Half-and-half and heavy cream seem alike, but the dairy staples aren't interchangeable in cooking.

By Kelly Vaughan
Updated March 13, 2019
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Most people have both half-and-half and heavy cream in their refrigerator at the same time, but have you ever swapped one for the other and found it didn’t quite work? There’s a reason for that. As it turns out, half-and-half has about half the milkfat as heavy cream does, which means it’s a lighter product that won’t result in as creamy or decadent of a dish. While both half-and-half and heavy cream work well in beverages like coffee, tea, or smoothies, and as a creamy add-in for some recipes, they won’t always work as a substitute for one another. Below, we break down the unique qualities of heavy cream vs. half-and-half and how to cook with each. We also unpack exactly what is fat-free half-and-half and the differences between half-and-half vs. light cream.

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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 made with equal parts 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 soup, Joanna 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.

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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 will 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?

While fat-free half-and-half may seem like a healthy alternative, its name is deceiving. Fat-free half-and-half usually contains fat-free milk, corn syrup, cream, artificial colors, and a handful of chemicals that are not normally found in regular half-and-half. Fat-free half-and-half only has about half the calories of regular half-and-half and one less gram of sugar per serving. While the fewer calories and fat-free may leave you feeling guilt free, the half dozen additives make us feel inclined to use the real deal.