What it was like to whip cream in 1669, according to Sir Kenelm Digby:
"Put as much as you please to make of sweet thick cream into a dish and whip it with a bundle of white hard rushes (of such as they make whisks to brush cloaks), tied together, till it come to be very thick."
This takes “about a good hour” in the winter. And, in the summer, even worse: “an hour and a half.” My arm hurts just writing that.
Things didn’t improve for another couple hundred years. At the turn of the 20th century, Swedish inventor Gustaf de Laval manufactured the first centrifugal separator—so, a mechanical workaround to waiting and waiting for cream to naturally rise to the top. This yielded fattier cream, which is more whippable cream (more on that soon).
Nowadays, we have electric mixers and aerosol cans to do all the work for us. But we also have humble whisks—my go-to. While a stand mixer goes from cream to whipped cream in the blink of an eye, it goes from whipped cream to butter even faster. And not everyone has one.
Some swear by Mason jars, but I lean away from them for two reasons: 1) A jar limits the quantity you can whip: 1 cup of heavy cream wants at least a pint-sized jar, ideally quart-sized. 2) You have to repeatedly pause and unscrew the lid to check progress.
With a bowl and whisk, you can make as little or as much as you please, and monitor as you go. And, if you follow these rules, it’ll take less than an hour and a half to accomplish! In fact, it can take less than 2 minutes. Here’s how:
Theory. Whisks weren’t an American kitchen stable until the mid-1960s thanks to Julia Child. While promoting Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she boasted about how crucial a big balloon whisk was to meringue-whipping. And just like that, the wind-up egg beater fell out of favor. Today, the problem isn’t having a whisk, it’s having the right whisk. The most standard is called a balloon, but isn’t as voluminous as the variety chefs—like Child and several I’ve worked for—prefer for meringue- and cream-whipping. The idea is, the extra-curvy shape aids aeration. Or does it? And is there something better?
Test. I whipped 1 cup of heavy cream, in a room-temperature bowl, three different times with three different whisks: standard balloon, oversized balloon (like this), and cage. If you’re wondering, What the heck is a cage whisk? Same. When I started researching this piece, I pinged our editorial team, asking if anyone had a balloon whisk to lend, and our senior editor Eric Kim did. Or did he? The next day, he brought in a tool most of us had never seen before: the mysterious cage. It looks like a standard balloon with a coiled wire ball inside. Like a whisk in a whisk!
Results. The standard whisk took 3 minutes and 48 seconds to reach soft peaks. The balloon whisk took 2 minutes 19 seconds. And the cage took 1 minute 49 seconds. Ding ding ding! We have a winner. What’s more: While the oversized balloon is a total cabinet hog, the cage is as petite as it is mighty.
Why. As Harold McGee notes in On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, “The key to a stable foam of the whole mass of cream is enough fat globules to hold all the fluid and air together.” In other words, the fattier, the stabler. The minimum fat percentage for whipping is 30. Which is the maximum for light cream (whose minimum is 18). Meanwhile, whipping cream hovers at around 35 percent, and heavy whipping cream, 38. McGee notes that these varieties “will whip faster than light cream.”
Test. I respectively whipped 1 cup of heavy whipping cream, 1 cup of heavy cream, and 1 cup of light cream in a room temperature bowl, all with a cage whisk, my new best bud.
Results. The heavy whipping cream took 1 minute and 48 seconds, a whopping 1 second faster than the heavy cream. Talk about a photo finish, am I right? Which is to say: You’ll be better off with heavy whipping cream, but heavy cream works just as well. What you don’t want is light cream. The only carton I could get my hands on boasted “minimum 18 percent fat,” which wasn’t promising. I tried anyway. Over 5 minutes in, there was a foamy top layer, and zero thickness throughout. Maybe if I had kept going for an hour and a half, something would have happened.
Why. According to McGee, any hint of warmth “softens the butterfat skeleton of a cream foam, and liquid fat will collapse the air bubbles.” In other words, if you just got home from the supermarket or you leave your cream on the counter for awhile before whipping, or your bowl is at room temperature, you’re setting your cream (and yourself!) up for failure. McGee recommends keeping the cream in the fridge for at least 12 hours pre-whip. (I’m pro cheating and blast-chilling in the freezer.)
Test. I whipped 1 cup of heavy cream with a cage whisk two different times: in a room-temperature bowl and in a 20-minute blast-chilled, frozen bowl.
Results. Remember, the time to beat here is 1 minute and 48 seconds. Can we do it? Stretches arms. Jumps up and down. Readies stopwatch. And...the results are in! We did it! But only by 10 seconds. Like the difference between heavy whipping cream and heavy cream, the margin here is minimal. If you remember to put your bowl in the freezer, great. If you don’t, don’t fret. Ultra-cold cream, the right whisk, and a lot of elbow grease will get you there. And if it takes a few more seconds, think how Kenelm feels.
What are your whipped cream tips and tricks? Share ’em in the comments!