Heavy Cream, Whipping Cream, or Half-and-Half? Here's What to Use When

Avoid confusion in the dairy aisle with these heavy and light cream facts and substitutes.

three pitchers filled with heavy cream

With all the options in the milk section, it's easy to get confused. Heavy cream vs. heavy whipping cream? What about heavy cream vs. whipping cream? Oh, and then there's half-and-half and heavy cream substitutes. Their similar names and placement right next to each other on retail shelves can baffle even advanced cooks, and ultimately affect the consistency, texture, and flavor of certain dishes. So we are demystifying these dairy products and explaining some basic cream know-how.

In this handy guide, you'll learn:

  • The differences between the most common types of creams used for cooking
  • How to decode the nutrition labels
  • The best half-and-half and heavy cream substitutes
  • How to use each type of cream
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Heavy Cream

Heavy cream and whipping cream—think they're the same? Think again. These seemingly similar varieties of cream contain different amounts of milkfat, which can create very different products.

Heavy cream is a common ingredient found in both sweet and savory recipes. Heavy cream (aka heavy whipping cream) contains between 36 and 40 percent milkfat and is thicker than light cream, whipping cream, half-and-half, whole milk, and evaporated milk. Heavy cream's high-fat content means that it won't curdle when heated, and is the best choice for whipping into stiff peaks.

Is heavy cream the same as heavy whipping cream?

Heavy cream and heavy whipping cream are actually the same product just with two different names. According to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, heavy cream and heavy whipping cream must contain at least 36% milkfat. Their nutritional info is also the same—both contain about 50 calories, 5 grams of fat, and 3.5 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon. Next time you see heavy cream and heavy whipping cream packed next to each other in the grocery store, you won't have to think twice about which one to pick up. Different label, same delicious dairy.

When should I use heavy cream?

Heavy cream makes everything richer, creamier, and tastier. Heavy cream recipes like creamy cauliflower soup and Boston cream pie ice cream become more luscious with lots of heavy cream. Even a splash or two of heavy cream in recipes like slow-cooker Bolognese sauce and tarragon cream sauce can add a satisfying decadence to basic weeknight meals.

Can you freeze heavy cream?

We were amazed to learn that the answer to whether or not you can freeze heavy cream is...yes. While heavy cream stays fresh in the refrigerator for about a month, sometimes you end up with an overabundance of heavy cream, especially during the holidays.

How to freeze heavy cream:

  1. Pour 1 tablespoon of heavy cream into each cube of an ice tray and freeze.
  2. Defrost the cream cubes in advance, or pop them right into hot soup for enhanced creaminess.

You can also freeze an entire pint or quart of heavy cream in its package; just pour out about ½ cup of heavy cream to make a little room, as the cream will expand when frozen.

Whipping Cream

Whipping cream contains between 30% to 35% milkfat, which means that it is a lighter product than heavy cream (heavy whipping cream). Whipping cream contains only 45 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, and 3 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon.

Most packages list the milkfat content, so if you're not sure which cream is right for your recipe, just read the label. The 5 percentage point difference in milkfat may not seem like a big deal, but it can drastically change the richness and thickness of soups, sauces, and sweets. The lower fat content in whipping cream means that it won't ever achieve perfectly stiff peaks when whipped, so for a truly impressive whipped cream topping on pies or cakes, use heavy cream.

When should I use whipping cream?

Whipping cream is ideal for, you guessed it, whipped cream. It has a lighter, airy texture due to the lower amount of milkfat; however, this does mean that it won't hold its shape as well when whipped. The end result will be similar to the consistency of Cool Whip, rather than a thick, intricate cream topping. Whipped cream made using whipping cream, not heavy cream, is perfect as a dollop on ice cream or a garnish for jelly bean meringues, berries and coconut cream, and sheet pan pavlova.

Half-and-Half

The main difference between half-and-half and heavy cream is the milkfat content. Half-and-half is literally made with equal parts of heavy cream and milk. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that half-and-half contains between 10.5 and 18% milkfat. Heavy cream, on the other hand, is a thicker and richer cream that contains at least 36% milkfat, nearly double that of half-and-half.

What is fat-free half-and-half?

Beware of anything labeled fat-free half-and-half; it sounds too good to be true because it is. Fat-free half-and-half is mainly made with skim milk, corn syrup, and half a dozen additives and artificial colors. Stick to regular half-and-half, which is a purer product with fewer chemicals and is overall better for you.

When to use half-and-half

If you're trying to cut back on fat, half-and-half is a suitable substitute. However, don't try to whip half-and-half for whipped cream; the product doesn't contain nearly enough milkfat to form luscious stiff peaks that will hold their own shape. Remember, reserve homemade whipped cream for heavy cream (or whipping cream if you prefer a Cool Whip-like texture).

