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Practicing the basics: whipped cream

Whipped cream is an easy, super-fast topping for a variety of desserts — and let’s not forget a variety of beverages.

The one trick with whipped cream is to make sure that we don’t whip it too long, because we end up with butter. But to that end, it’s a great opportunity for us to talk about “soft peaks” and “stiff peaks,” since those are terms that come up frequently when discussing meringue, cream, and some other things that we might whip up into a solid, frothy state.

When whipping cream (or meringue), we get to decide where we want it to be on the spectrum between “liquid” and “solid.” The longer we whip it, the more solid it will become, but unfortunately there is no hard-and-fast rule for how long it will take so we have to test it along the way. The test we use is to stick a spoon into the mix and pull it straight up. If the cream immediately falls back into the bowl, then we’re not even close to done. If it forms a peak but the top curls back over, it’s called a “soft peak.” For many applications, this is perfectly acceptable; the cream will spread a little bit when you serve a dollop, but it will have a soft, creamy texture. If you spoon it into a cake decorating bag, you could use it to fill an area with an even layer, but you won’t be able to sculpt it because it won’t hold its shape very well.

Whipped cream with soft peaks. It droops and can’t hold its shape.

If it forms a point that stands straight up, it’s called a “stiff peak.” At this point, the whipped cream will hold its shape much better; you can plunk a dollop of cream on top of a dessert and it will stay in place, or with a cake decorating bag you can sculpt interesting shapes.

Whipped cream with stiff peaks.

A lot of meringue-based recipes involve whipping egg whites until they form stiff peaks, which creates a base of structure, then folding in other ingredients to add flavor and texture: for example, almond flour for macarons, or butter for butter-cream frosting. With whipped cream you could add flavorings or colorings, or even chocolate or cocoa powder.

To achieve the best results, many experts recommend chilling the mixing bowl and mixing attachment before whipping the cream. Whipped cream loses its stiffness quickly when exposed to heat.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream, cold
  • 1 tbsp. powdered sugar or superfine (“caster”) sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract

Place cream in a mixing bowl. Whip on high speed using the wire whisk attachment of your electric mixer. Over the first minute, gradually add the sugar.

Once you start to see persistent ridges appear in the cream, start testing every 20-30 seconds to check whether you’ve reached “soft peaks” or “stiff peaks.”

Once the desired level of stiffness has been reached, add the vanilla extract and whip on medium speed for 15 seconds until fully incorporated. The vanilla extract helps to balance out the flavor so that it doesn’t taste so buttery.

Tips and suggestions:

  • When you get to stiff peaks, stop whipping. If you keep going, it will eventually start clumping up and churn into butter. Which is a lovely way to make fresh butter at home, but not what we are aiming at here.
  • It you want to add other ingredients such as flavorings or colorings, do so after you add the vanilla extract. This lets you start from a neutral point first, since vanilla extract will change both the flavor and the color. Pro tip for adding flavor extracts and/or food coloring: scoop some of the cream into a small bowl, mix the extract/coloring into it, and then return it to the mixing bowl and mix it for 15-30 seconds to incorporate it in. Start with small amounts and repeat until you get the desired flavor/color, because it’s easier to add more than to take it back out if you add too much.
  • You can also make whipping cream by shaking it vigorously in a jar: add the cream, stir in the sugar, attach the lid tightly and shake vigorously. Check for peaks once you see it start to stiffen up. Once again, if you keep shaking for to long eventually you will make butter.

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