The familiar, snowy peaks of whipped cream represent one of the kitchen's most appealing paradoxes. Whipping cream is one of the heaviest of dairy products, typically containing 35 to 38 percent fat, yet it whips up into an exceptionally light and airy garnish. If you have a whisk or a mixer, you can make it in seconds, or simply squirt it if you're using the canned version. Canned whipped cream uses a compressed-gas propellant, so it requires no effort at all from time-strapped bakers.
Not Just Convenient
It takes a minute or two to make whipped cream in a powerful stand mixer, and it can take three to five if you're whisking it by hand. The cream and bowl must be well chilled for the best results, and even then the cream only holds its shape and airiness for an hour or two at room temperature. In contrast, whipped cream from an aerosol can or refillable "charger" is fully whipped when it comes from the can's nozzle. Aside from its speed and convenience, aerosol whipping produces the lightest, longest-lasting whipped cream.
How It Works
Despite the apparent contradiction, cream's heavy fat content is what makes it light and fluffy when it's whipped. Ordinarily, that fat takes the form of tight globules, held together by strong molecular bonds. The wires of your whisk shear those bonds and incorporate air, so when the fat molecules re-connect, they surround a small pocket of that air. The longer you whip, the lighter the cream gets, and the more air it traps. Aerosol cans replicate that effect instantly by using a compressed gas, usually nitrous oxide, to force the cream through a tiny nozzle. The fat globules are sheared and inflated in a split second, creating a perfectly fine and uniform foam.
The Good and The Bad
The silky, perfect whipped cream from your aerosol can or charger has the advantages of speed and durability, but that doesn't mean you should hang up your whisk. Canned cream often lacks the fresh flavor of cream you've whisked by hand, and you give up the option of sweetening it to your own taste or using superior vanilla as the flavoring. The nozzle on the can re-creates the star tip on a pastry bag, but for garnishing desserts, the pastry bag gives much better control along with a wide range of tips to create special decorations. All in all, making your own is often the better option.
Nitrous oxide is used in the aerosol cans and refillable chargers because it's an inert gas that prevents the cream from spoiling and because it quickly dissipates once it's sprayed. Unfortunately, nitrous oxide is the "laughing gas" long used as an anesthetic by dentists, and it's frequently used as an inhalant drug. Like other inhalants, nitrous oxide can be extremely dangerous, and it's sometimes fatal even to first-time users.