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Credit: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell
Kitchn Cooking School

How to Be a Cook Who Can Work Magic with Whipped Cream

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A great meal ends with dessert. Most of us love to bake, and that is its own world of expertise and learning. But a great dessert doesn’t have to start in the oven. There are faster, easier, and very impressive and beautiful desserts that can be created in just a few minutes, and feel like the perfect light touch to the end of a meal. It’s all thanks to the magic of one simple ingredient that can flex to the occasion in so many ways: effortless, incredible whipped cream. Learn the secrets of whipped cream and dessert here, from the basics to the advanced.

Why Dessert Is Important

Being able to craft a quick and delicious dessert feels magical. The dessert can be an ethereal culmination to the evening. But firing up the oven to bake a cake, pie, or other pastry isn’t always feasible — especially if you’re making the rest of the meal, too. That’s why we’re focusing on no-bake desserts, recipes like mousses, and puddings — and especially homemade whipped cream — which are easy to learn, and can really make the dessert portion of a meal great.

Dessert Doesn’t Need to Be Difficult

When many of us think of desserts, we think of baked goods. But there are plenty of delicious desserts that don’t require turning on the oven (a whole book of them, in fact). Often these desserts are ready faster, too — making them great contenders for weeknight treats (think: fresh or macerated fruit with whipped cream, a fresh fruit trifle, a no-bake cheesecake, or chocolate mousse). And believe it or not, the base of almost all of these recipes is homemade whipped cream!

Whipped Cream Is Pure Fanciness — and Easy to Make

Put down the can, and back away from the Cool Whip. Today we’re going to learn how (and why) homemade whipped cream is king. Any whipped cream is better than none, of course, but there are three qualities that distinguish a great whipped cream: The density should be light but not airy, the texture should be silken-smooth, and the flavor should be sweet, yes, but with a touch of salt (and you can actually add a lot of different flavors to homemade whipped cream — more on that below). Pre-made, or air-injected whipped cream, offer tons of convenience, but they’ll never be able to match the homemade stuff in terms of quality.

But most importantly, it’s really not hard to make. You can make whipped cream in a stand mixer, or with a hand mixer, and it comes together in just a few minutes. If you want to impress guests, you can show off by whipping it by hand in a bowl with a balloon whisk (which does take a little longer, and some effort, but that’s why it’s impressive). You can even really show off and make it in a cocktail shaker or a Mason jar.

Tips for Making Great Whipped Cream

First, you need to make sure you’re whipping the right kind of cream: Both heavy cream and whipping cream work well for making whipped cream. Heavy cream, which has more milk fat, actually makes a thicker whipped cream. Avoid light cream, half-and-half, or milk — there’s not enough fat content in those.

Keep the cream refrigerated right up until you’re ready to whip it so that it’s as cold as possible. Chilling your bowl and whisk also help. When using a mixer, keep the speed around medium to medium-high, and not much faster. This will help you keep a watchful eye to keep the cream from getting over-whipped.

No matter what method you use for whipping, as air is incorporated, the cream will start to thicken, eventually developing soft, then medium, and finally firm peaks. Watch the video, above, for a good demonstration of what these peaks look like. You don’t want to over-whip your cream! When cream is over-whipped, those firm peaks start to fall and the whipped cream becomes grainy. But there’s an easy way to rescue the cream: Whisk in a few extra tablespoons of cream, and everything will smooth out again.

Here’s a recipe: How to Make Whipped Cream

Okay, the Cream Is Whipped — Now What?

Sure, yes, you say. I’ve whipped some cream. That’s the topping. Where is the dessert? Ah, but whipped cream is many desserts! With a giant bowl of fresh and delicious whipped cream, you can pile it with berries to make a fool, or layer with leftover cake and pudding to make a trifle. With some cooked oats and whiskey you can make Scottish dessert called Cranachan. You can even cover some wafer cookies in it and make an icebox cake. But possibly the easiest and the neatest thing you can do with whipped cream is make chocolate mousse.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: Pearl Jones/Kitchn

Making Whipped Cream into Chocolate Mousse

Open up a copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking to the chocolate mousse recipe, and you’ll see an ingredient list that includes egg yolks, orange liqueur, a pan of not-quite-simmering water, a basin of cold water, and strong coffee. That’s before we get to the chocolate. We’re not going to make that mousse. We’re going to show you how to make a mousse that’s much easier.

In fact, the basics of it are exactly the same as making whipped cream. In this recipe, you mix some cream and chocolate, then whip some more cream until it’s very stiff, and fold* the two together — voilà! Instant chocolate mousse in just two ingredients. The dense chocolate and cream combines with the silky, light whipped cream to create a thick, creamy sweet dessert that looks fantastic in cups or glasses, and which can be topped with — you guessed it — even more whipped cream! It comes together in minutes and can be chilled hours ahead of time so it’s perfectly ready when you are.

*A note on folding: If you find yourself wondering how “folding” differs from, say, blending, mixing, whisking, and stirring, you’re not alone. It’s one of those baking terms that can seem fussy. But it’s not difficult. Folding just means to gently combine two ingredients without agitating them — so you don’t lose all that nice airy structure you just put in the whipped cream, for instance. The trick is to use a scooping-and-folding motion: Here’s a bit deeper of an explanation.

