Whipped Cream: A TreatiseI don’t know anyone who makes as much whipped cream as I do. I have a good reason, I swear
The ice cream vendor waved his scoop impatiently over his cart, one treat cavern open, mist blooming from it.
“Oui,” I answered, smiling dumbly. I said Oui to everything I didn’t understand. With that, he plopped a scoop of runny whipped cream on my vanilla cone. It wept over my fist.
My heart dropped as if snipped, like it does when you see someone you love out of the blue.
I was sixteen, visiting some tiny sur-Mer beach town with my foreign exchange family, who I mostly hated. But this food moment, above all other important French food moments I would have that summer, made weeks of confusion and loneliness and angst all worth it.
Whipped cream, or whip cream, whatever you call it—is one of a kind. It’s a condiment, to be sure, and used on sweets more varied than any other sweet condiment, from pie to milkshakes to plain berries, and rather optional, as condiments are. It isn’t considered important or complex, as the great central treats are. It’s cosmetic. An edible voilá.
I suppose its purpose as a condiment is to either add some lightness to a heavy and dense main treat, like a sundae or pumpkin pie, or to add sweetness to something tart like lemon curd, strawberries, or an espresso drink. A sweet but bland and undifferentiated nothing, like a ping pong table net—there but not really there. No one eats whipped cream by itself unless as a joke or as a private and gross indulgence: late night, standing in the open elbow of the fridge, squirting it straight down the gullet. Certainly one reason for whipped cream’s limited role as optional flourish has much to do with its tragic commercial form—the tubs and the foaming cans of white nonsense. That’s obvious.
But another, deeper reason whipped cream is only just a side bitch is because of its inherent essence—it lives, breathes, and is temporary. It just won’t sit there like most treats and wait for us while we finish dinner. It’s just hard to manage. But it’s for this reason it deserves a spotlight.
There are essentially three categories of whipped cream
available to the regular consumer, and only one of them is actually whipped cream. The other two are “dessert toppings,” and let’s not pretend they have any particular merits over homemade whipped cream other than convenience. An exploration of their details reveals the reasons for this.
Let’s start at the bottom, with Cool Whip.
It’s mostly oil, water and sugar. It’s got the holy trifecta of the three most-feared words in a shopper’s vocabulary, thanks mostly to Google University-educated bloggers and daytime TV docs: partially hydrogenated oil, artificial flavors, and high-fructose corn syrup.
While the jury is still, for the most part, out on the long-term effects of these compounds, one thing is for sure—they are the father, son and holy spirit of the packaged foods industry. Almost no packaged food you’ve ever heard of would have been possible without these three. They are the reason that entire bloated middle maze of aisles in your grocery store exists. Moreover, the perimeter foods—fresh produce, whole meats, bakery, dairy—pretty much all of those industries are held afloat by the subsidized processed goodies in the middle: your chips, your cookies, your bottled barbeque sauce.
How does this whipped cream work? How exactly does oil and water and sugar become this white crap?
One thing that makes it so is polysorbate 60, which is an emulsifier commonly added to puddings that helps to solubilize oil into water, transcending innate forces to bind opposites in a most unnatural and unholy union. Common brand names for this chemical are Alkest, Canarcel, and Tween.
Another, sorbitan monostearate, known as a “span” in industry lingo, is a kind of synthetic wax that helps firm up the consistency of Cool Whip. This kind of chemical is used in all kinds of other applications, from fireworks to leather processing to pesticides.
Other enticing consumables in Cool Whip include milk proteins such as sodium caseinate, thickeners like xanthan and guar gums, more emulsifiers like sodium polyphosphate, and beta-carotene to imitate the opaque yellow depth of cream.
Introduced in 1966, Cool Whip was created by a chemist who was challenged to create a long-lasting and stable whipped cream. And he did it with the help of these chemicals, but, of course, he didn’t make whipped cream. Without the whipped and the cream, it is simply some other thing—a topping, it calls itself, some baggy category of foodstuff that almost anything could fit into. In 2010, real milk and cream were added to Original Cool Whip as a sort of embarrassed concession, allowing its makers to at least now call itself a “dairy topping.”
Cool Whip has a Facebook page, which is full of weird “recipes” for using it that almost always boils down to just plopping it straight from the tub onto some other pre-made dessert, and was full of delightful comments from whoever was interested enough to visit Cool Whip’s Facebook page:
Cool Whip terrible for you!!
is cool whip gluton free.
Close relation to PLASTIC
Coll whip is disgisting and has components of plastic in it…that’s why it doesn’t melt…
Okay, about the plastic thing. In Cool Whip’s defense, a lot of things are very close to being a lot of other things. Like you, for example, you are really just barely not a chimpanzee if you get right down to it, and I don’t know, water is just barely not hydrogen peroxide, etc etc. You could almost take your pick of what items are one atom away from being other items.
