The Best Substitutes for Heavy Cream to Help You in a Pinch

Out of heavy cream? No problem.

Cape Verdean woman whisking cream
Photo: Getty Images

Some say that baking is a science, but in our households, baking is often a game of substitutions. Southerners are nothing if not resourceful; when we're out of a particular ingredient, we figure out a way to work around it. Today, we're offering up some substitution ideas for a form of dairy that we don't always have in our fridge: heavy cream.

When you're thinking about substitutes for heavy cream, it's important to consider the recipe you're making. For example, if you're making a savory cheese sauce that calls for a swirl of heavy cream, you'll have more flexibility in substitutions than you might have in a dish where heavy cream is the primary ingredient, such as whipped cream.

Understanding the properties of heavy cream, half and half, whole milk, and other forms of dairy will help you substitute with success. First off, let's break down the differences between the types of dairy you'll find in the supermarket aisle.

Your Guide to Milk Fat Percentages

The primary difference between all those cartons of milk and cream is their percentage of milk fat. Keep in mind that the exact amounts will change based on the brand, but this is a general guide to the approximate milk fat percentages you can expect to find in your different types of dairy.

  • Heavy cream: 36% milk fat
  • Whipping cream: 30% milk fat
  • Half and half: 12% milk fat
  • Whole milk: 4% milk fat
  • 2% milk: 2% milk fat
  • Buttermilk: 1% milk fat

Of all the types of dairy listed above, heavy cream contains the highest amount of milk fat. That makes it super-rich and great for adding body to sauces or whipping up to make whipped cream.

When you're out of heavy cream, the best substitute for heavy cream will be the dairy product with the most similar milk fat percentage. However, the type of dish you're making may have more or less flexibility, offering a wider range of substitution possibilities.

Substitutes for Heavy Cream in Whipped Cream

We'll be candid: It's very difficult to make whipped cream without heavy cream. When put to the test, even whipping cream doesn't hold up quite as well as heavy cream—Southern Living contributor Micah A. Leal explains, "Heavy cream has a higher percentage of milk fat (about 36 percent) while whipping cream has less (around 30 percent). Don't let the names deceive you: Both can and should be used for whipped cream. However, since there is more fat in heavy cream, the air bubbles that get caught in the heavy cream are held firmer and longer than those in the whipping cream."

A dairy product that's high in milk fat will give you that puffy volume; when making whipped cream, whipping cream is the ideal substitute for heavy cream.

Don't have that, either? In this case, we do not recommend using any product below 30 percent milk fat, as it will not whip up quite like heavy cream or whipping cream will.

However, there are a few other ways to get creative. You can substitute whipped cream for a slightly tangier alternative, like whipped mascarpone cheese or whipped cream cheese, sweetened with powdered sugar. For a vegan option, try whipping up a can of chilled coconut cream.

Substitutes for Heavy Cream in Baked Goods

If you're making a batter that calls for heavy cream, the good news is that you have a little more flexibility when it comes to substitutions. Heavy cream is high in milk fat, but using a form of dairy with a slightly lower milk fat likely won't make or break your dessert. Try to stay closest to the original milk fat percentage, but in my experience, going slightly lower will not make a measurable difference in your baked goods.

Try substituting heavy cream for half and half (which is quite literally half heavy cream, half whole milk). It's not a perfect substitution, but it works in a pinch.

If you're using a dairy product that's slightly lower in milk fat than heavy cream, such as whole milk, you can balance the ratio by adding a bit of extra butter (which is 80 percent milk fat) to the recipe. Substitute one cup of heavy cream for ¾ cup of whole milk and ¼ cup of melted butter.

You can also experiment with a combination of whole milk and yogurt or sour cream, which will add a bit of body to your baked goods. While buttermilk is actually lower in fat than whole milk, its thicker consistency makes it a good substitute for heavy cream in your baked goods.

Substitutes for Heavy Cream in Savory Dishes

Many of our favorite creamy sauces get a dose of richness from heavy cream. But in the world of savory cooking, you have the most flexibility in terms of heavy cream substitutions.

Half and half and buttermilk are great options here, adding more body to soups, stews, and sauces. Whole milk will often do the trick, though you might need to introduce another thickening agent, such as flour or cornstarch, to get the consistency you're looking for.

A dollop of Greek yogurt will add great body to savory dishes like mashed potatoes; coconut milk or coconut cream are fantastic vegan options, bringing dairy-free creaminess to your meal.

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