A trip to the grocery dairy aisle, with its myriad shapes, sizes and colors of cream-containing cardboard cartons, can be overwhelming. What's the difference between light cream, whipping cream, heavy cream and half-and-half? And what do those differences mean when it comes to cooking?
As you know, cream is the yellowish, fatty component of non-homogenized milk, which rises to the top and is skimmed off. So, what's the difference?
Simply enough, the difference between them is fat content. Half-and-half contains about 12 percent butterfat; light cream about 20 percent; whipping cream contains 35 percent fat; and heavy cream has about 38 percent fat.
The higher the fat content, the thicker and richer the cream, meaning it's easier to whip into firm, holding "peaks" for whipped cream. Higher-fat cream also withstands curdling better; for soups and sauces, which require cream to be heated, higher fat content is the way to go.
Half-and-half is exactly that: half whole milk and half cream. It has an average fat content of 12 percent (higher than the 3.5 percent of whole milk) though that can vary between 10 percent and 18 percent.
Half-and-half is most commonly used as creamer for coffee or tea, or on top of cereal. Its low fat content means it cannot be whipped; however, half-and-half can be substituted for light or whipping cream in some recipes.
The next step up is light cream, which contains about 20 percent butterfat - still not enough for whipping, but great for those wanting their coffee or tea that much creamier.
Light cream is also great served over fresh fruits and berries or atop cakes, crisps and crumbles. It's sometimes known as 'single cream' or 'table cream.'
With an average of 35 percent fat (between 30 percent and 36 percent), whipping cream contains enough fat to be... well, whipped. Whipping cream is also perfect for soups and stews, since its fat content makes it much less likely to curdle when heated.
Whipping cream is very close in fat content to heavy cream, so it makes a useful substitute in a pinch, or when trying to eliminate some of the fat from your favorite creamy dishes.
Remember: Despite the name, whipping cream isn't actually the best option for making whipped cream. That designation belongs to ...
As far as cream goes, here's the cream of the crop. Heavy cream clocks in at a rich 38 percent fat (though it can reach above 40 percent), so it's pretty close to whipping cream and can be used as such - whipped, churned into ice cream or added to sauces and soups.
Its high fat content means it whips up well - doubling in volume - and holds its shape even better than whipped cream.