Whipping cream and buttermilk are two common dairy ingredients used in baking, cooking, and beverage making.
While they share some similarities, there are several key differences between these two products in terms of their production, nutritional value, taste, texture, and best uses.
How Whipping Cream and Buttermilk Are Made
The first difference between whipping cream and buttermilk lies in how each ingredient is produced.
Whipping cream is made by separating cream from milk. Milk naturally separates into cream (the fat) and skim milk when left to sit. In commercial production, this separation is accelerated through the use of centrifuges. The cream is then pasteurized and packaged for use.
Buttermilk was originally the liquid left over from churning cream into butter. The butterfat congealed into butter, leaving the remaining liquid as buttermilk. Today, most commercial buttermilk is made by adding bacterial cultures to milk, which thickens it and gives it a tangy flavor through fermentation.
So while both ingredients start with milk, whipping cream focuses on the fat content while buttermilk utilizes fermentation to develop its unique properties.
Nutritional Profile: Fat and Calorie Differences
When it comes to nutrition, the biggest difference between whipping cream and buttermilk is their fat and calorie content.
- Whipping cream is high in fat, with around 36-40% fat content depending on the product. It provides over 300 calories per half cup serving.
- Buttermilk is low in fat at around 1-2% fat, and contains fewer than 100 calories per cup.
The higher fat content is what gives whipping cream its rich, indulgent taste and creamy texture. Buttermilk gets its tangy flavor from the culturing process rather than fat content.
So if you are looking to add a rich, fatty element to a recipe, whipping cream is the better choice. But for a lighter dairy product with a bold tangy flavor, buttermilk fits the bill.
Key Takeaway: Whipping cream is much higher in fat and calories compared to buttermilk.
Taste and Texture Differences
Beyond fat and calorie content, whipping cream and buttermilk differ quite a bit in terms of taste and texture.
- Whipping cream has a mildly sweet, rich, creamy taste. It is smooth and pourable in its liquid form, and can be whipped into stiff peaks for toppings and desserts.
- Buttermilk has a bold tangy, sour taste. It has a thicker, lumpier texture compared to cream. Buttermilk can have flecks of butterfat suspended throughout it. The sour taste comes from the lactic acid created during the culturing process.
So in terms of flavor, whipping cream provides a neutral backdrop that enriches other ingredients, while buttermilk offers a bright sourness. For texture, whipping cream is smooth while buttermilk is thick.
Cooking and Baking Uses
When it comes to using whipping cream versus buttermilk in recipes, each ingredient shines in different applications.
Whipping Cream Uses
- Adding richness and fat to sauces, soups, puddings
- Making whipped cream
- Adding volume and lightness to baked goods
- Providing a creamy element to beverages like coffee and hot chocolate
- Topping desserts like pies, cakes, and cupcakes
- Tenderizing meat when used as a marinade
- Adding rise to baked goods by reacting with baking soda
- Providing moisture and tangy flavor to cakes, muffins, and quick breads
- Making ranch dressing and other creamy dressings and dips
Whipping cream is most useful when you want to add a creamy visual element or succulent mouthfeel. It lightens textures and carries other flavors well. Buttermilk adds subtle tang and moisture while also lightening baked goods in its own way. Its acidic nature also brightens and tenderizes meat.
So while both whipping cream and buttermilk can add richness to recipes, they do so in unique ways. Whipping cream provides indulgence and fat, while buttermilk offers acidity and subtle dairy flavor.
Shelf Life and Storage
When it comes to storage and shelf life, whipping cream does have a longer advantage over buttermilk:
- Whipping cream will last 7-10 days past its sell-by date when refrigerated properly. It can be frozen for several months as well for extended storage.
- Buttermilk lasts 1-2 weeks past its sell-by date in the refrigerator. It can also be frozen, prolonging its life to several months.
The higher fat content of whipping cream gives it more protection against spoilage compared to lower-fat buttermilk. As long as you keep both ingredients refrigerated and utilize good food safety practices, you can enjoy weeks of shelf life out of each product.
Key Takeaway: Whipping cream lasts a bit longer than buttermilk in the refrigerator, but both can be frozen for extended storage life.
Can You Substitute Whipping Cream for Buttermilk?
