Heavy whipping cream is one of those ingredients chefs love because of the richness it brings to recipes. Unfortunately that richness comes with a lot of calories and saturated fat attached, which means cream isn't a good fit for everyone. There are a number of potential substitutes you can fall back on, but the simplest and most versatile might be plain old evaporated milk.
It Saves a Lot of Fat and Calories
Switching out heavy cream in favor of evaporated milk is a big win, nutritionally. A cup of heavy whipping cream checks in at a hefty 809 calories, with more than 85 grams of fat. A cup of evaporated milk, in contrast, contains only 338 calories, and just 19 grams of fat. If you really want to trim things down, you can opt for evaporated milk with 2 percent milk fat, which cuts calories to 270 and fat to 5 grams.
On the positive side, evaporated milk is also higher in protein than cream. That cup of heavy cream contains just 3.4 grams of protein, while evaporated milk packs 17 grams. Whether you're interested in reducing fat or cranking up the protein, it's a win either way.
Substituting Evaporated Milk for Cream in Recipes
You can use evaporated milk as a straightforward, one-to-one replacement for the whipping cream in most, but not all, recipes. If your favorite macaroni and cheese recipe calls for heavy cream, for example, you can usually substitute evaporated milk directly for the same amount of cream. The end result will be similar enough that you'd be hard-pressed to know the difference.
In most sauces or casseroles, you won't need to make any tweaks to your recipe if you switch from cream to evaporated milk. The exception is sauces that say to simmer the cream until it reduces and thickens. Evaporated milk has already gone through that process, and it's as thick as it's going to get. To make the substitution work in those recipes, look at how much the sauce is supposed to reduce – "by half," for example – and then just use that lesser amount. You'll also have to thicken the milk, usually with a starch, to get the texture right.
You can also substitute evaporated milk for regular milk, if you wish. This will make the finished dish creamier, and it's less likely your sauce will break or separate into liquid and grainy bits of curdled milk protein. The characteristic "cooked" flavor of evaporated milk won't matter in this case because your dish will be cooked, and that taste disappears.
Whipping Evaporated Milk Like Cream
It's also possible to use evaporated milk as a whipped topping on your desserts, in place of real whipped cream. This is a bit trickier, because you have to follow the instructions really closely for the trick to work.
The milk has to be just on the verge of freezing before it can trap enough air to make a good foam, so put it in your freezer for at least a half-hour or so before whipping. You want just a thin rim of crystals starting to form around the edge of the milk. It helps to use a glass or porcelain mixing bowl, which will keep the milk a lot colder than steel as you whip it. Chill your beaters, as well. You really, really do need to pull out all the stops.
Beat your nearly frozen milk at your beater's highest speed for one minute, until the foam begins to form. Gradually add in powdered sugar and vanilla, as directed by the recipe on the can or on the manufacturer's website, and beat for another minute or two until it's stiff. The foam will start to melt away again in just a few minutes, as it warms up, so serve it immediately.
For a whipped topping that will hold for a while longer, measure a teaspoon of plain, unflavored gelatin into 2 tablespoons of cold water. Let it sit for a minute or two until the gelatin absorbs the water and "blooms," then zap it in the microwave for 30 or 40 seconds until it's melted. Let it stand and cool for another minute or two – remember, cold is crucial – until it starts to thicken slightly, then pour it into the evaporated milk as you beat it. The gelatin will hold your whipped topping together for 30 minutes or so in the fridge, so you'll have more time to clear the table and set out dessert.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.