If You Learn Just One Thing Today …

If you go no further than making whipped cream, you’ll have gone a great way toward being able to elevate dessert — regardless of the dessert. You can leave the rest of the sweet-making to others: Buy nice ice cream, get a pie from the store. Pile it on fresh fruit, or get some good cookies and make little whipped cream cookie sandwiches. The whipped cream will be what makes the dessert more elegant.

What You Don’t Need to Learn

Although we’ve said it above, it bears repeating here: You don’t need to learn intensive techniques like double-boiling or tempering to make a nice dessert. And a good dessert doesn’t need to take hours to make, either. Those things can be fun, but if your goal is to put a delicious and beautiful meal on the table then dessert is often the easiest part of the equation. It just needs to be sweet, pretty, and delicious.

Level Up! Get Even Fancier

Upgrade Whipped Cream

Cream and sugar taste delicious together, but the real fun comes when you start flavoring your desserts. Lots of things can be added to the mix (as it were) and will make your desserts taste extra fancy. Here are a few options.

  • Try adding spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, or even ginger.
  • Switch up your sweetener: Instead of powdered sugar, use real maple syrup or honey.
  • Vanilla is classic, but try other baking extracts, like almond, cherry, or butterscotch.
  • You can infuse the cream before whipping it with herbs like basil, thyme, or a small amount of mint — or with tea.
  • Add a small pinch of salt. Salt can add lots of depth and flavor to desserts (think: salted caramels). Be careful, as too much will make it taste salty — you don’t want that.
  • A classic addition to whipped cream is a little bourbon or sweet liqueurs like Cointreau, Crème de Cassis, or Kahlúa.

How to Make Whipped Cream Last

If you put leftover whipped cream straight into the fridge for a day or two, and pull it back out, you may notice that it’s started to get watery, or even that it’s turning back into regular cream. In general, fresh whipped cream is not particularly stable. However, there are a few things you can do to stabilize whipped cream, to make it last even longer.

  • Add cream cheese. This will give it more body. It will be firmer, but still very much whipped cream. This is especially useful if you want to get extra fancy and pipe the whipped cream onto a dish.
  • Add a little gelatin. This is a Cook’s Illustrated suggestion — the gelatin imparts no flavor, but will help it keep its shape for up to 24 hours
  • Freeze it. Dollops of whipped cream can be frozen on a tray and then stored in a bag until you want them!

Beyond Mousse

If you’re looking for something a little more challenging than whipped cream, but that still doesn’t require baking, then custards and puddings are your friends. Puddings and custards are generally combinations of cream and egg yolks that are then mixed with cornstarch (pudding) and cooked on the stove, or put into an oven (custard) and gently cooked, in a water bath, until they set. They may seem complicated, but they’re often very simple: Combine some ingredients, do a little cooking, and then let them chill. They’re easy to make ahead of time. They’re definitely not 15-minute desserts, but they’re lots of fun to make. Here are a few worth experimenting with.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Our Favorite Gear

We have recommendations for basic gear on our equipment checklist, but here are a few more tools that can save time, and frustration.

5 Essential Quick Dessert Recipes

All of our assignments have three options, depending on how much time you have today. Do what you can; come back for more later!

15-Minute Assignment: Watch & Read

Watch the video! If you haven’t yet, watch the crash course video above. After that, read these basic primers. If you could pick just one thing from all this information, what would you like to try first?

30-Minute Assignment: Practice!

Whip cream and make chocolate mousse: Whip some cream and make a chocolate mousse! Watch the video, above, then gather together your ingredients, and practice whipping the cream, mixing in the chocolate, and folding the chocolate mixture into the whipped cream. Pay close attention to when the cream reaches soft peaks, medium peaks, and stiff peaks. Try not to over-whip it.

Check your work: Compare the whipped cream to the video. How stiff are the peaks? Is it watery or over-whipped? Give it a taste. Write down your best description of the texture and flavor. After you make the mousse, but before it chills, try some. What is the texture like? How does it compare to the recipe’s photos? Now chill the mousse. When it has chilled sufficiently, try some again. Has the texture changed? How?

60-Minute Assignment: Stretch Yourself

Infuse cream and make a trifle: Make an herb-infused whipped cream, then turn it into a trifle, using store-bought (or homemade) pound cake and berries. Practice infusing the cream, then whipping the cream, and try layering the various elements in a clear glass so they become an impressive dessert.

Check your work: Is the cream subtly flavored? Was the cream thoroughly chilled before you started whipping it? Did you notice how the peaks changed and became more firm as you whipped the cream? Did you avoid over-whipping the cream? If not, were you able to fix it? How does the trifle look? Are the layers even? After making, taste it: Do the flavors in the cream, the cake, and the fruit work well? Why or why not?

What It Takes to Be a Dessert Expert

Making dessert is one of those areas that can become a lifelong obsession for some cooks, and an easily forgotten afterthought for others. If you’re in the former camp, then making delicious baked goods may come as second nature. If you’re in the latter, it will help to have a few dependable recipes like these in your back pocket, to use at parties, events, and any time you need to fancy up a meal.

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Credit: Kitchn