Why can’t heavy cream be frozen?

A few questions to that effect have come in the last couple of days. The answer is that it can be frozen, it just isn’t as functional afterward. It can’t be whipped up very high, for instance. It also tends to separate a bit and often needs to be shaken up to re-establish the butterfat emulsion. But what exactly happens to cream in the freezer?

If you’ve been browsing the comment fields the last few days you probably know already that the fat in cream occurs in the form of little blobs or globules, each of which is surrounded by a membrane of protein. Those membranes are pretty tough, at least where temperature is concerned. They’re surprisingly resistant to heat, which is why you can boil milk or cream without causing the fat to congeal in a greasy pool.

They don’t hold up well in the face of shear forces though, which is why a little churning or shaking (or over-whipping) will cause the membranes to rupture and spill their fat into the surrounding liquid. If that liquid is chilly, the fat molecules will start stacking up on each other. The result is large crystals, which go by the name of “butter.”

However globule membranes don’t necessarily have to be ruptured for butterfat crystals to form. If the temperature is cold enough for long enough, butterfat crystals can form inside the globules, in which case their pointy ends start poking through the membranes from the inside like sticks through a lawn and garden bag.

Later when the cream warms up the butterfat starts to leak out and pool, which is why frozen cream can appear greasy relative to fresh, unfrozen cream. It’s that pooled “free” butterfat that also inhibits whipping. All of which is not to say that frozen cream is useless. It’s still great for pretty much every other application, especially things like sauces.

39 thoughts on “Why can’t heavy cream be frozen?”

  1. Great info, and so applicable. Before I left the country, I stuck a carton of heavy cream in the freezer, hoping to preserve its deliciousness, although I was a little skeptical of how it well it would work. I was in too much of a rush to double check the facts, but you answered my question without me even having to ask. 🙂

  2. My freezer is full of bits of left over cream that I’m saving to stick in stews and pasta sauces. Saves me from having to eat it on porridge. On porridge it is heavenly, but so fattening. And once it’s frozen I am totally not tempted to eat it any other way than in a sauce.

  3. hi, thank you for posting on this! I went out of town and put a liter of cream in the freezer (about two weeks ago now) and now am not sure if I can still use it to make scones/biscuits or ice cream? Will it still work in an ice cream recipe? I don’t want to waste a good vanilla bean 🙁

    thank you

    1. Hi Germaine!

      You can bake with it, but don’t try to use it in ice cream. You will indeed waste that vanilla bean. thanks for the question!

      – Joe

  4. It doesn’t work for creme brulee as I have just found out. When I initially heated the cream it stopped looking like a grainy mess and smoothed out but it still didn’t taste quite like cream. I should have known it would be a disaster but I kept hearing it’s fine to freeze cream, it’ll work fine etc etc. Tbh I can’t imagine what it would work in EXCEPT sauces and even then that would mainly be because a sauce is more likely to mask the change in taste/texture. Apparently whipping the cream before freezing can alleviate the graininess/separation. If you’ve just frozen it straight like I did I would guess the only thing it’s good for is to sub with butter or to whip into butter…

    1. Yes, sadly freezing does ruin cream for more than a few applications. Still it was worth an experiment. Thanks for checking in and leaving behind the good information, A!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  5. My carton of heavy cream froze in my fridge. when is defrosted (in the fridge) it had separated into whey and kurds. It looks like a soft cheese. Can I make it into a cheese or is butter the only option? Our should I just toss it out? Thank you, any info would be helpful.

    1. Hey Tammy!

      Butter is a possibility if you want to go that route, however I like (accidentally) frozen cream for making cream scones! It works extremely well. Ever tried them?

      – Joe

  6. I just took my carton of heavy cream out of the fridge. It was frozen. Can I use it in the corn chowder I am making?

  7. Thank you! My coworkers and I were having a dispute about freezing cream! I insisted that once frozen, it’s ruined. They insisted that cream is frozen by the shipping companies all the time and it is not harmed. Seems we were all wrong! 🙂

    I use heavy cream, lots of it, in my coffee. I buy it by the half gallon and it will last for weeks in the fridge, so if one uses it, even occasionally, and buys a small carton, it would be rare that you might have to freeze it.

    I have accidentally frozen the cream (forgot it in the car on a sub-zero night, didn’t check fridge temperature in a hotel room) and it ruins the cream, at least, for me. I have even had it turn the consistency of sour cream after being frozen. Most often, as you related, the oil separates and even though I have shaken it, once poured into the coffee, the oil floats to the top. It’s disgusting!

    Thank you for the information.

