Knowing Whether to Use Half-and-Half or Heavy Cream Can Make or Break a Recipe

Half-and-half and heavy cream might seem alike, but the dairy staples aren't the same.

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Most people have both half-and-half and heavy cream in their refrigerator, 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 fat-free half-and-half is and the differences between half-and-half and 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 simply doesn't contain enough milkfat to form luscious stiff peaks.

If you're cooking savory recipes like Joanna Gaines's asparagus & fontina quiche, or mashed potatoes, heavy cream and half-and-half can be used interchangeably, generally. 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.

RELATED: This Heavy Cream Substitute Is So Good You Won't Notice the Difference

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Light Cream vs. Half-and-Half

There's even less of a difference between light cream and half-and-half than there is between heavy cream and half-and-half. The FDA requires products labeled as light cream contain between 18 and 30 percent milkfat, which means 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 glazed cake donuts. Don't overdo the cream is recipes that will be heated for long periods of time, as the cream could curdle. Like half-and-half, the low milkfat content in light cream also means that it cannot be whisked into fluffy whipped cream.

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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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does half and half taste the same as heavy cream?

    Overall, the two products look similar but do not taste the same. Heavy cream contains 40 percent milk fat making it creamier than half and half, which has just 12 percent milk fat. Heavy cream has a richer mouth feel than half and half, which can feel more watery.

  • Can you turn half and half into heavy cream?

    To turn half and half into heavy cream, you will need butter. To substitute one cup of heavy cream, melt 1/4 cup of unsalted butter and whisk it into 3/4 cup of half and half.

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