Can you substitute milk for heavy cream in tres leches?

Tres leches cake, meaning “three milks cake” in Spanish, is a sponge cake soaked in a mixture of three kinds of milk – evaporated milk, condensed milk, and heavy cream. The specific combination of milks is what gives tres leches cake its unique moist, creamy texture. So can you substitute regular milk for the heavy cream? Let’s take a closer look.

The Role of Heavy Cream in Tres Leches Cake

Heavy cream, also known as heavy whipping cream, has a high fat content – usually around 36-40%. This high fat content is what gives heavy cream a thick, rich consistency. In tres leches cake, the heavy cream:

  • Helps make the cake ultra moist and tender
  • Gives the cake a smooth, creamy texture
  • Provides a rich dairy flavor
  • Helps prevent the cake from becoming soggy

With its high fat content, heavy cream creates a luscious mouthfeel and prevents the cake from becoming watery when soaked with the three milks mixture. The fat in the heavy cream also carries the flavors of the milk and vanilla extract throughout the cake.

Differences Between Heavy Cream and Milk

So what happens if you use regular milk instead of heavy cream?

The main difference between heavy cream and milk is their fat content:

  • Heavy cream has 36-40% fat
  • Whole milk has around 3.25% fat
  • 2% reduced fat milk has 2% fat
  • Skim milk has less than 0.5% fat

Clearly, the fat content in regular milk varieties is much lower than that in heavy cream. There are some other key differences as well:

Heavy Cream Milk
Thick, rich texture Thinner, more watery texture
Higher calorie Lower calorie
Sweet taste Less sweet
Adds richness Doesn’t provide richness

The bottom line is that milk and heavy cream have quite different properties in terms of fat content, texture, flavor, and effects on baking.

What Happens When You Use Milk Instead of Heavy Cream

Substituting milk for heavy cream significantly alters the texture and flavor of tres leches cake. Here’s what you can expect:

  • Cake won’t be as moist – Without the high fat content, milk doesn’t impart as much moisture.
  • Texture may become soggy – Milk is thinner than cream so more likely to make cake watery.
  • Less rich flavor – Milk doesn’t provide the same richness and sweetness.
  • Cake won’t hold up as well – Lower fat means less structure to prevent cake collapsing.
  • Milk flavor more noticeable – Subtle dairy flavor becomes more pronounced.

While the cake will still taste good with milk, the changes are quite noticeable, especially in terms of moistness and richness.

Best Milk Substitutes for Heavy Cream

If you don’t have heavy cream, what’s the best milk substitute to use?

Here are some better options that provide thicker texture and higher fat content:

  • Whole milk – More fat than lower fat milks so can help retain moisture and richness better.
  • Half-and-half – A blend of milk and cream, so provides more fat than regular milk.
  • Evaporated whole milk – Has a creamy texture similar to cream.
  • Sweetened condensed milk – Very thick with concentrated milk flavor.

You may need to experiment with the ratios when using these substitutes. For example, use a little less evaporated milk and a bit more regular milk or half-and-half to get the right consistency.

Tips for Using Milk Instead of Heavy Cream

If you don’t have a choice but to use milk instead of heavy cream, here are some tips:

  • Use whole milk or half-and-half, not lower fat milk.
  • Reduce the milk soak time to prevent sogginess.
  • Add a little cornstarch to the milk mixture to help thicken it.
  • Chill the cake well before serving to firm it up.
  • Enjoy the cake soon after assembling since it won’t hold up as long.
  • Serve with whipped cream or dulce de leche to add richness.

The Best Tres Leches Cake Uses Heavy Cream

While it’s possible to make tres leches cake with regular milk, the best texture and flavor definitely comes from using heavy cream. The high fat content of heavy cream gives tres leches cake its signature creaminess and moist crumb that this dessert is loved for.

In a pinch, whole milk or half-and-half can be decent substitutes, especially if you tweak the method and portions. But for the real deal, your best bet is to use the tres leches – evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and rich heavy cream.

Recipe for Tres Leches Cake Using Milk Instead of Heavy Cream

If you need to make tres leches cake without heavy cream, this adjusted recipe helps compensate for the lower fat content of milk:


  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 5 large eggs, separated
  • 1 1/4 cups white sugar, divided
  • 1/3 cup whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 (12 fluid ounce) can evaporated milk
  • 1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract


  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9×13 inch baking pan.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
  3. In a large bowl, beat egg whites until foamy using electric mixer. Gradually beat in 3/4 cup sugar until stiff peaks form. Set aside.
  4. In another large bowl, beat egg yolks with remaining 1/2 cup sugar. Beat in 1/3 cup milk and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Stir in flour mixture until combined.
  5. Gently fold 1/3 of egg white mixture into batter to lighten it. Then carefully fold in remaining egg whites just until combined. Spread batter evenly into prepared pan.
  6. Bake for 25-30 minutes until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Let cake cool completely in pan on a wire rack.
  7. To make milk mixture, whisk together evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, 1/2 cup whole milk, cornstarch and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract until smooth. Poke holes all over cake with a fork.
  8. Slowly pour milk mixture evenly over cake. Refrigerate cake at least 2 hours before serving. Top with whipped cream if desired.

The extra whole milk and cornstarch help add richness and thickness. Be sure to refrigerate the cake well before serving for best texture. Enjoy this lighter take on the classic tres leches cake!

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is heavy cream used in tres leches cake?

Heavy cream is used in tres leches cake for its high fat content, which helps make the cake incredibly moist and tender. The fat in the heavy cream also provides richness, carries flavor, and prevents the cake from becoming soggy when soaked with the milk mixture.

What’s the biggest difference between heavy cream and milk?

The biggest difference is their fat content. Heavy cream contains around 36-40% milk fat, while whole milk contains only 3-4% milk fat. This substantial difference in fat content gives heavy cream a much thicker, richer texture than any type of milk.

What milk is best to substitute for heavy cream?

The best milk substitutes for heavy cream are whole milk or half-and-half. Both provide more fat than lower fat milks. Evaporated whole milk or sweetened condensed milk can also work well due to their thicker, creamier textures.

How do you adjust the recipe when using milk instead of cream?

Tips for adapting the recipe include using whole milk only, reducing the milk soak time, adding cornstarch to thicken the milk mixture, chilling the cake well before serving, and enjoying it soon after assembly. Adding whipped cream as a topping can also help compensate for the lost richness.

Is tres leches cake supposed to be made with heavy cream?

Yes, traditionally tres leches cake is made by soaking a sponge cake with a mixture of evaporated milk, condensed milk, and heavy cream. Using regular milk instead of heavy cream alters the texture and flavor significantly. While the cake still tastes good, it won’t have the signature creaminess tres leches is known for.


Heavy cream is a key ingredient in classic tres leches cake, providing richness, moisture, and tender texture. Substituting regular milk results in a less creamy, soggy cake with a more pronounced milk flavor. For best results, use whole milk or half-and-half rather than lower fat milk. Adjust the method as needed by reducing soak time, chilling thoroughly, and enjoying soon after assembly. But for true tres leches texture and decadence, heavy cream is the way to go.

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