Understanding Different Kinds of Milk and Cream

1%, 2%, Whole Milk, Half-and-Half, Heavy Whipping, What Does it all Mean?

Different Butterfat Contents Milk and Cream
Different Butterfat Contents Milk and Cream. Photo: Diana Rattray

 The distinctions between different kinds of milk and cream can be confusing. They all begin with whole milk, which consists of three components: water, milk solids, and butterfat. If you allow unpasteurized milk to stand, it separates into cream, which is mostly butterfat, and skim milk, which is mostly water.

It's All About the Butterfat

Butterfat is the key to understanding different kinds of milk and cream. Whole milk contains 3 1/2 percent butterfat. By removing butterfat in degrees, you get 2 percent low fat milk with 2 percent butterfat, 1 percent low-fat milk with 1 percent butterfat, and skim milk with less than 1/2 percent butterfat.

If you go in the other direction by starting with the cream and concentrating the butterfat by reducing the water content, then you first get light cream, which contains around 20 percent butterfat. Removing more water, you get whipping cream, which contains around 35 percent butterfat. Next is heavy cream or heavy whipping cream, which contains about 38 percent butterfat. Keep reducing the water, and you get butter, which must by law be 80 percent butterfat.

Half-and-half is a combination of half whole milk and half light cream with about 12 percent butterfat. In the UK it might be referred to as "light cream" or "half cream"

You can whip light whipping cream and heavy cream, but you can't whip light cream or half-and-half. The butterfat content is the key to whippability.

In a recipe, you can often substitute these, but remember that as you go down in butterfat, your dish becomes less rich.

Sweetened Condensed Milk and Evaporated Milk

These are two more milk products that can be somewhat confusing. Evaporated milk is a shelf stable milk from which about 60 percent of the water has been removed. It might also be called "canned milk" because it is sold in cans. It was a popular milk choice in the early 1900s because of its shelf life. It was the base for infant formulas and was often used as a substitute for fresh milk and cream.

Sweetened condensed milk is also a canned, shelf stable milk. The difference between evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk is the sugar. A significant amount of sugar is added to the milk, which makes it an essential ingredient in many candies and baked goods. The sugar also gives it a longer shelf life.

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