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How to Tell If Heavy Cream Is Bad

For the most part, heavy cream is consumable without fear of spoilage. Watch out for these signs because they tell you otherwise.

From whipped cream and cake frosting to hearty pasta, a decadent omelet, or a delicious cream of mushroom soup, there are countless reasons to always have a carton of heavy cream in the fridge.

Considering that heavy cream comes in relatively large 16-32 ounce cartons, that’s not really difficult to achieve. Even if you add a generous dollop of cream to your dish, you’ll have plenty left over for adding to other dishes in the days and weeks to come.

But how long can you keep an opened carton of heavy cream in the refrigerator?

Refrigerated, an opened carton of cream will keep up to 3-4 weeks. Remember to close the cap of the carton tightly before storing it on the middle shelves of your fridge, where the temperature is most suitable for dairy.

If the heavy cream came in a container with a foil lid and you can’t reseal it as it is, put it in a ziplock bag or, better yet, transfer it from its original packaging to an airtight food storage container.

That’s good and all… but, if you forgot when you put it in there in the first place, as it often happens, how can you tell if the heavy cream hasn’t gone bad?

Mold, curdling, and/or an off-putting odor are signs that a carton of heavy cream in your fridge has spoiled and you should no longer use it. If you suspect that heavy cream has spoiled, throw it away immediately so that others in your household don’t try to eat it.

Curdling and a sour smell are usually the first signs that heavy cream is past its prime. Treat mold as a warning sign that you will most probably get food poisoning if you cook or eat the cream, so never ignore it.

There’s also the fact that spoiled heavy cream can no longer be whipped—an unmistakable sign of spoilage to watch out for when you use it as an ingredient to prepare frosting for a cake.

Now, it can be hard to determine whether or not the cream is curdling if you keep it in its original container because these containers are not see-through. So, before you add all the cream to your dish, pour a sample into a dark bowl or clear storage container to observe the consistency.

After all, you don’t want to ruin an entire dish with spoiled cream, do you?

Why Does Heavy Cream Last So Long?

Heavy cream milk is basically the fatty part of fresh milk. With 36-40% milkfat (compare that to the 3.25% fat content of whole milk), there’s no wonder why it can make any dish creamy and velvety.

Dairy producers make heavy cream by separating the fat from the milk at the processing plant. The milk goes through a sterilization process called Ultra-High Temperature, abbreviated as “UHT,” which kills the bacteria that cause the milk to spoil.

The high fat content of heavy cream provides additional protection against spoilage, there’s no doubt about it, but the main reason for its relatively long shelf life is the UHT processing, which many of us know as “pasteurization.”

The Wrong Way to Store Heavy Cream

Heavy cream is a dairy product and a perishable food item. As such, you should never let it sit out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours (or 1 hour on a hot summer’s day, when the outside temperature is higher than 90°F).

There’s a reason the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service calls room temperature the “danger zone.” In the 40-140°F temperature range, pathogenic bacteria feed on your food and multiply so rapidly that their population roughly doubles every 20 minutes.

At a certain point, the bacteria and the toxins they produce become so numerous that your food can challenge your body’s defense mechanisms and give you food poisoning if you cook with it or eat it. In other words, don’t.

Tips On Storing Heavy Cream

Keep cartons of heavy cream refrigerated at all times, no matter if you’ve opened them or not. The best place in your fridge for storing heavy cream (and dairy products as a whole) is the middle shelf.

Avoid storing heavy cream on the refrigerator door shelves. As the door opens and closes—and your fridge works hard to compensate for the loss of cold—the temperature on the shelves will fluctuate greatly and shorten the life of the cream.

Keep your container sealed at all times. Heavy cream becomes particularly susceptible to spoilage once it’s opened. So only open that carton of cream when you’re sure you are going to need it, and, if it has been opened, cover it in a ziplock bag or move it to an airtight food storage container.

Final Thoughts

Heavy cream is a staple in the American household. And, for food safety reasons, knowing how to store it is almost as critical as knowing what to do with it.

To keep it fresh and safe to eat, make sure to keep it in the refrigerator, never in the pantry. And do not leave it out at room temperature for more than 2 hours, or you will have to throw it in the bin.

Your heavy cream should be odorless, not sour. It should not be separated and should taste fresh. As long as you keep these points in mind, you will not have to worry about any heavy cream mishaps.

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Written by

Jim is the former editor of Home Cook World. He is a career food writer who's been cooking and baking at home ever since he could see over the counter and put a chair by the stove.