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Supermarket Whipped Toppings

Published April 2016

How we tested

It’s hard to find a slice of cake or pie or a scoop of ice cream that isn’t better with a dollop of whipped cream on top. We like to make our own from heavy cream, sugar, and a little vanilla, but supermarkets are full of premade products daring us to nix the mixer.

To see if any could stand in for homemade, we assembled the seven top-selling national products, priced from $1.59 to $4.99; four of the whipped toppings come in aerosol cans and three in plastic tubs. Some are made with mostly cream; others are most definitely not—using water, corn syrup, and oil in lieu of a dairy base. All contain stabilizers and/or emulsifiers. Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staffers blindly sampled each whipped topping plain and atop chocolate cake.

When we tallied and analyzed the results, we found that texture played a big part in our preferences. All three of the tub-style whipped toppings had a textural edge over the aerosol products because they’re whipped at the factory and then frozen, which, with help from the stabilizers and emulsifiers, locks in the air bubbles so the toppings stay smooth and fluffy like real whipped cream. (You must defrost these products before use, which takes at least 4 hours; they can then be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.) Aerosol cans whip their liquid contents on the spot by forcing them through a nozzle with a blast of nitrous oxide, but the quick infusion of air often made for unstable toppings that slumped into weepy white puddles before we could take a bite.

One product stood out from the competition. “Is this real whipped cream?” asked multiple tasters. “FINALLY,” declared another. “Creamy. Milky. Yes.” This product was not, in fact, made with real cream—the first ingredient on the label is skim milk—but it duplicated the soft, billowy peaks and rich, light sweetness of homemade whipped cream. What it does contain is a relatively high amount of fat, 2 grams per 2-tablespoon serving, which is twice as much fat as the lowest-scoring whipped topping.

Some of the aerosol whipped toppings we tried were made with cream, but they had severe textural problems, save one: Land O’ Lakes Whipped Heavy Cream, which was our runner-up. Unlike some toppings, it doesn’t add water, which contributed to its firmer texture and richer flavor (it also had the same 2 grams of fat per serving as our winner). This product was one of only two to specify “heavy cream” on its label, compared with the “cream” on other ingredient lists, so we called the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and they told us that “cream” has to be at least 18 percent fat, while “heavy cream,” which we use for homemade whipped cream, must be at least 36 percent fat. That extra fat made Land O’ Lakes sturdier, but it was a bit too firm for some tasters, who complained that it looked curdled even though it tasted quite good.

Alas, whipping at home is the only way to get excellent flavor and texture from real heavy cream. But our winner, Cool Whip Extra Creamy, did the best job of mimicking real whipped cream, so we named it best overall; at $0.20 per ounce, it costs about twice as much as homemade, but it was one of the cheapest in our lineup. We tasted it next to homemade whipped cream, and while the homemade was the clear victor, the packaged stuff still earned some praise, particularly for its texture. For those who want convenience and real cream (among other ingredients), Land O’ Lakes is the best option, though it has a slightly chunky texture and you’ll pay slightly more (at $0.36 per ounce).

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*