Taste-testing it with my boyfriend, we both find it painfully sweet, less like whipped cream and more like a melted Peep. Its futuristic sheen does remind one of plastic, to be sure. It doesn’t have that much air whipped into it, so it has a kind of flat texture that only holds its shape thanks to the hydrogenated oil and not delicate network of air. When I have met people who don’t like whipped cream, I feel like Cool Whip is to blame for that. I could easily see how a scoop of this on a nice pumpkin pie slice at Thanksgiving would unequivocally ruin it outright.
To its credit, there aren’t a lot of interesting chemicals in Reddi-Wip, just some basic preservatives. Luckily, there is an incredibly powerful mind-altering drug mixed in with this concoction, so at least it’s some fun. The brain-melting giggle gas in these red cans is nitrous oxide, which, outside of whipped cream, is used equally as laughing gas in dentistry and as an explosive additive in motorsports and rocketry.
It has to be nitrous oxide, though, and I guess the chemists who make this food have not found a replacement for the drug-expeller component—nor do they appear to be in some great rush to do so, despite the fact that teens regularly abuse this food to get high—a complacency which I have to admit I find a little hilariously stodgy and maybe slightly admirable. You see, regular air wouldn’t work because the oxygen would turn the cream rancid too quickly, and carbon dioxide wouldn’t work because its acidity could curdle the cream and turn it into some horror-show carbonated sparkling cream vomit.
Nitrous inflates the cream fourfold, whereas whipping air into it only about doubles it. It’s for this reason Reddi-Wip is a brash, showy comet, quickly collapsing as its explosive energy is spent.
It tastes less sweet and slightly more palatable than Cool Whip, but it’s not delicious by any stretch of the imagination. In our official taste test, my boyfriend described it as “all treble.” It’s maybe too much air. Upon squirting it, the pleasant ridges and structural potency of its foam berg begins to fail immediately, slinking back into an icky milk, offering nothing but relentless disappointment as it fades.
Homemade whipped cream is a whole different animal. At its heart, it’s just puffed cream, a liquid-gas colloid, not an emulsion (which is liquid-liquid). The cream is simply suspended in air.
And if you keep going, you’ll end up with a batch of whipped butter. In this way, whipped cream is the glimmer of butter in God’s eye. If you can be patient while you eat it, and really taste it, you can almost taste the butter. The idea of butter is just there, under the surface, and it hovers just over this state between air and fat.
It weeps, exhales air, and dies. Let a bowl of it sit overnight and it will faint back into sweetened cream, icebergs of puff still afloat atop. You’ve got to eat it up while it holds, and this is its magic.
If you make it like I make it (and you can, if you follow my recipe below) it’s unlike anything else: velvety, mouth-filling, complex in milk and butter and vanilla scents, and absolutely, unquestionably, essential. It can be as important as any dessert—as fragile as a meringue, as satisfying as a mousse, as flavorful as custard.
And then there’s sex.
Whipped cream has the most prominent status among foods used in sex, appearing in movies as comical yet titillating bikinis worn by (by Hollywood movie standards) sexually adventurous women, or offered as somewhat clichéd sex advice by magazines like Cosmo and Men’s Health as a way to spice up foreplay.
Many squirt-can whipped creams are developed for this specific purpose, such as Sweet Licks Body Whipped Cream, or Whipped Lightning, an alcohol-infused concoction, and although I’ve personally never tested these items, I can say for certain that whipped cream, combined with saliva, does not leave a pleasant smell on the skin, nor does it engender particularly sweet-smelling breath thanks to the lactose and other sugars. But, this fact is probably discovered all too late by cream-sex enthusiasts. It seems likely that because it is so easy to eat, so simple, and perhaps because it bears a superficial resemblance to ejaculate, whipped cream can’t shake this clichéd use. In its squirt can form, it continues its life as a suggestive erotic condiment, such as in Katy Perry’s disturbing and aggressive whipped cream can bra she uses to attack Snoop-Dogg and his army of gummy bears during the climatic scene in her video “California Gurls.” My sole comfort in the face of this whipped cream opportunism is that good whipped cream, the kind made in a bowl and not extruded from the canal of a squirt can, hopefully elicits more noble purposes.
I don’t know anyone who makes as much whipped cream as I do. I have a good reason, I swear—I use whipped cream in my cake recipes. Not just whipped cream—vinegar whipped cream.
My cake recipe is based on a rather unorthodox method of making cakes that substitutes the popular sugar/butter creaming method for a process that involves making a simple syrup and adding ingredients in what would appear to be an altogether weird order (eggs last), but one that produces a velvety, moist, and importantly-consistent cake that is not dependent on the temperamental creaming method, a bafflingly inconsistent method for one that is so widely used. If you’ve ever had very different results in your cookies and cakes from the same recipe and told yourself you’ve just got a burnt thumb, chances are the creaming method is at fault, not you. But that’s a different article, I suppose.
