Of all the various cream products on the dairy shelf, including half and half and whipping cream, it might be heavy cream that people are least familiar with. Half and half goes in coffee. Whipping cream is for, well, making whipped cream. But what is heavy cream?
What is Heavy Cream?
All of these products come from cows' milk. And you can think of all milk products as existing on a spectrum from light to heavy, as measured by their fat content.
So for instance, skim milk contains 0 to 0.5 percent fat, making it the milk product with the lowest amount of fat. Next come 1 percent milk and 2 percent milk, which contain 1 percent and 2 percent fat, respectively. Whole milk contains 3.25 percent fat, and half and half contains anywhere from 10.5 to 18 percent fat.
Moving up the scale, light cream, also sometimes known as table cream, ranges from 18 to 30 percent fat, followed by medium cream (25 percent), whipping cream (30 percent), and then heavy cream, which checks in at 36 percent fat.
Manufacturer's cream, which is mostly a food service product, is a 40 to 45 percent fat product. Butter is about 70 percent fat. Other products, such as clotted cream, which is at least 55 percent fat, also exist. Sour cream comes in at about 18 percent fat.
How to Use Heavy Cream
Most of these products have their specific uses. Products called milk are for drinking, and they have numerous cooking applications as well. Products called creams are generally used exclusively in cooking. Heavy cream has two primary uses: for making cream sauces and for making whipped cream.
This might be somewhat confusing, given that there's a specific cream product called whipping cream. And you can definitely make whipped cream with whipping cream. The difference, though, is that because heavy cream has more fat, it will whip up with firm peaks, whereas whipping cream will only whip up to the soft peak stage, no matter how long you whip it.
Another advantage to cooking with heavy cream is that when heating it or adding it to hot mixtures like soups, it will not curdle. Lighter creams when added to a hot liquid will break apart or curdle. Curdling is when the emulsion of fat, water and protein that makes up the cream breaks apart, usually from heat or exposure to some sort of acidic ingredient like lemon juice or vinegar.
Heavy cream, because of its higher fat content, is a much more stable emulsion, which means it is less prone to curdling when it gets hot.
How is Heavy Cream Made?
Heavy cream doesn't just come from heavy cows. Instead, it's produced at dairies by sending pasteurized milk through a fat separator, which is a centrifuge that spins the milk at a rapid speed, capturing the fat that rises to the top and the skim milk that's left at the bottom. The skim milk and fat are then recombined in the exact proportions needed to produce each of the various milk and cream products and their specific fat contents.
What Does It Taste Like?
Heavy cream has a rich, fatty, creamy flavor. If you're using it to make whipped cream, like for a pastry filling or dessert topping, you're going to sweeten it, so in that instance it will taste creamy and sweet. On the other hand, if you're using it to make a cream sauce or adding it to a soup, it will impart a creamy, rich, luscious flavor and mouth feel.
Heavy Cream Recipes
Where to Buy Heavy Cream
You can find heavy cream in the refrigerated dairy section of the supermarket or grocery store, near the other cream products.
Like all dairy products, heavy cream needs to be stored in the refrigerator, because it is relatively high in protein combined with its relatively high water content make it an ideal medium for the growth of bacteria that cause food spoilage. On the other hand, freezing heavy cream is not a good idea as it will cause the emulsion to break.
Lorenzo, Jose M. et al. Main Groups of Microorganisms of Relevance for Food Safety and Stability: General Aspects and Overall Description. Innovative Technologies for Food Preservation (2018): 53–107. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-811031-7.00003-0