Because of the differences between whipping cream and buttermilk, directly substituting one for the other in recipes can be tricky. However, in some cases, a swap can work with a few adjustments:
- For baking recipes that rely on buttermilk for lift and tenderness, replace buttermilk with an equal amount of whipping cream combined with lemon juice or vinegar to mimic buttermilk's acidity (approximately 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar per cup of cream). You may also need to slightly decrease baking soda or add baking powder to get the proper chemical leavening effect.
- In salad dressings, dips, or chilled desserts that use buttermilk for tangy flavor and texture, whipping cream can work in a 1:1 ratio, along with a little lemon juice or vinegar to provide the acidic taste. The texture may be slightly thinner with the cream swap.
- For pan frying or baking chicken, substituting whipping cream for buttermilk in the marinade won't provide the full tenderizing effect. You can use cream combined with vinegar or lemon to get some of the marinating benefits.
Overall, whipping cream can work as a substitute in some buttermilk applications, though the final results may vary. The flavor will be less tangy, and chemical leavening may need to be adjusted in baked goods. Using an acid like lemon juice or vinegar helps compensate for buttermilk's sourness.
Can You Substitute Buttermilk for Whipping Cream?
It's generally more difficult to directly replace whipping cream with buttermilk. Some guidelines:
- In recipes where whipping cream is whipped into airy peaks, buttermilk cannot be substituted. It does not whip up like cream. For whipped topping or fillings, stick with regular whipping cream.
- In soups or sauces that rely on heavy cream for a silky texture and richness, buttermilk won't provide the same mouthfeel or appearance. Combining buttermilk with milk and butter or oil may help approximate a smooth texture.
- For coffee drinks, buttermilk won't dissolve and mix in the same way as cream. Stick to regular whipping cream, half and half, or milk alternatives if you don't have whipping cream on hand.
The bottom line is that for applications where whipping and fat content matter, buttermilk will not provide the same results as whipping cream. Think about the specific functional properties you need from the cream when deciding whether buttermilk could potentially stand in.
Key Takeaway: Buttermilk lacks the fat content and whipping ability of cream, so it may not work well as a straight 1:1 substitution in recipes that rely on these attributes of whipping cream.
Is it OK to drink buttermilk?
Yes, you can safely drink buttermilk on its own if you enjoy the tangy flavor. Some people love to drink it straight from the carton as a refreshing beverage. Buttermilk provides protein, calcium, potassium, and vitamins. The culturing process preserves buttermilk longer than regular milk. However, it should still be consumed within several weeks and refrigerated.
Can you mix whipping cream and buttermilk together?
You can combine whipping cream and buttermilk together in recipes, though the mixture may not whip up the same way as pure whipping cream. In baking recipes, mixing some whipping cream into buttermilk can help approximate a closer texture and richness if you don't have enough buttermilk on hand. Buttermilk's acidic qualities will still react with baking soda and provide lift.
Is buttermilk considered a heavy cream?
No, buttermilk is not considered a heavy cream. Heavy cream, also called heavy whipping cream, contains at least 36% milk fat content. Buttermilk contains only about 1-2% fat, since the butterfat is removed when it is made. Buttermilk has a much lighter consistency compared to heavy whipping cream.
What's the best buttermilk substitute if you don't have any?
Some good substitutes for buttermilk include:
- Milk soured with lemon juice or vinegar (1 tablespoon per cup milk)
- Plain kefir
- Plain yogurt thinned out with milk
- Sour cream thinned with milk
Adding an acidic component helps mimic buttermilk's tangy flavor in recipes. Thinning thicker dairy products helps achieve a closer texture as well.
Can you freeze buttermilk and whipping cream?
Yes, both buttermilk and whipping cream can be frozen for extended storage life. Freeze each in covered airtight containers, allowing headspace to prevent the container from expanding and bursting. Thaw refrigerated overnight before using. Whipping cream may need to be re-whipped once thawed to regain its texture. Buttermilk may separate slightly but will remix back together once shaken or stirred.
Buttermilk and whipping cream are versatile dairy ingredients used in cooking and baking.
Understanding these differences allows you to determine when one ingredient or the other is called for in a particular recipe or preparation method.
While whipping cream and buttermilk can sometimes stand in for each other with adjustments, the best results come from using the specific dairy product matched to the dish you are making.