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Cream chargers are small steel cylinders containing nitrous oxide (N2O), which is used in whipped cream and foam dispensers as a whipping agent. Whipping cream is added to a dispenser like a siphon outfitted with a nitrous oxide cartridge. The cartridge contents are injected into the whipping cream, creating foam that is light and frothy. Cream chargers should be stored away from any heat source and are typically purchased in packs.
A typical cream charger cylinder is approximately 2.5 inches (6.3 centimeters) long and 0.7 inches (1.8 centimeters) wide. One end forms a narrow tip that is screwed tightly into the dispenser until it is pierced. Piercing the cylinder releases the contents into the dispenser. When cooking with cream chargers, one cartridge is typically used and never more than two.
The dispenser should not be filled to capacity so that the contents have room to mix with the cream charger's N2O. After the cylinder is pierced, the dispenser should be shaken for about 20 seconds to allow the ingredients to mix with the air injected inside. During this process, the fat-soluble gas dissolves into the dispenser contents.
The high pressure inside the dispenser forces the contents out through the nozzle when the lever or valve is pressed. The gas that has dissolved into the dispenser’s contents returns to a gaseous state and creates foam with up to four times the volume of the original liquid. Foam produced this way is not stable and will return to a liquid state in approximately half an hour. Cream charges use N2O and not carbon dioxide because the latter is acidic in water and would curdle the whipping cream.
The most common use of cream chargers is to make whipped cream using whipping cream or heavy cream. Adding sugar is optional. Colors and flavorings may also be added if desired.
There are many culinary uses of cream chargers beyond whipped cream. Purees and liquids can be mixed with a little gelatin to create flavored foam. Custards, meringue, and even cake batters can be whipped using cream chargers. The resulting foams can be served hot or cold. For cold foams, the dispenser is usually kept in ice water for about 15 minutes prior to serving. To make hot foams, the dispenser is placed in warm water.
In addition to their culinary uses, cream chargers serve as inexpensive sources of N2O for model rocket enthusiasts. N2O is the oxidizer for a solid fuel like polyethylene in a micro hybrid engine. The use of N2O improves combustion, thus enabling a rocket equipped with cream chargers to fly higher than one of conventional design.
The contents of cream chargers may be abused as an inhalant that produces psychoactive effects. Inhaling from a cream charger is a common way that individuals abuse N2O. Cream chargers are inexpensive and widely available commercially, making them easy to obtain. As they are common in many kitchens, their presence in a house does not typically arouse suspicion.
In the short term, inhaling N2O can cause heart palpitations, dizziness, and headaches. Over time, the brain, heart, and lungs, among other major organs, can be permanently damaged. Other typical inhalants include paint thinner, nail polish remover, and correction fluid.