When a Recipe Calls for Cream, What Should I Buy & Use?

Published Categorized as Journal

When a recipe calls for cream, you may be left wondering what to use. Different types of cream come with different ratios of fat. From light cream to heavy cream, and even heavy whipping cream, it can sometimes get confusing as to which one is best to use and when.

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Thankfully, we’re here to show you the differences between types of creams and which one to use according to your recipe. So, if you’re ready to dive in, let’s go!

Table of Contents

When A Recipe Calls For Cream, What Should I Buy & Use?

When a Recipe Calls For Cream

When a recipe calls for cream, it may be that the recipe wants you to use your standard light cream. But unfortunately, things aren’t always that easy.

When a recipe calls for cream, whipping up the perfect recipe can get a bit confusing. You may wonder if the author of the recipe was referring to pasteurized cream, sour cream, heavy cream, heavy whipping cream, or light cream. On top of all of that, there are the in-between creams, such as half-and-half and non-dairy creamer, that you may add even more confusion!

But don’t worry. Though some recipes that call for “cream” may not specify the type of cream needed, rest assured you can usually figure out what type of cream may work best in your recipe given your knowledge of how different types of creams are typically utilized in cooking.

ice cream

Different Types of Cream: Explaining Cream Types

There are several types of cream that can be used in recipes. The differences between them usually lie in the fat content.

The higher the fat content the more likely they are to yield a rich texture and a flavor.

In some cases, richer flavor and texture are good. But depending on what the recipe is, it might lead to a final product that is too dense. Therefore, it is important to know the differences between types of cream. This way, you can pick the best cream suited for your recipe if your recipe does not specify.

Want to deepen your understanding of different types of creams and how they are utilized? Check out the following cream types and their general uses:

Table Cream

Table cream generally has about 30-35% fat content but this could vary by region of the world. Common table cream may go by different names (such as light cream in the US). However, the fat content of this particular cream may be different when labeled in such a way.

These creams are often used in recipes that call for “cream” in general, as this would be the safest low fat content cream to prevent developing too rich of a texture or flavor.

These lighter creams can be great when added to salad dressings, fruit salads, or when adding to smoothies.

Nestle Coffee mate Media Crema Table Cream Cans – Add Rich, Creamy Texture to Sweet and Savory Dishes, Shelf Stable Table Cream,7.6 Fl Oz (Pack of 8)

Light Cream

As mentioned, light cream is similar to table cream. However, it has an even lesser fat content of around 20%.

Still, light cream has its uses in cooking. it can be readily used if a recipe calls for a general cream without specifying what kind.

Light cream can also be used in coffee, in soups, or in sauces. It can also be drizzled over pound cakes or fresh fruit for added decadence.

Heavy Cream (or Heavy Whipping Cream)

Heavy cream, often called heavy whipping cream, actually has the highest fat content of all creams. It tops out at no less than 36% milk fat.

Whipping Cream

Whipping cream is a bit lighter than heavy whipping cream, coming in at around 30-15% milk fat.

It is often used to whip into stiff peaks, just as the name suggests, and can be added to desserts and all sorts of goodies in its whipped state. In its unwhipped state, whipping cream can be used in soups, sauces, dressings, and more.

Whipped Cream

Whipped cream is the end result of heavy whipping cream (or regular whipping cream) being whipped with sweetener to form stiff peaks and (generally) used as a sweet topping.

This cream can often be found pre-made lining store shelves, but the best whipped cream is often made at home.

whipped topping

Sour Cream

Not to be confused with creme fraiche, sour cream is a fermented cream that is low in fat, tangy, and complementary to both sweet and savory dishes.

Sour cream can be found accompanying tacos, soups, potatoes, and much more. It can be served on its own and used as a condiment this way, or it can be blended into recipes (such as cakes or casseroles) to add richness and tangy flavor.

Be careful not to mistake bad sour cream for usable sour cream!

Unsweetened Half and Half

Half and half, a substitute for some milk, is half milk and half cream. It is often used in coffee as its lighter taste and consistency is preferable for many people. It isn’t as rich as heavy cream.

In addition, half-and-half can be added to cereals, soups, and sauces the way that other creams can. Just know that the end results won’t be nearly as rich in terms of taste or texture as they would be if you would have used regular cream.

It will save you a few calories though, as half-and-half only contains about 10-12% milk fat.

Unhomogenized Milk

Unhomogenized milk is fresh milk that has not been homogenized, or emulsified, together. Therefore, the result is separated milk fat referred to as a “cream top”. You may enjoy this the same way that you would enjoy any other type of cream.

cream for a drink

When a Recipe Calls For Cream What Do I Use?

Now that you know a little about the different types of cream, it may be a bit easier for you to select a cream that can suit your recipe.

If you’re making a dessert topping, such as whipped cream, and the recipe only calls for “cream” you now know that heavy whipping cream (or regular whipping cream) will be the best choice.

If your recipe calls for cream and it is a soup or casserole, it may be best to stick with light cream for starters, but you may also try heavy cream or a heavy cream substitute (we will get those later in this post) to make your soup or casserole taste richer.

creamy food

Bear in mind that when making delicate baked goods such as cakes or pastries, less is more. So if your recipe calls for fresh milk or cream, it may not be a good idea to substitute with heavy cream. Instead, use the lightest cream possible, or even milk, to ensure that your cake or other baked goods maintain a light and airy texture.

Note: Most recipes will tell you specifically what kind of cream to use when baking. If your recipe calls for heavy cream or any other cream that isn’t light cream, be sure to follow its instructions. Only use light cream or milk if you aren’t entirely sure what is meant by “cream” in a recipe pertaining to light and delicate sweetened baked goods.

cheesecake with whipped cream

Good Substitutes For Cream

Dairy Allergy Options For Cream

On another note, if you have a dairy allergy and thereby can’t (or shouldn’t) have cream, then you may think that you have no other option but to avoid recipes calling for cream altogether.

