European cream brings roundness and power that intensifies recipes. It coats the mouth and gives a lasting quality to pastries that no other raw material can. The taste of cream is not the only attribute that makes it indispensable for pastry chefs; it is its willingness to be worked results in a voluptuous cloud when whipped.
But have you ever wondered why European cream whips into soft light peaks? And will we achieve same result with say, milk?
Well let’s understand the legal definition of cream before we speak about the scientific aspects. A decree from April 1980 precisely defines the composition and the principal categories of creams, which are distinguished on the criteria of fat content and consistency. Any substance that results from the skimming of whole milk and that has at least 30 g of milk fat per 100 g is defined as “cream”. "Light cream" must contain less than 12 g of milk fat per 100 g.
From a physical perspective, whipped cream is more complicated than most food based foams, for example, meringue, which is just dense packing of air bubbles held together by egg albumen. The air bubbles in whipped cream are all coated with dairy fats molecules, which explain why pastries filled with whipped cream are so palatable.
Like making meringue, whipping or whisking is the essential physical movement to introduce air into liquid; the air will then form mass of bubbles, each bubble is a tiny pocket of air entrapped by a thin film of water, proteins and milk fats.
But the difference lies in the fat content of European cream, which explains why pastry chefs always prefer cream with 30% fat content. As we keep whisking, the process will initially break down protein-coated fat globules in the cream and this lead to fat molecules to adhere to the air bubbles. The exposed fat molecules will merge with each other and form a stable network of aerated cream – the attribution and quality that have made European cream a go-to ingredient for many renowned pastry chefs.
You may wonder that since cream is actually a concentration of fat globules obtained by skimming whole milk, followed by a homogenization stage to stabilize the milk fat. The protein and milk fat that stabilize whipped cream should be the same as in milk, so maybe milk would also whip into foamy peaks? Well you could whip a bowl of full cream milk for hours and never get anything more than a light froth that would disappear instantly.
(Of course with the exception of espresso milk steamer that is specially designed to disrupt the micelles. The protein molecules then encompass the air bubbles, protecting them from bursting and leading to the formation of longer lasting foam, but that is another story.)
Because European cream has earned its place in the finest kitchens around the world, its use has adapted to the needs, practices and new expectations of chefs: whether light (12 – 30% fat) or not (at least 30% fat), creams are also distinguished by the type of heat treatment applied (ultra-high-temperature sterilization, pasteurization or thermization), their viscosity (fluid, semi-thick or thick), their structure (whipped cream or whipping cream) and their method of packaging (aseptic or not, jars, bags, bottles, cartons, aerosol, etc.).
Such progress in the diversification of creams has allowed for greater control when cooking and the packaging has allowed it to be sold on store shelves (instead of refrigerators) thus providing greater freedom of use and storage. All of this combines to make cream an essential ingredient in any sophisticated pastry!