If you’re keeping tabs on calories, a recipe calling for a cup of whipping cream can come as a bit of a surprise. After all, whipping cream that’s 33-36% milk fat is a rich, thick, delicious ingredient that comes with caloric (and saturated fat) sticker shock when you take a gander at the nutritional information panel on the side of the carton.
Here’s the bad news: If whipping cream is called for in the ingredients, there’s usually a good reason. Whipping cream is relatively stable at high heat, which means it stays creamy even if it’s brought to a boil. A cream with a lesser percentage of milk fat – half-and-half clocks in at 10% milk fat, while coffee cream boasts 18% – will often curdle under the heat, breaking into chunky curds and whey instead of maintaining a smooth, creamy texture. This is a common problem if you swap out whipping cream in rich creamy curries and cream-based soups. If your recipe for cream of broccoli/cauliflower/asparagus/mushroom soup calls for whipping cream, you’d best use the real deal or the soup’s texture may be ruined. (How ruined? Do you want floating bits of ricotta in a watery soup, or do you want a creamy soup? That’s effectively what can happen.)
So, when can you substitute half-and-half or coffee cream? While substitutions are always risky, you may have some luck in recipes where the cream addition comes at the end, after the boiling is done and the dish is no longer on the heat. As long as it’s cooling and won’t be brought back up to heat, a less rich cream can be stirred in to finish the dish. Note, however, that if you’ve added a cream other than whipping cream, reheating may cause the milk to split into curds and whey.
If it’s any consolation, a little bit of whipping cream goes a long way. You’d have to add a whole lot more half-and-half to get a similarly smooth and creamy texture, and by doing so you’d throw off the balance of liquids in your dish.
The bottom line: Any time a recipe explicitly calls for whipping cream, you’re probably best to use it. If the recipe gives you wiggle room to choose your cream, then feel free to wiggle away.