What Is Heavy Cream? And What Is a Heavy Cream Substitute?

Julia Child once said, "If you're afraid of butter, use cream." Wise words. Here, everything you've ever wanted to know about heavy cream starting with where it comes from.

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August 31, 2021

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Whipping cream mixer in a glass bowl on wooden table

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Whipping cream mixer in a glass bowl on wooden table

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lovelyshot/Getty Images

By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen

Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.

Heavy cream is almost magical. You can whip it into a semi-solid form that will hold its shape for piping or give a mousse a lift for lightness. You can freeze it in an ice cream machine and you can frost a cake with it. If you’re struggling to fix a soup or a sauce, adding fat is almost always your best option for a happy outcome. Heavy cream lasts a long time on the fridge, so it’s a good idea to always have some on hand.

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Photo by: mikroman6/Getty Images

mikroman6/Getty Images

What Is Heavy Cream?

Heavy cream is milk fat that collects on top of fresh milk if it hasn’t been homogenized. Homogenizing milk is the process that turns the fat in milk into droplets that are so infinitesimal that they stay suspended in the milk. It's not to be confused with pasteurizing milk: that’s the heat process that kills anything that might be in milk that could make you sick. Like all things related to food, exactly what is heavy cream is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration or FDA. They have decreed that heavy cream can contain 36% to 40% fat, with the rest of the liquid being milk. Typically, you’ll only find heavy cream that is 36% fat in a grocery store. Restaurants get the really good stuff - 40%.

Are Heavy Cream and Whipping Cream The Same?

Heavy cream and heavy whipping cream are the exact same thing. Some brands label the product as heavy cream; others label it as heavy whipping cream. Both will whip up to a whipped cream that you can use to top pumpkin pie or hot chocolate or a banana split, but whipping cream will deflate sooner. It’s the fat that helps it keep its shape when whipped. If you're still curious, check out our story Heavy Cream vs. Heavy Whipping Cream: Is There a Difference?.

What Is the Difference Between Heavy Cream And Half And Half?

Half and half is simply a mixture of equal parts whole milk and heavy cream. The percentage of fat in half and half varies between 10.5% and 18% depending on the cream. Remember, cream can be 36% to 40% fat, so that accounts for the variability in half and half. For a deeper dive on half and half, check out our article What Is Half and Half? And What’s a Substitute For It?.

Freshly melted butter

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Freshly melted butter

Photo by: David p crawley/Getty Images

David p crawley/Getty Images

What Is a Heavy Cream Substitute?

You can make a stand-in for the heavy cream called for in a recipe where it will be mixed with other ingredients. Melt 1/4 cup unsalted butter in a large glass bowl and gradually whisk in 3/4 cup whole milk or half and half. You’ll end up with 1 cup of a cream substitute. Use in soups, sauces, puddings, etc. It’s not your best option for heavy cream that needs to be whipped for a dessert.

Full fat vanilla or honey Greek yogurt thinned with a bit of milk is a nice topping for a dessert, but not recommended for a savory dish. Full fat plain Greek yogurt with some added sugar is a sweet stand-in that is more neutral than honey or vanilla.

What Is a Vegan Heavy Cream Substitute?

The cream in a can of full fat coconut milk can stand in as a vegan option, just be sure it’s coconut milk and not cream of coconut (that’s for cocktails and it’s loaded with sugar.) Put the can in the fridge for several hours to really chill it. Open it and skim the fat from the top. You can use it in soups and pastas and even whip it with some sugar, just be sure the flavor of coconut will complement the recipe.

Beaten egg white with the blender

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Beaten egg white with the blender

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Sandra Dombrovsky/Getty Images

How to Make Whipped Cream from Heavy Cream

To make whipped cream, follow these simple steps. Head over to our step-by-step guide on How to Make Whipped Cream for even more info.

Really Vanilla Whipped Cream

Head over here for an easy recipe.

  1. Chill the bowl and ingredients. Place a metal mixing bowl and your mixer’s beaters (if you don’t have a metal bowl the world will not end) in the freezer for at least 15 minutes. Keep the cream in the fridge until the last minute.
  2. Add the sugar, if using. If you’re going to sweeten the cream, put the granulated sugar or confectioners’ sugar in the bowl first. We recommend up to 2 tablespoons per cup.
  3. Add the cream and start on low. Add the cold cream start mixing on low with an electric mixer so it won’t splash out of the bowl. If you’re using vanilla add it at this point.
  4. Whisk just until firm peaks form. Increase to medium high and whip just until barely firm peaks form. If you whip it too much, it will begin to separate into very sweet butter. If you go just the tiniest bit too far and it just looks a bit grainy, you can add some unwhipped cream and whisk it in using a hand whisk.
  5. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. If it deflates a bit, whip it back into shape with a hand whisk.

Or you can take the easy way out and use a pressurized istant whip cream dispenser.

Decorating a white cake with cream from the pastry bag. Macro shot, roses.

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Decorating a white cake with cream from the pastry bag. Macro shot, roses.

Photo by: Mikhail Spaskov/Getty Images

Mikhail Spaskov/Getty Images

What Is Heavy Cream Used For?

Besides being Julia Child’creams stand-in for butter, heavy cream does have other uses. It’s an excellent thickener/enricher for soups and sauces, especially since cream (as opposed to half and half) will not curdle when boiled. Heavy cream is also used for ice cream, frostings and as a topper for desserts because when whipped, it can be piped and hold its shape.

Recipes Featuring Heavy Cream

Classic Strawberry Shortcake

Classic Strawberry Shortcake

Photo by: Tara Donne

Tara Donne

A fluffy biscuit + strawberries sweetened with honey + perfectly whipped cream = all-American Classic Strawberry Shortcake

Hot Chocolate Everything; 
Hot Chocolate Pudding

Hot Chocolate Everything; Hot Chocolate Pudding,Hot Chocolate Everything; Hot Chocolate Pudding

Photo by: Armando Rafael ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Armando Rafael, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Some may say the dollop of whipped cream on this pudding is gilding the lily. We aren’t them.

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Photo by: Antonis Achilleos

Antonis Achilleos

The beauty of heavy cream is that you can boil it and it thickens. That’s what it does in this sauce, along with bringing the classic flavor.

Description: Food Network Kitchen's Whipped Cream Frosting. Keywords: Confectioners’ Sugar, Powdered Milk, Whipping Cream, Vanilla Extract

Description: Food Network Kitchen's Whipped Cream Frosting. Keywords: Confectioners’ Sugar, Powdered Milk, Whipping Cream, Vanilla Extract

Photo by: Matt

Matt

We know this is frosting, but that doesn’t stop us from using it as a topping for anything that cries out for whipped cream.

Food Stylist: Jamie Kimm
Prop Stylist: Paige Hicks ,Food Stylist: Jamie Kimm
Prop Stylist: Paige Hicks

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Food Stylist: Jamie Kimm Prop Stylist: Paige Hicks ,Food Stylist: Jamie Kimm Prop Stylist: Paige Hicks

Photo by: Christopher Testani

Christopher Testani

The layers of flavor in this pasta sauce will have everyone sit up and take notice. Bravo!

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