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Single cream refers to various cream products that differ slightly depending upon the country of origin. In Australia, where the food industry is not required to regulate the percentage of cream in milk products, single cream normally refers to cream that has about 35% fat—also commonly called butterfat—content. It may be pure or thickened with an artificial substance such as gelatin. The United Kingdom’s version of single cream is unsterilized and contains around 18% fat. In the United States, single cream is not a widely-used term but half-and-half, with 10.5% to 18% fat, would likely fall into the single cream category.
Cream comes from the butterfat layer that is skimmed off the top of milk, usually cow’s milk, before it is homogenized. This process happens naturally in fresh milk although it is often hastened by additives called separators. The acceleration is normally performed by commercial manufacturers of milk and milk by-products. In a number of jurisdictions, these additives are not required to be listed on the product label.
Various grades of cream are distinguished by the treatments they have undergone as well as the butterfat content. These treatments typically include whipping, heating and the addition of stabilizers and thickeners. These cream-making processes vary greatly not only by country, but also by production facility. The fat content in different classes also varies significantly by country and processing plant.
In general, cream is available in six grades. The lightest, which customarily has a butterfat content of 10.5% to 18%, is generally sold under the names of extra light cream and half cream. The next heaviest grade has a fat content that generally ranges between 12% and 30%. This cream may be referred to as light, coffee or table cream, or sterilized half cream. These two classifications of cream are frequently used to lighten tea or coffee or as a cereal topping.
The next two categories of cream are typically used as dessert toppings, unwhipped. Generally marketed as cream, single cream, medium cream, or pure cream, the fat content in the next level of these dairy products normally falls between 25% and 56%.
Widely referred to as sterilized or whipping cream, the next heaviest level contains an average of 35% to 36% butterfat. This cream is widely used as an ingredient for soups and sauces. Creams with fat contents ranging between 35% and 60% are generally marketed under the names of extra-heavy or double cream and are often considered the best creams to whip for food toppings.
Clotted cream, generally only available in specialty markets, is heat-treated and has a fat content of around 55%. It is traditionally served unwhipped with sweets. If whipped for a moderate period of time, it resembles butter.
When I worked as a barista in a small coffee shop a few summers ago, a man came in once wanting me to make a cafe au lait using breve. For the uninitiated, cafe au lait, or "coffee and milk" in French, is typically one half house coffee and one half steamed milk in one cup. Breve is a fancy, coffee shop word for Half and half. So the guy wanted half coffee, half half and half. Yes, it was really very gross.