Thankfully, this isn’t the case. You may, in fact, substitute coconut cream for heavy cream and coconut milk for regular cream or milk.

Keep in mind that these options will not whip into whipped cream and hereby will not make a good dessert topping if used in that way. Still, coconut cream and coconut milk can add richness and depth to your soups, dressings, and casseroles, and can add creaminess, without having to add additional dairy to your diet.

Note: When using these substitutes, you need to know that there will likely be a coconut-y essence to your dish following the addition of coconut creams and coconut milks. Therefore, you’ll want to ensure that the coconut will complement whatever dish or baked good you are trying to make, rather than clash with it.

coconut cream

Other Good Substitutes For Cream

In addition to coconut milk and coconut cream, there are other ways that you can substitute heavy cream in a recipe.

These include:

Sour Cream

Sour cream can make a good substitute for heavy cream when you are in a pinch. But remember, it may be quite a bit thicker and tangier than heavy cream would be in a recipe.

When using this, you may wish to thin the sour cream out a bit before using. Or you could try using a bit less of the sour cream than you would the heavy cream. This will help balance things out.

Whole Milk

Whole milk can be substituted for heavy cream. But it won’t deliver the rich flavor or creaminess that heavy cream would provide.

Aside from that, whole milk will work as a substitute for heavy cream, as long as you don’t mind a thinner and slightly less flavorful version of the original recipe.

Greek Yogurt

Similar to sour cream, Greek yogurt will offer more tang to your recipe. It will also be quite a bit thicker than heavy cream.

When substituting Greek yogurt for heavy cream, consider thinning out the Greek yogurt. Do so by adding a few tablespoons of milk or water at a time until it reaches the desired consistency.

Remember also to use full-fat Greek yogurt when making this substitution. See, using fat-free versions may negatively affect the outcome of the dish.

Note: Both sour cream and Greek yogurt may curdle when over direct heat. If adding to a sauce, stew, or another dish that requires simmering, you may wish to add these heavy cream substitutes last. Also, do so while the pan is off of the heat. This’ll keep the consistency of your simmered sauce or stew smooth.

Chobani, Nonfat Greek Yogurt, Plain 16 oz

Ricotta Cheese

Ricotta cheese may be a good substitute for heavy cream in some instances. Just know that ricotta cheese will impart a cheesy flavor to whatever you’re cooking.

To do this, add about ¼ cup of water to every 1 cup of ricotta to thin it out enough to be used as a substitute.

Half and Half

Because half and half is part cream and part milk, it makes sense that this would be a great heavy cream substitute. In fact, this is a much better substitute than using whole milk on its own.

Feel free to use half and half at a 1:1 ratio for best results.

Evaporated Milk

Evaporated milk may not provide the richness and creaminess that you desire from heavy cream. But it is certainly a good substitution if you don’t have anything else on hand. The results will be less creamy and robust.

However, not all flavor will be lost when making this substitution. Evaporated milk is particularly useful as a substitution in baked goods calling for heavy cream, rather than in soups and sauces.


Butter is a great substitute for heavy cream. In case you didn’t know, butter is heavy cream that has been heavily whipped. Because of this, it makes sense that butter would be a great substitution for heavy cream.

To achieve the right consistency, however, we recommend that you melt ¼ cup of butter. Allow it to cool, and then mix with ¾ cup of milk. The results will give you a similar taste and consistency to that of heavy cream! Who knew?

When A Recipe Calls For Cream, What Should I Buy & Use?

“Cream” in a Recipe? No Problem!

All in all, the arbitrary use of the term “cream” in a recipe is decidedly no longer an issue now that you know what type of creams should be used in a recipe and when.

In addition, if you don’t have any cream on hand, know that good substitutions like butter, half and half, whole milk, and even coconut cream can work just as well.

We hope this helps! Until next time!


What does it mean when it says cream in a recipe?

If you notice vague usage of the word “cream” in a recipe, we recommend that you use either half and half, a light whipping cream, or a “table cream” in the recipe.

When a recipe calls for cream does it mean whipping cream?

You should be fine using a light whipping cream, however, unless the recipe calls for heavy whipping cream, we recommend you avoid using it unless specifically directed. Failure to do so could make whatever dish you are making much too rich.

What type of cream is used in cooking?

Commonly used creams in cooking include heavy cream, half and half, sour cream, light cream, and even coconut cream.

What do they mean by cream?

Arbitrary use of the word cream should typically be avoided, however, if your recipe calls for “cream” without specification, you may be best off using a light cream for optimal results. 

Can You Substitute Light Cream For Heavy Cream?

Like substituting heavy cream for milk, light cream can be substituted for heavy cream, as long as you understand that the results won’t quite be the same.
Remember that to use light cream as a heavy cream substitute, you will be missing out on the rich flavor and texture of the dish you are trying to make. The result may be a thinner consistency and a less robust flavor. 
If light cream is substituted for heavy cream in baked goods, you may experience a lighter textured product. Either way, while the substitution of light cream for heavy cream is doable, it won’t yield the exact same results.

By Anna

Anna Brooks, the voice behind CooksDream.com, is a seasoned writer and editor with an insatiable love for food. While not a professional chef, her culinary adventures and unique insights have captivated readers for years. Anna believes in the transformative power of food, stating it "feeds the soul." Dive into her writings for a mix of inspiration, entertainment, and culinary wisdom. Author Pinterest Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Tumblr Reddit Quora

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