How does cream “whip”?

I knew that question was coming, reader Wolfe, thanks for pulling the trigger. It’s a good time to discuss this since we’re on the subject of butterfat globules and such. As you remember from the post below, the protein membranes that surround fat globules tend to break when you apply shear forces to them. That allows the butterfat molecules they contain to escape, which can be a good thing up to a point.

If there happens to be an air bubble nearby, those free fats will flock to its surface. Why? Because cream is watery and fats hate water. Bubbles are of course another effect of agitating cream, so the two effects of whipping — more free fat and more bubbles — reinforce each other (literally). If the cream is chilly, the free fats will start forming crystals which create walls around the air bubbles, keeping them from popping. The cream gains volume.

This is all well and good so long as the whipping doesn’t go on for too long. If it does the fat crystals get too massive and rip away from the bubble surfaces. The bubbles pop and the cream loses volume as butter grains begin to form. Then it’s pretty much all over for the dessert topping…but just the beginning of the toast spread!

It’s important to remember that it’s not just any cream that can whip. Cream must have a fat content of at least 30%. That’s a virtual impossibility for naturally separated cream, which is why you didn’t see a whole lot of whipped cream before the cream separator was invented about 100 years ago. Prior to that time whipping cream was incredibly laborious. It took well over an hour to produce as cooks skimmed spoonfuls of froth off quantities of manually separated cream that they’d beat and beat and beat and…

Mother technology, where would we be without you?

6 thoughts on “How does cream “whip”?”

  1. Hi! The resulting buttermilk after making butter…is this fat free? Is it even possible to get all the fat out by making butter?

    1. Hi Leah!

      It’ll be very low fat, but using manual processes it’s not possible to very bit of fat out. I expect it’ll be as rich as 1 or 2% milk at the most.

      – Joe

  2. Joe, having found your blog not too long ago I’m torn in between sharing it with my friends or keeping it to myself so I can wow them later. Your blog is wonderful, thank you!

    1. Ha! Thanks Mariana! And don’t worry, I’m happy to go along being a secret weapon for as long as you like! 😉

      – Joe

  3. Speaking of whipped cream (’cause I’m just making strawberry shortcakes for dessert right now), my mom always sweetened it with confectioners’ sugar so I do too. But I’ve never seen anything but granular sugar in a recipe.

    Any advantage/disadvantage either way? I like that there’s no issue of dissolving it.

    I also like a bit of limoncello in there for brightness.

    1. Hey Rainey! I’ve never tried that, however it makes a lot of sense. The only drawback I can think of is the fact that powdered sugar has a little cornstarch in it, which might impact the taste depending on how much goes in. However if you’ve never noticed a difference it’s probably not an issue. Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

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