Half and Half or Heavy Cream: What's the Difference?

Imagine you're at the grocery store, shoved into the refrigerator door of the dairy aisle, holding both a half and half and heavy cream container. You're trying to decide which to get for your weekly cooking when it strikes you, what's the difference between the two, anyway? You've seen recipes that call for using half and half or heavy cream, but is that true for all recipes? In half and half vs heavy cream, can one be substituted for the other?

What's the Difference Between Half and Half and Heavy Cream?

This scenario is probably not too hard to imagine if you've ever purchased either of these dairy products. If your recipe calls for for one or the other, home cooks often wonder if it's okay to use them interchangeably. If you're anything like me, you always have just enough of one and none of the other. Mostly, we just want to know if it will drastically change the flavor or texture of a dish.

Half and Half

Half and half's name is a dead giveaway for what its made from: half cream and half milk in equal parts. Just to be precise, that's light cream and equal parts milk, whole milk to be exact. It's lighter than cream because it has lesser fat content. Half and Half has between 10-18 percent fat. Half and half makes the perfect addition for your cup of coffee, since it adds needed creaminess, but isn't as rich as pouring in heavy cream, though we wouldn't blame you if you did.

Heavy Cream

Heavy cream is obviously creamier, as it contains a whopping 38 percent fat. It has the highest fat content of all types of cream, making it a little difficult to find an exact heavy cream substitute. The high milk fat in heavy cream makes it an excellent coffee creamer for those who crave a little more richness. You've probably only seen heavy whipping cream at the store. These two types of cream are nearly identical, with heavy whipping cream containing 35 percent fat. With such a miniscule difference, you can feel comfortable using these two interchangeably.

Heavy cream has a higher fat content, so it's better to use in soups, stews, or anything that will be heated. Heavy cream is less susceptible to curdling than fresh milk, which is another reason to use in recipes that require boiling.

When to Substitute Half and Half for Heavy Cream

Let's look at the reality of many of our situations. We bought half and half for our morning coffee, but no cream. We're ready to cook and don't feel like getting out of our pajamas to go to the store. What are we to do?

Most of the time it's okay to substitute one for the other. If you're making soup, you can add a splash or either right before serving to enhance the creaminess. Mashed potatoes are a great food to add either, or both. If you want a creamier and fluffier potato, add a cup of heavy cream. If you're feeling extra naughty, add both for a rich, creamy, unctuous side dish. A cup milk can work in a pinch, but you'll miss the added creaminess of half and half or heavy cream. Those looking for fat-free half and half or cream are a little out of luck, but you can use skim milk or coconut milk if you're desperate. That being said, high fat makes for the best cooking, and isn't as bad for you as you might think.

When Not To Swap Heavy Cream for Half and Half

The two areas you can't swap heavy cream for half and half are in whipped cream and ice cream. The fat in cream is what allows it to be whipped. The higher the fat content, the easier it is to whip into stiff peaks.

Ice cream is another food that really is based on personal preference. Many recipes state that you can use a combination of milk and either heavy cream or half and half. Since heavy cream is higher in fat, it will produce a creamier and richer texture. One thing to remember is that ice cream isn't supposed to be good for you, so go ahead and use the high fat cream! In half and half vs heavy cream, the winner is always you!

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