Cream: The thick, white, buttery liquid popular in coffee mugs and on top of ice cream sundaes. Simple, right?
Unfortunately not, especially if you’re a home cook with a recipe that calls for “cream”, and you’re standing at a supermarket aisle that offers heavy whipping cream, half-and-half, clotted, light, single and double.
We’re here to help cream make sense. But bear in mind, labels aren’t always consistent. Use this guide as a point of reference, but always check the label to verify the fat content and any flavourings or additives.
Heavy Cream or Heavy Whipping Cream (36-40% butterfat)
Thick and buttery heavy cream is some of the heartiest cream you will likely use. Its high fat content easily traps tiny air bubbles, allowing it to foam nicely into fluffy whipped cream when whipped by hand or with a mixer.
Whipping Cream (~30% fat)
Regular whipping cream will not fluff up quite as much when whipped, but is still excellent for thinner cream toppings and rich desert bases.
Light Cream (~20% fat)
Due to its lower fat content, light cream will not whip well into whipped cream. But what light cream does have is more lactose sugars and protein – in this case the oil-loving molecule casein – which makes it perfect for blending flavours and taking the edge off spicy or bitter dishes.
Be careful when cooking, however: The relatively high protein content makes light cream susceptible to curdling when boiled.
Half-and-half (~12% fat)
As the name suggests, half-and-half is half milk, half light cream. This is most popular as an additive in coffee, tea or creamy cocktails. Reach for this when you want to add creamy smoothness to a dish without making it too milky or buttery.
Double cream (45-50% fat)
Double cream may also be labelled as heavy cream or heavy whipping cream, but it has an even higher fat content. Some people find it too rich and buttery to be used as a drink additive or topping, but a little double cream can be added to spicy, oily dishes and sauces to prevent the oils from separating. (Again, the oil-absorbing proteins in cream make it useful to blend oily and watery ingredients.)
Sour cream (18-20% fat)
Sour cream is cream (usually light cream) that has been fermented slightly with special lactic acid bacteria, giving it a thick consistency and sharp, tangy taste. Nachos, anyone?
Crème friache (30%-40% fat)
Crème friache, or fresh French cream, is unpasteurised heavy cream whose natural enzymes have fermented it in the same manner as sour cream. Crème friache can have a range of flavours and consistencies, but is usually somewhat thicker and less tart than ordinary sour cream. It’s high fat content means it can withstand heat better than sour cream, making it useful for cooking.
Clotted cream (~60% fat)
Clotted cream is manufactured by heating heavy cream and then allowing it to cool slowly, a process that further separates the butterfat, providing probably the thickest cream you will find. In fact, it works better as a spread, like butter, than an additive (the English eat it on scones with their tea). But it is still useful in rich, creamy desserts and certain savoury dishes because like crème friache and heavy cream it stands up well to heat.