Avoid confusion in the dairy aisle or rushing out to the grocery store in a pinch with these heavy and light cream facts and substitutes.

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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. 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.

Here, we explain the differences between the most common types of creams used for cooking, the best substitutes for heavy cream and half-and-half, plus how to decode the labels and best uses for each type of cream.

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Heavy Cream vs. Whipping Cream

Heavy whipping cream vs. 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.

Whipping cream, on the other hand, contains between 30 percent to 35 percent milkfat, which means that it is a lighter product than heavy cream and 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 percent milkfat difference 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 to 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.

When to use whipping cream: Whipping cream is ideal for, you guessed it, whipped cream. It has as 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 meringuesberries and coconut cream, and this insanely beautiful sheet pan pavlova.

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 percent 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 them 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.

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: Pour 1 Tbsp. heavy cream into each cube of an ice tray and freeze. Defrost the cream cubes in advance, or pop them right into hot soup for enhanced creaminess. Consider basic conversions if using this method: 4 tablespoons per ¼ cup. 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.

The 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 this key ingredient. While these heavy cream substitutes don't work well for making whipped cream, they're the perfect alternative in most other recipes.

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DIY Heavy Cream Substitute

You can make a foolproof heavy cream substitute at home whenever you're in a pinch. Simply melt ¼ cup unsalted butter and slowly whisk in ¾ cup whole milk or half-and-half. This is the equivalent of 1 cup of heavy cream and can be used in place of heavy cream in most recipes. However, this 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.

Vegan Substitute for Heavy Cream

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. You can also try it in some of our favorite coconut milk-based recipes like poached chicken soup, satay sauce, and coconut milk chocolate pudding.

Other Heavy Cream Substitutes

Our other favorite substitutes for heavy cream include evaporated milk and half-and-half. Both have a similar creaminess and flavor to heavy cream, but with fewer calories and fat. Whipping cream also works as a heavy cream substitute, as it's 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.

RELATED: Evaporated Milk vs. Condensed Milk: What's the Difference?

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Half-and-Half vs. Heavy Cream

The main difference between half-and-half vs. 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 percent milkfat. To make half-and-half at home, mix together a 1:1 ratio of heavy cream and milk and use in any recipe (or your daily cup of joe) that calls for half-and-half. Heavy cream, on the other hand, is a thicker and richer cream that contains at least 36 percent milkfat, nearly double that of 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.

If you're cooking savory recipes like this potato-parsnip soupJoanna Gaines's asparagus & fontina quiche, or mashed potatoes, heavy cream and half-and-half can be 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. To temper half-and-half, add a little bit of hot liquid to a bowl with half-and-half and slowly whisk together; repeat two more times, then slowly stir the tempered half-and-half back into the original mixture. By doing this process, you are gently raising the temperature of the half-and-half, which prevents curdling.

When to use half-and-half: It's the perfect way to add a silky richness to creamy mashed potatoesquiches, and caramel sauce. It's also a delicious coffee creamer However, half-and-half does not have enough fat to whip up into homemade whipped cream, so reserve that recipe for heavy cream only.

Light cream vs. half-and-half

There's even less of a difference between light cream vs. half-and-half than there is between heavy cream vs. half-and-half. The FDA requires that products labeled as light cream contain between 18 and 30 percent milkfat, which means that it is fattier than half-and-half but not as rich and creamy as heavy cream. Light cream is a perfect coffee add-in, as well as a drizzle over mixed berries, as a substitute for milk in these glazed cake donuts, or in Cajun skirt steak with creamed corn. Don't overdo the light cream is recipes that are heated for long periods of time, as the cream has the potential to curdle. Like half-and-half, the low milkfat content in light cream also means that it can't be whisked into fluffy whipped cream.

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 less chemicals and overall better for you.

The Best Half-and-Half Substitutes

These seamless substitutes for half-and-half are perfect in cheddar and beer soupslow cooker gingerbread hot chocolate, and apricot-coconut cake.

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DIY Half-and-Half Substitute

You can easily make your own half-and-half at home by mixing equal parts of 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 equal parts of heavy cream and milk, like this panettone bread pudding. Instead of using 2 cups of heavy cream and 2 cups of milk, you can safely substitute for 4 cups of half-and-half (shopping hint: 4 cups of half-and-half is the equivalent of 1 quart).

Other Half-and-Half Options

Light cream (not light whipping 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. Whole milk, light cream, 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 half-and-half as what is called for in a recipe; just know that the consistency of your recipe may be different than intended (but still delicious).