)
For the Hand-Whisk Method: In a large wide bowl, combine cream, and, if using, sugar, vanilla extract, and a pinch of salt. Using a balloon whisk, beat cream by alternating between the following motions: moving the whisk quickly from side-to-side and in circles around the perimeter of the bowl while gently lifting. As you whisk, you’ll begin to see trails in the cream that stay put. Continue to whisk until soft peaks form; if you lift the whisk, peaks will form but immediately slump over. You can use the whipped cream at soft peaks or continue to whisk until stiff peaks form. At this point, the whipped cream will be fluffy and thick; if you lift the whisk, the peaks will stand up straight. Do not whisk beyond stiff peaks. Serve or use as desired.
For the Stand (or Hand) Mixer Method: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine cream, and, if using, sugar, vanilla extract, and a pinch of salt. If using sugar, whisk on low speed until sugar is fully dissolved, about 30 seconds. Increase speed to medium-high; as you whisk, you’ll begin to see trails in the cream that stay put. Continue to whisk until soft peaks form, about 1 minute; if you lift the whisk, peaks will form but immediately slump over. You can use the whipped cream when at soft peaks or continue to whisk until stiff peaks form, about 10 seconds. At this point, the whipped cream will be fluffy and thick; if you lift the whisk, the peaks will stand up straight. Do not whisk beyond stiff peaks. Serve or use as desired.
For the Food Processor Method: In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine cream, and, if using, sugar, vanilla extract, and a pinch of salt. Pulse until thick and creamy like Greek yogurt, less than 1 minute (the time will vary with the horsepower of your machine). Serve or use as desired.
For the Whipping Siphon Method: If using sugar, combine cream and sugar in a bowl, and mix until sugar is fully dissolved. Add cream, vanilla extract (if using), and a pinch of salt (if using) to the siphon canister, screw on lid, and charge with 1 nitrous oxide cartridge. Shake canister 15 times, dispense whipped cream, and serve.
Balloon whisk (optional), stand mixer (optional), food processor (optional), whipping siphon (optional)
Make-Ahead and Storage
Whipped cream made by hand-whisking or in a stand mixer can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 12 hours. To store for longer, refer to headnote for guidelines on how to stabilize whipped cream.
Whipped cream made in a food processor can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Whipped cream in a whipping siphon can be refrigerated for up to 10 days; shake it a few times before dispensing.