A Definition

Cream is the milkfat-enriched layer that rises to the surface of unhomogenized, whole milk after standing. To be called cream, a product must contain at least 18 percent milkfat.

The Facts

Cream was first used by the Romans in the 9th century A.D. but credit for its current popularity is attributed to the Viennese, who have been using it lavishly for 300 years. “Mit schlag” in a Viennese pastry shop means “with whipped cream.” Paradoxically, a dollop of whipped heavy cream that accompanies a dessert tempers its richness. Cream has long been viewed as a treat used in desserts, ice cream, cream soups, sauces and as a rich addition to America’s morning coffee. Cream is available in many variations depending on total butterfat content (see Glossary of Terms).

The Process

Cream naturally separates from milk because the milkfat in cream is less dense than the fluid milk. Mechanical separation is done by using centrifuges called “separators” in which the cream is forced to the surface of milk during spinning. Once separated, the cream is pasteurized.

Storage and Handling

  • Store cream in its closed container in the refrigerator, which is typically set at 38ºF-40ºF.
  • All cream products are stamped with a “sell by” date, which refers to how long the retail store can keep the product for sale on the shelf. Ultrapasteurized cream keeps several weeks longer as indicated by the stamped date, but once opened should be handled like pasteurized cream.
  • To ensure freshness, do not return unused light cream or half-and-half to its original container.
  • Freezing is not recommended for unwhipped cream, but once whipped, cream may be frozen by placing dollops of whipped cream on waxed paper, then freezing.


Nutrient Content of Cream (per 15 gm tablespoon)*
  Calories Milkfat
Heavy whipping cream 52 5.6 0.3 0.4 10 0.02 21
Light whipping cream 44 4.6 0.3 0.4 10 0.02 17
Light cream 29 2.9 0.4 0.5 14 0.02 10
Half-and-half 20 1.7 0.4 0.6 16 0.02 6

* Nutrient Data Laboratory Home Page,

Cooking with Cream

Cream is valued for its smooth, luxurious consistency and mouthfeel. Cream adds unique character to soups, sauces, baked goods and desserts. To avoid curdling cream in hot dishes, add cream as late as possible, heat gradually and stir gently. Acid found in citrus, wine and coffee can also cause cream to curdle, especially if combined with heat. Brushing heavy cream onto the surface of pastries or breads produces a rich golden crust.

When whipping cream, both the amount of fat in the cream and its temperature influences how well it whips. Heavy whipping cream increases more in volume than light whipping cream, so choose a cream with a high fat content for best results. The cream, the bowl and the beaters should be well-chilled to promote successful whipping. Other ingredients such as sugar or vanilla should be added near the end of whipping. Overwhipping can cause the cream to turn to butter. Light, fluffy whipped cream is produced with the help of pressurized gas or nitrous oxide found in aerosol cans or in small replaceable canisters.

Glossary of Terms

Half-And-Half is a mixture of whole milk and cream that contains at least 10.5 percent, but no more than 18 percent milkfat.

Light Cream or Coffee Cream contains at least 18 percent, but no more than 30 percent milkfat, and commonly contains 20 percent milkfat.

Light Whipping Cream, the form most commonly available, contains at least 30 percent, but no more than 36 percent milkfat. Cream must contain at least 30 percent milkfat to produce whipped cream. Whipping cream will double in volume when whipped.

Heavy Cream or Whipping Cream must contain at least 36 percent milkfat. It can be readily whipped and retain its whipped state longer than that of light whipping cream. Manufacturer’s Cream contains 36-40 percent milkfat and is available to foodservice but not retail.

Ultrapasteurized Cream has been briefly heated to temperatures up to 300˚F to kill microorganisms. It has a longer shelf life than regular cream, but doesn’t whip as well.

Sour Cream results from adding lactic acid bacteria to pasteurized cream with at least 18 percent milkfat to sour and thicken the cream.

Crème Fraîche is heavy cream that has been slightly soured with bacterial cultures, but is not as sour or as thick as sour cream.

Clotted Cream, a specialty of England, is made by gently heating rich, unpasteurized milk until a semisolid layer of cream forms on the surface. After cooling, the thickened cream is removed.

Cream In Aerosol Cans is whipped cream packaged in cans under pressure from nitrous oxide, which creates a light, fluffy whipped cream. Sugar, flavorings and a stabilizer may be added.


Herbst, Sharon Tyler. Food Lover’s Companion, Third Edition. New York: Barron’s, 2001

McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking. New York: Scribner, 2005

National Dairy Council