Study up, then school your dinner guests about the popular pie toppings.
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In Iowa, where I was born and raised, "salad" has a very liberal definition. Midwesterners won't be constrained by the limits of leafy greens alone, or even mayo-based salads. Nope, our potlucks pretty much aren't official potlucks until a creamy Cool Whip-infused salad arrives. These dessert-style salads were so ubiquitous at school and family gatherings that I never really thought to question any of the ingredients.

That all changed when I entered college with students from other states, then moved to New York City for a couple years, and realized that Cool Whip has far different uses and meanings to non-Midwesterners. (ICYMI, we recently dove into the hot topic of what makes a salad a salad.)

As a result, I began a long overdue exploration into Cool Whip. What is it, really, and how is it made differently than classic whipped cream? Whether you're using the whipped topping to garnish pies, milkshakes, or mix into "salads," here's the scoop.

Whipping cream with a mixer. Bubbles on cream
Credit: iStock / Getty Images Plus

What Is Cool Whip? How Is Cool Whip Made?

Originally created in 1966, Cool Whip was dreamed up by William H. Mitchell, a chemist at General Mills (who is also credited with inventing Tang, Pop Rocks, and Jell-O). Since whipping cream takes some time and muscle power, this was billed as a schedule- and strength-saver for busy home cooks at the time. And unlike classic whipped cream, Cool Whip could be frozen, stored, shipped, and saved easier. It also doesn't melt over time, which comes in handy for those aforementioned dessert salads and other feeds-a-crowd recipes like Flag Cake, The Best Banana Pudding, and Chocolate-Covered OREO Cookie Cake.

In its original formulation, Cool Whip contained zero cream or milk. Today, it's been reformulated to contain a splash of light cream — alongside corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated vegetable oil, skim milk, and a few artificial and natural flavors, colors, and gums. For this reason, Cool Whip is actually categorized, advertised and labeled as "whipped topping," not whipped cream.

In the 1990s, Cool Whip Lite and Free emerged to please the low-fat dieters at the time. Today, the Cool Whip line is owned by Kraft Heinz and ranges from extra creamy to sugar-free to some limited-time-only seasonal flavors.

What Is Whipped Cream? How Is Whipped Cream Made?

Whipped cream, in its most classic, grandma-approved form (AKA made from scratch), is simply heavy cream that's been whipped into a fluffy and cloud-like consistency. The higher the fat content of the cream, the quicker it will take to whip.

It's best created using chilled utensils and bowls, and often includes a tablespoon or two of confectioners' sugar or superfine sugar.

After soft peaks begin to form, it's go-time to drizzle in any flavor-boosters, such as vanilla extract, another extract or your favorite liqueur. Coffee (like Kahlúa, $31.99 for 1 liter; Drizly), chocolate (such as Godiva Dark Chocolate Liqueur, $33.99 for 750 milliliters; Drizly) and nut (like Disaronno Originale Amaretto Liqueur, $27.99 for 750 milliliters, Target) liqueurs are particularly delightful for dessert uses.

Instead of the gums or syrups that are utilized in Cool Whip, this whipped mix gets its stand-up ability from the air bubbles incorporated into the fat molecules. Compared to Cool Whip, the consistency of whipped cream is lighter and fluffier.

Cool Whip vs. Whipped Cream

Cool Whip and whipped cream look similar, but are actually surprisingly different in building blocks and best uses. As long as you don't have any food allergies or aversions, both have their place and purpose; whipped cream as the MVP garnish when you're enjoying a sweet treat in the near future, and Cool Whip as the star of desserts (and salads) with longer shelf lives.

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This story originally appeared on allrecipes.com