In the days when most milk was delivered in bottles to our doorsteps, one of the delights was to scoop out the thick delicious cream that rose to the top.
Nothing could be better in hot cocoa or coffee … or to top off a scoop of ice cream. (Of course, I am the grandson of a New Jersey dairy farmer, so I am probably a bit biased.)
At about the same time that home-delivered, non-homogenized milk was going away — in the 1950s — whipped cream in pressurized cans was making its appearance. It has since become a popular supermarket staple and a quick way to make desserts even more delicious and decorative. Wiggling that nozzle and writing “Happy Birthday” or “I Love You” is just plain fun.
What makes cream into this consistency, of course, is the simple addition of air or other gasses. In the case of aerosol whipped cream, that comes from compressed gas in the can.
But, while aerosol “whipped cream” products are tasty and fun, it pays to read the labels carefully. Many are called “dessert toppings,” and for good reasons — in many cases there’s everything in there except whipping cream: stabilizers, emulsifies, nitrous oxide, sugar, corn syrup, and hydrogenated vegetable oils that, when sprayed out of the can, have the look and consistency of whipped cream but is still hydrogenated oil.
For those who don’t like the aerosol cans, or like a thicker consistency, there are frozen tubs of regular and low-fat frozen whipped cream. However, in order to sustain the consistency of the “peaks,” most have stabilizers and emulsifiers added. And, as with some aerosol versions, some of these frozen toppings are made mostly of hydrogenated vegetable oils (with just a dash of cream or none at all). Here again, be sure of what you’re getting by reading the ingredients list and nutritional facts labels.
There is, of course, a more homemade solution — by heading to the dairy case and picking up a carton of whipping cream. Nothing is better than pure whipping cream spun into light and swirly peaks. Whip it up with a whisk or a hand-held mixer; it’s worth the effort. Loads of fat, loads of calories, loads of pleasure. Hey, if it’s an every once in a while thing, why not? (Note: Most grocers carry two kinds of whipping cream, regular, which has 30 to 36 percent milk fat; and heavy cream or heavy whipping cream which has 36 to 40 percent fat. Both should at least double in size after whipping. Check expiration dates for freshness and the possible addition of stabilizers and emulsifiers.)
My recommendation is to indulge — buy the fresh whipping creams and treat your taste buds while having some fun in the kitchen. You can even add a little natural food coloring or other flavors, like cinnamon, as you are whipping the cream to add some extra fun. I always buy the ones that are certified organic or at a minimum, free of dairy growth hormones like rBGH.
Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to