Switching to low-fat diary products can be an effortless way to trim fat and calories in recipes, but when it comes to substituting low-fat milk for full-fat cream, there are no easy rules. The success of the substitution depends on the cream’s role in the dish and the type of recipe you’re making.
Cream, with its buttery taste and velvety texture, has different cooking properties than milk. Its higher fat content makes it more stable and less susceptible to curdling when mixed with acidic ingredients. Nevertheless, there are instances when milk is a perfectly acceptable substitute for cream, even if the result is less unctuous than the full-fat version. And when you consider the savings—43 calories per tablespoon when you switch from heavy cream to 1 percent low-fat milk—it’s worth exploring the types of recipes that are best-suited to using lower-fat milk.
Custards If you want to lighten quiches by substituting low-fat milk for the half-and-half or cream, go ahead. Our tests confirmed that milk is a viable substitute for cream in these savory custards. Likewise, you can use milk to make sweet custards like crème caramel. But, if you’re making crème brûlée, be aware that you’ll compromise its characteristic luxurious consistency. Another option is to use low-fat evaporated milk, which has a thicker consistency than its fresh counterpart. However, its cooked taste can overwhelm delicate custards, so canned milk is best reserved for recipes with robust flavors, such as a pumpkin custard or a cheesy quiche filling.
Cream soups Many pureed soups, such as leek-and-potato and cream of broccoli, are finished with a swirl of rich cream. Since these types of soups are generally thickened with pureed vegetables, including starchy ones, you easily can replace the cream with low-fat milk. Just remember to heat only until hot, not boiling, to avoid curdling.
Pan sauces Heavy cream works its magic in classic French sauces that are made by deglazing a skillet with wine and broth, and then finishing with cream. Try this technique with milk and you’ll end up with a curdled mess. For a more successful lightened-up pan sauce, replace the cream with broth, lightly thicken it with cornstarch mixed with water, and enrich it with a tablespoon or two of reduced-fat sour cream.
Pasta sauces Tossing pasta with cream and cheese is one of the simplest and most satisfying pasta dishes imaginable. Milk doesn’t have the coating capability and would not be a good substitute for the cream, but you can compensate for the difference in texture by lightly thickening low-fat milk with cornstarch or flour. For each cup of milk, use 2 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with 4 teaspoons cold milk, or 5 teaspoons flour mixed with 2 tablespoons cold milk. It won’t replicate the rich taste of cream, but it is less caloric.