I admit to being a bit fanatical about whipped cream. There's just no way I'd make a beautiful homemade pie or any other dessert and then top it off with whipped cream from a can! Especially not when making whipped cream from scratch is so very easy and so very much better.
Whipping cream is special in that it can go from puddle of milk to a bowl of billowy, sweet-tasting clouds in a matter of minutes. It's the cream's milkfat content that makes this possible. As you whisk the milk, the fat molecules start to join together and form pockets of air, gradually making a stable structure — whipped cream. (And if you whip too long, you can actually break the fat apart again and make butter!)
What is labeled "whipping cream" at the store usually has a milkfat content of 30% to 35%. Heavy cream actually has a slightly higher milkfat content (around 36%) so you can use it to make whipped cream as well. But don't try making whipped cream with any other kinds of milk — the milkfat content just isn't high enough to whip into whipped cream. There's no such thing as low-fat whipped cream in the real world, unfortunately for those of us who love it.
You can make whipped cream in a stand mixer, with a hand mixer, or by good ol' muscle power with a whisk and a bowl. Keep the cream refrigerated right up until you're ready to whip it so that it's as cold as possible. If it's a hot day, chilling your bowl and whisk also help. If you're using a stand mixer or hand mixer, keep an eye on your speed. It's tempting to go fast, but keeping the speed between medium and medium-high helps make sure you don't overshoot that perfect soft billowy stage and start going grainy. I usually aim for "firm peaks" with my whipped cream, which is when the cream holds peaks but the tips are slightly softened. Much beyond this stage and I find the cream starts becoming overly stiff and somewhat grainy.
Whipped cream is at its best right after you whip it. It only takes about 5 minutes to make, so this is one task I often leave until the very last minute. This said, whipped cream will hold for a few hours in the refrigerator — give it a few sturdy whips with a whisk to froth it back up into full glory before serving.
Watch for trails in the cream (4 to 5 minutes): When you start to see trails in the cream that don't immediately dissolve after the whisk moves, you've reached what's called "soft plop" stage.
How To Make Whipped Cream
Makes about 2 cups
What You Need
1 cup whipping cream or heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla or other flavorings (see Recipe Notes)
Stand mixer with a whisk attachment
Metal bowl and a handmixer with beater attachments
Metal bowl and a whisk
Note on Whipping Times: The times given below are using a stand mixer on medium speed. If you use a higher speed, the time between stages will be shorter. If you are whipping by hand, the times will likely be longer.
Pour the cream in the bowl: Leave the cream in the refrigerator right up until you're ready to whip it. When ready, measure it into the bowl of a stand mixer or a metal bowl. Add the vanilla and other flavorings.
Begin whipping: Increase mixer speed to medium and begin whipping. For the first several minutes, the cream will be very frothy and bubbly.
Watch for trails in the cream (4 to 5 minutes): When you start to see trails in the cream that don't immediately dissolve after the whisk moves, you've reached what's called "soft plop" stage. If you take your whisk out of the bowl, the whipped cream will barely hold to the whisk.
Watch for soft peaks (6 to 7 minutes): When the trails in the cream become more solid and a dribble of whipped cream stays floating on the surface of the cream, you've reached "soft peak" stage. If you take your whisk out of the bowl, more of the cream will cling to the whisk but any peaks will quickly soften.
Watch for firm peaks (7 to 8 minutes): The trails in the cream will become stiffer and stiffer, and the cream will start to take on volume. If you take your whisk out of the cream, the peaks in the whipped cream will hold firmly but have slightly softened tips. This is typically the best stage to stop whipping and serve the cream.
Watch for firm peaks (8 to 9 minuts): If you continue whipping, the cream will stiffen even more and you might notice it taking on a grainy texture. If you take your whisk out of the cream, the peaks will be completely stiff. If you whip much more beyond this stage, you'll make butter.
Serve or store: Once you've reached your ideal stage of whipped cream, serve the whipped cream immediately or cover and store it in the refrigerator for a few hours.
Serving Amount: Cream roughly doubles when it is whipped. One cup of cream will make about 2 cups of whipped cream, which is enough for 8 to 10 people to each get a healthy dollop on their pie. You can halve or double (or triple!) the amount as needed.
Other Flavorings: Before you start whipping, you can add orange or almond extract, a splash of liquor like bourbon or rum, some cocoa powder or melted chocolate, fruit puree, or citrus zest.
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This post and recipe have been updated. Originally published November 9, 2009.