Cream vs. Butter

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Cream vs. Butter

Butter and cream are both dairy products, meaning that they are both derived from cow's milk. Cream and butter are very closely related; cream is essentially milk with a high percentage of butterfat, while butter is a semisolid form of cream. However, cream is lower in fat than butter. Butter is usually 80 percent milkfat, while cream is only 30 to 55 percent milkfat. Because cream is liquid and butter is semisolid, their culinary applications differ as well.


Butter and cream are both extremely popular condiments as well as cooking and baking additives. Butter is a staple fat in many cuisines. Cream is used in sauces, dressings and (when whipped) as a dessert topping. It is often added to coffee. Cream and butter both possess rich, mild flavors, which is why they are ubiquitous additions to both sweet and savory dishes.


Butter and cream are derived from milk. When milk is first extracted from a cow, it naturally separates into layers. Because fat is lighter than liquid, the top layers contain the most milkfat, while the bottom layers contain almost no milkfat. Cream comes from the top, or highest-fat, layer. In the past, cream was separated from milk by skimming it from the top layer by hand. Today, most commercially produced cream is separated from milk by centrifugal force, after which it is pasteurized.

Butter is made from churned cream. When cream is churned, it separates into two products: butter and buttermilk. Butter is semisolid because it is made up mostly of the fat molecules present in the cream, while buttermilk is thin because it is composed of the leftover liquid. While butter is still sometimes made by hand, most commercial butter is made in huge, continuous industrial churns.

Types of Cream

There are many varieties of cream. Most of these are distinguished by their fat content. Cream standards differ from country to country. In the United States, the main types of cream are (in order of fat content): clotted, double, heavy, creme fraiche, whipping, light whipping, table, sour cream and half-and-half. Additional cream varietals include pressurized whipped cream and ultrapasteurized cream. Clotted cream is very thick and contains 55 percent milkfat. It is popular in England, where it is often served with jam, scones and tea. Double cream contains 48 percent milkfat and is often used in making rich desserts. Heavy cream contains 36 to 40 percent milkfat and is favored by gourmands for making whipped cream. Creme fraiche contains 30 to 40 percent milkfat. This cream, French in origin, is a richer, thinner version of sour cream. It is made from unpasteurized cream, which gives it a tangy flavor that makes it popular in sauces. Whipping cream, so-called because it is most commonly used for making whipped cream, contains 35 percent milkfat. Light whipping cream contains 30 to 35 percent milkfat and may be augmented with stabilizers and emulsifiers. Table cream contains 18 to 20 percent milkfat and is used with coffee. Sour cream is made from a mixture of soured milk and cream and contains 18 to 20 percent milkfat as well. Half-and-half is made from equal parts milk and cream and contains 12 percent milkfat. Pressurized whipped cream is made from cream, sugar, chemical stabilizers and gas. This sprayable dessert topping is stored in aerosol cans. Ultrapasteurized cream has a longer shelf life than most cream because it has been heated to high temperatures in order to kill any microorganisms. Its flavor is inferior to that of other creams and it does not whip as well.

Types of Butter

There are also many types of butter. Like cream, many of these are determined by fat content, but salt content is another defining factor in determining butter types. In the United States butter must be composed of at least 80 percent fat, while in France, butter must be composed of at least 82 percent fat. The main types of butter are salted butter, unsalted butter, whipped butter, light butter and clarified butter. Salted butter is the most common type of butter. Unsalted butter is preferred for baking, because salted butter can throw off the flavor of sweet desserts. Whipped butter is butter that has had air whipped into it in order to make it more spreadable. Light butter is reduced-fat butter. Because light butter contains additives like gelatin and water, it is not suitable for cooking or baking. Finally clarified butter, or ghee, is butter from which all milk solids have been removed through cooking. The resulting product is clear, rather than opaque, and it can be stored for longer periods of time than butter. Ghee is very popular in India.


Butter and cream have been popular throughout the ages, especially in Europe, North America and India. The first butter was made over 4,000 years ago. Butter and cream remain perennial staples in many kitchens. During the 1950s, margarine (a butter substitute made from vegetable oil) became more popular than butter, because it was believed that margarine was healthier than butter. However, this belief is widely held to be untrue.

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