The Milk Fat Miracle

It’s hard to let a mention of whipped cream go by without remarking on what an amazing thing it is: a liquid that can be beaten into a kind-of solid using nothing but a little elbow grease. Pretty cool.

There are food writers out there who credit its “invention” to a pastry chef by the name of François Vatel, who was said to have created it for a banquet in honor of Louis XIV in 1671. Bunk. It’s possible of course that Chef Vatel refined the whipping process somewhat on that occasion, but any dairy farmer who’d ever tried to churn butter outdoors on a cold day (less than say, 45 degrees) would have produced something very similar by accident.

The science of whipped cream is really interesting (hey, it is!). Imagine for a moment liquid cream as a mixture of mostly water molecules and little fat blobs with some protein strands, sugar molecules and minerals mixed in. Beating of course introduces air bubbles into the mix. But it also does something still more interesting: it knocks pieces off the fat blobs, which are normally enclosed in little protective membranes. That exposed fat naturally recoils from water, though it doesn’t mind air that much, so the split and broken fat blobs collect around the air bubbles, cut-side inward. As more fat blobs are damaged and congregate around the bubbles, they encase the bubble in fat, keeping it from either bursting or combining with a neighboring bubble. The cream thus increases in volume. As Mr. Spock might say: fascinating.

Beat the cream too much of course and the bubble coatings get too thick, start congealing with one another, and well…you know the rest.

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