Half-and-half is the perfect way to add a silky richness to creamy mashed potatoes, quiches, and caramel sauce. It's also a delicious coffee creamer. If you're cooking savory recipes like potato-parsnip soup or Joanna Gaines's asparagus and fontina quiche, heavy cream or half-and-half can generally be used interchangeably.

Just know that the consistency and richness of these dishes may vary based on which type of cream you use. Beyond that, you must temper half-and-half when adding it to hot liquid, otherwise, it will separate and curdle.

How to temper half-and-half:

  1. Add a little bit of hot liquid to a bowl with half-and-half and slowly whisk together; repeat two more times.
  2. Slowly stir the tempered half-and-half back into the original mixture. By doing this, you are gently raising the temperature of the half-and-half, which prevents curdling.

Light Cream

There's even less of a difference between light cream (aka light whipping cream) and half-and-half than there is between heavy cream and half-and-half. The FDA requires that products labeled as light cream contain between 18 and 30% milkfat, which means that light cream is fattier than half-and-half, but not as rich and creamy as heavy cream.

When should I use light cream?

Light cream is a perfect coffee add-in, as well as a drizzle over mixed berries, or as a substitute for milk in glazed cake donuts or creamed corn. Don't overdo the light cream in recipes that are heated for long periods of time, as the cream has the potential to curdle. Like half-and-half, the low milk fat content in light cream also means that it can't be whisked into fluffy whipped cream.

Takeaways

  • Heavy cream contains between 36 and 40% milkfat.
  • Whipping cream contains between 30 and 35% milkfat.
  • Light cream contains between 18 and 30% milkfat.
  • Half-and-half contains between 10.5 and 18% milkfat.

Best Heavy Cream Substitutes

Perhaps you're cooking for someone who is vegan or maybe you get halfway through your recipe before you realize you're out of a key ingredient. While these heavy cream substitutes don't work well for making whipped cream, they're the perfect alternative in most other recipes.

Butter and Whole Milk

You can make a foolproof heavy cream substitute at home whenever you're in a pinch.

INSTRUCTIONS:

  • Melt ¼ cup unsalted butter and slowly whisk in ¾ cup whole milk or half-and-half.

This mixture is the equivalent of 1 cup of heavy cream and can be used in place of heavy cream in most recipes. However, this solution won't whip up into stiff peaks for whipped cream, so save that for the real thing. The fat in the butter mimics the fat in heavy cream, while the milk is a seamless dairy substitute.

Coconut Milk

If you're vegan, have a dairy allergy, or are just trying to cut down on your dairy consumption, you don't have to deprive yourself of the creamy, rich decadence of heavy cream. The perfect dairy-free heavy cream substitute is coconut milk, which has the same consistency and thickness as heavy cream. It will blend seamlessly into recipes like soups and stews that call for heavy cream.

Evaporated Milk

Our other favorite heavy cream substitute is evaporated milk (which is not the same as condensed milk).

As mentioned earlier, you can also substitute half-and-half or whipping cream. Both have a similar creaminess and flavor to heavy cream, but with fewer calories and fat. Whipping cream is a nearly an identical product with just 5 percent less milkfat.

Know that your recipe may not taste as rich or be as decadent as it would be with heavy cream; however, we don't think you'll be disappointed with these silky substitutions for heavy cream.

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Best Half-and-Half Substitutes

These seamless substitutes for half-and-half are perfect in recipes like this slow cooker gingerbread hot chocolate.

Heavy Cream and Milk

You can easily make your own half-and-half at home by mixing equal parts heavy cream and milk in a mason jar (or any airtight container) and shaking vigorously.

When half-and-half is made for commercial use, it is homogenized which means that the heavy cream and milk are mixed fully to prevent them from separating. Shaking thoroughly will avoid separation in your own half-and-half recipe.

You can also use half-and-half in recipes that call for nearly equal parts of heavy cream and milk, like this lemon-thyme rhubarb bread pudding. For example, instead of using 1 cup of heavy cream and 1 cup of milk, you can safely substitute for 2 cups of half-and-half (shopping hint: 4 cups of half-and-half is the equivalent of 1 quart).

Light Cream

Light cream is the most similar dairy product to half-and-half; it contains between 18 to 30 percent milkfat and is just slightly thicker in consistency than half-and-half.

Again, whole milk, whipping cream, and even heavy cream are also worthy half-and-half substitutes in any recipe where you're trying to add creaminess and richness.

Use the same amount of cream as what is called for in a recipe; just know that the consistency of your recipe may be different than intended (but still delicious).

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