Normally vinegar curdles milk but cream has enough fat to stand its ground, usually. I fold this vinegar whipped cream in at the end to add lift to the batter and a rich creaminess to my cakes. The vinegar works how buttermilk works in cake recipes—its acid is a tenderizer for the flour’s proteins, so the vinegar whipped cream does double duty. It’s got all of the benefits of buttermilk, plus puff.
Making whipped cream is easy—so easy a recipe for it posted anywhere on the internet is usually met with condescending derision. Case in point: this Bon Appetit magazine recipe that its readers largely laughed down in the comment section—“Thanks Bon Appetit, I’ve been struggling to boil water lately, can you show me how?” “Seriously? Got a recipe for ice?”
Well, if you can stand it I’m offering you my recipe. First, a couple points.
Look, you can take some cream and whip some air into it until it holds its shape. And that’s good. But if you want something really delicious—something that is in itself a main bitch (and don’t you think you deserve it, after reading this long article about whipped cream?) read on.
- You can put the bowl of cream in an ice bath as you whip, but honestly, I find it fussy and chilling the bowl works just as well. I would consider this, though, if your kitchen is very hot, since heat will not allow your cream to puff up.
- Some recipes use white sugar (added before whipping begins) or powdered sugar (added after). I love the velvety texture that the starch from powdered sugar adds and I wouldn’t be able to do without it (also it helps it to keep its shape longer). White sugar-only whipped cream tastes empty to me, too thin. But using too much powdered sugar can make your whipped cream heavy. So, I use a little of both for the perfect balance. If you were going to cut some of the sugar here, cut the white sugar. Cream is quite sweet already, since lactose is a sugar after all.
- If you want to whisk it by hand, use a balloon whisk, not the slim ones used for sauce/eggs/etc. The benefit of hand whisking is that you’ll be able to stop faster if it’s getting too firm—a few seconds too long on the beater and it’s no good. The whisk is best for those who like their whipped cream sidling, draping, and altogether too ravishing to sit up straight.
- Myself, I like an obedient whipped cream so I use a hand mixer. Just slow down at the end and watch it and you’ll be fine. Avoid the stand mixer. You just have to have your hand on this cream somehow, because relying on how it looks in the bowl will not work as well as feeling its density as you mix.
- If you’ve got some vanilla beans or vanilla paste, now is the time to break them out. Too often vanilla beans are wasted on baked goods loaded with other flavors and the delicate vanilla seeds just get lost—here, they’ll be on full display.
Okay, here we go.
Molly Brodak’s Whipped Cream
Sprinkle a small amount of water into a medium-sized metal or glass bowl and pop it in the freezer, along with your balloon whisk or hand-mixer whisk attachments. It doesn’t need to be there long, maybe 20 minutes or so. You’re trying to freeze the drops of water you put in the bowl so you can have just a tiny amount of ice in your whipped cream and this is a good way to get it. The ice keeps everything cold, and as it melts the cold water will help integrate the sugar, since sugar is hydrophilic.
Then, get yourself a marshmallow. One large marshmallow. Puff it up in the microwave for a few seconds (my microwave takes about 7 seconds). Don’t let it get crusty. Let it cool for a minute. If it gets hard as it cools, start over with a new marshmallow.
The marshmallow is there for its gelatin. Adding gelatin itself is a problem for whipped cream since you have to heat up gelatin to dissolve it, and warmth is a puff-killer. But if you let it cool too much, you run the risk of finding hunks of gelatin in your whipped cream, a prospect beyond disgusting to me. The marshmallow is the perfect solution—but do be sure it is melty or it might also be discovered as chunks in your whipped cream (although this possibility is certainly less nightmarish than gelatin chunks).
Take out the bowl and whippers and smash up any large chunks of ice that may formed at the bottom of the bowl with your whisk/attachments. Pour a pint of heavy whipping cream into the bowl and add a teaspoon of white sugar and the melted marshmallow. Begin whipping, moving the whisk or hand mixer in large movements, and increasing the speed. Once you have soft peaks, add ¼ c. of powdered sugar, a tsp. of vanilla extract/paste/bean scrapings, and a few grains of fine salt.
Now, listen. I love salt in sweet baked goods. But here, I mean not a pinch of salt—less than that. A few grains. You have never used so little salt in your life. Two grains. It will seem absurd, but trust me. Using even a small pinch makes whipped cream too salty.
Whip to firm peaks, but not until it becomes chunky or—dear god—starts separating into butter. There you have it.
This will last for maybe half a day and makes enough for 5 regular people or 1 Molly Brodak-type person.
Now try this for a dessert tonight: this whipped cream, plus a pinch of cinnamon, served over some halved bananas and pecans you have toasted in butter and just try and tell me it’s not a new day for whipped cream.