    1. It is my great pleasure, Barbi. Very happy to be able to further the cause of workplace harmony! 😉

      Thanks for writing in. Cheers,

      – Joe

    1. I would think so, Debbie. I can’t think of a reason offhand why that wouldn’t work. Let me know how it goes!

      – Joe

  8. I had a box of whip topping which said don’t refreeze on the top. In the instructions it said first whip it on medium speed then you may freeze which will last for 270 days. So I whipped it all up and froze it in small packets labeling them with their weight for future. Can I use it for desserts like pavlova or tiramisu?

    1. You should be able to do that, Mariam, since it’s all been whipped!

      Get back to me with your results, since I’ve never stored pre-whipped topping before. I’ll be curious!

      – Joe

      1. Hey Joe.

        At first I freaked out when I saw it. It was all coarse and icicle-ish but when I hand whipped it again it was back to its original form. Maybe because it was non-dairy. The Tiramisu I was turned out exactly the way it was suppose to be. However the custard was melting during the process. Either it was hotter that day or maybe I didn’t whip the batter with the electric whip.

        I live in Pakistan and it’s a warm country.

        1. Very interesting indeed, Mariam! I’ve never tried freezing a non-dairy cream before. Nice to know it can be done!

          Cheers,

          – Joe

  9. I figured out an easy way to still be able to use frozen/thawed heavy cream in my coffee. I put the coffee and cream together in a blender and blend for a few seconds. It makes the mixture creamy and gives it a nice foamy head.

  10. I’ve frozen lots of thickened cream (which is what we can get here in Australia) and it seems that when it thaws it does separate a bit. However, if I heat it gently, it comes together. But if I bring it to a simmer, it begins to separate. What’s the deal with this? I have tons of cream I want to use for things like ice cream or creme brulee but it needs to be simmered first and I don’t want it separating… Ideas?

    1. Hey Soar!

      Sorry for the very late reply. Interesting question. My guess is that the gentle heating brings some of the free fat back into emulsion. A lot of heat however would only exacerbate the destruction of the fat globules, causing the separation you’re talking about. You may be out of luck if you do indeed have to simmer.

      Best of luck!

      – Joe

  11. I have quite a bit of trifle left over from dinner last night – with whipped cream. Can I freeze it?

    1. Hey Marion!

      Unfortunately no — all least if you want to preserve the original texture. Invite over friends and pour coffee!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  12. Oooh, I came here wondering about something related tho this: how long will heavy cream keep if frozen? I have a half-carton left of cream, but today is the expiration date, so yesterday I stuck it outside (I live in Canada, and it’s winter. Our back yard is our freezer) so it’s now frozen solid. . . . will it spoil? How long will it keep before it does?

    1. Hey Maria!

      It will keep for months and months frozen. So no worries there. You’ll just need to remember that it won’t perform the same when it’s thawed.

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  13. Heavy cream .. and freezing ! Well it all depends on how much FAT is in there in the first place. The more fat, the better it freezes and is then usable ie able to be whipped etc. I only learned today that in the UK our ‘whipping cream’ is 35% and that our ‘double cream’ is 48% ! I have been using double cream when reading American recipes requiring heavy cream… and obviously don’t need to pay the extra for it and can buy whipping instead !

    I have used frozen double cream, and managed to whip it. But you do have to shake it a lot once it has defrosted in the fridge for a few days, to break up that fat and bring it back into the whey from the bottom of the carton! It usually behaves better if a little icing/powdered sugar is added to it too …

    Hope that helps !

    1. Hey Susan!

      Higher fat does have a better change of whipping after freezing, that’s true, but once frozen the fat globules in the emulsion will be irreparably damaged. It’s best if it’s never frozen if whipping is the plan.

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

  14. Can frozen heavy cream (after thawing) work to make Carmel Icing that is made with the burnt sugar, etc?

  15. Eek I froze to make for banana pudding.

    I put some in Mac and cheese today and it tasted like pure butter tho. I also added some to my coffee–also like butter. My mac and cheese was heavy and I could not taste the cheese–and I barely used any of it!

    does this mean it is already butter? It was the tj kind. Thanks

    I really wanted it for banana pudding…the magnolia kind.

    1. Hi Jody!

      Freezing breaks the membranes that enclose the little fat globules in the cream. When that happens the fat spills out and clumps together. Which means that it behaves — and tastes — a lot more like butter. Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

  16. can you buy heavy whipping cream in a can for storage reasons?
    I want to take my grandkids camping and make butter in a jar with them, i’m going to make homemade biscuits cooked in a dutch oven over the campfire. I don’t want to take the fresh cream if i can find some in a can.Teaching them some of the OLD ways of how life was before technolgy.

    1. Hey Donna!

      I’m not aware of any, sadly. Though that might not be a bad idea for a new product. Love your idea about making butter, but be aware that the temperature of the cream will need to be less than 60 degrees F for the butter to solidify. If it’s warmer than that outside you could try cooling the cream in a running stream in a fish net so it doesn’t float away. Also make sure the cream is at least 36% fat.

      Have fun!

      – Joe

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