Taste atop chocolate cake
It’s hard to find a slice of cake or pie or a scoop of ice cream that isn’t better with a dollop of whipped cream on top. We like to make our own from heavy cream, sugar, and a little vanilla, but supermarkets are full of premade products daring us to nix the mixer.
To see if any could stand in for homemade, we assembled the seven top-selling national products, priced from $1.59 to $4.99; four of the whipped toppings come in aerosol cans and three in plastic tubs. Some are made with mostly cream; others are most definitely not—using water, corn syrup, and oil in lieu of a dairy base. All contain stabilizers and/or emulsifiers. Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staffers blindly sampled each whipped topping plain and atop chocolate cake.
When we tallied and analyzed the results, we found that texture played a big part in our preferences. All three of the tub-style whipped toppings had a textural edge over the aerosol products because they’re whipped at the factory and then frozen, which, with help from the stabilizers and emulsifiers, locks in the air bubbles so the toppings stay smooth and fluffy like real whipped cream. (You must defrost these products before use, which takes at least 4 hours; they can then be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.) Aerosol cans whip their liquid contents on the spot by forcing them through a nozzle with a blast of nitrous oxide, but the quick infusion of air often made for unstable toppings that slumped into weepy white puddles before we could take a bite.
One product stood out from the competition. “Is this real whipped cream?” asked multiple tasters. “FINALLY,” declared another. “Creamy. Milky. Yes.” This product was not, in fact, made with real cream—the first ingredient on the label is skim milk—but it duplicated the soft, billowy peaks and rich, light sweetness of homemade whipped cream. What it does contain is a relatively high amount of fat, 2 grams per 2-tablespoon serving, which is twice as much fat as the lowest-scoring whipped topping.
Some of the aerosol whipped toppings we tried were made with cream, but they had severe textural problems, save one: Land O’ Lakes Whipped Heavy Cream, which was our runner-up. Unlike some toppings, it doesn’t add water, which contributed to its firmer texture and richer flavor (it also had the same 2 grams of fat per serving as our winner). This product was one of only two to specify “heavy cream” on its label, compared with the “cream” on other ingredient lists, so we called the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and they told us that “cream” has to be at least 18 percent fat, while “heavy cream,” which we use for homemade whipped cream, must be at least 36 percent fat. That extra fat made Land O’ Lakes sturdier, but it was a bit too firm for some tasters, who complained that it looked curdled even though it tasted quite good.
Alas, whipping at home is the only way to get excellent flavor and texture from real heavy cream. But our winner, Cool Whip Extra Creamy, did the best job of mimicking real whipped cream, so we named it best overall; at $0.20 per ounce, it costs about twice as much as homemade, but it was one of the cheapest in our lineup. We tasted it next to homemade whipped cream, and while the homemade was the clear victor, the packaged stuff still earned some praise, particularly for its texture. For those who want convenience and real cream (among other ingredients), Land O’ Lakes is the best option, though it has a slightly chunky texture and you’ll pay slightly more (at $0.36 per ounce).