The dairy aisle is home to so many options—milk, butter, yogurt, many different types of eggs, and beyond—and it often seems like new products, brands, and varieties are added each day. But there are plenty of long-time residents, too…namely, half-and-half and heavy cream. These creamy, dreamy wonders have been staples in our refrigerators for decades, lightening up our morning coffees, giving soups and sauces that perfect, velvety texture, and adding creaminess to all sorts of desserts (Ree’s Drummond’s vanilla ice cream is a prime example 😍). But…what’s the deal with these two products? When it comes to half-and-half vs. heavy cream, is there really a difference? And more importantly (especially for the bakers and home cooks among us), are they interchangeable?
The answer all comes down to fat. The key, you see, is understanding the different types of milkfat content at play—because if you’re looking to make a substitution, it’s important to assess whether the difference in milkfat content is going to alter your dish drastically. For instance, if you’re after a splash or two in your coffee, consider them interchangeable. But if you’re setting out to make a batch of whipped cream, well, that’s a different story—and various types of cakes and other desserts will require the use of one or the other. Keep reading—we’ll dive deep into all the delightful dairy details below!
What is heavy cream?
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Heavy cream (or heavy whipping cream) is the thick, fatty part of milk that rises to the top during production. According to the USDA, heavy cream should have anywhere between 36 percent to 40 percent milkfat, making it one of the highest-fat dairy products on the market. No wonder it’s the secret to glorious, beloved sweets such as whipped cream and ganache.
You may have also seen something called “whipping cream” in the dairy aisle—this product is also known as “light whipping cream,” and it has a slightly lower milkfat content than heavy cream (roughly 30 percent to 36 percent). It can be used in place of heavy cream, though if you’re whipping it, you’ll want to note that you won’t get the same distinct stiff peaks as you will from its fattier counterpart.
What is half-and-half?
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You’ve probably used half-and-half in your morning cup of coffee…or to add thickness to dishes like pot pie and green bean casserole. (Yum!) In fact, you may even have a carton sitting in your fridge right now. But what exactly is half-and-half? Well, as its name suggests, it’s equal parts whole milk and heavy cream. And, as required by the USDA, anything bearing the name “half-and-half” must have anywhere between 10.5 percent to 18 percent milkfat.
Are half-and-half and heavy cream interchangeable?
The two products may be similar, but they’re not the same thing—so it really depends on what you’re making. As we’ve discussed, half-and-half is part milk, part heavy cream (hence the name!), which means it’s lower in fat than full-on heavy cream. So, if you’re cooking something forgiving like soup or mashed potatoes, heavy cream and half-and-half are virtually interchangeable in equal amounts, yes—both will give you that creamy texture we all love and crave. Just be mindful that heavy cream contains more fat, so it will taste much richer. For that reason, if you do use heavy cream in place of half-and-half, you might want to consider diluting it with a little bit of water first. And on that note, if you aren’t sure what to do with a large amount of leftover heavy cream (because topping everything with whipped cream isn’t socially acceptable, tragically), just mix it with equal parts whole milk. Now, you have half-and-half. Magic!
How much half-and-half should I substitute for heavy cream?
Good question. In most cases, you can consider this a “one-for-one” swap. There’s just one exception, and it’s a big one: whipped cream. No amount of whisking is going to turn half-and-half into whipped cream! If you’re in dire need of whipped cream and you have no heavy cream in sight, don’t worry: A little bit of butter can save the day. Melt some butter (equal to about 1/8 the amount of half-and-half you’re using) and whisk (and we mean WHISK!) it into the half-and-half until it starts to build volume. It may not taste exactly like actual whipped cream, but it’s certainly an acceptable substitute in a whipped cream emergency. And hey, we’ve all been there.