What Is Half-and-Half?

Discover the Mid-Range Cream That's Great for Coffee

High angle view of half and half
Francesco Perre / EyeEm / Getty Images

Most of us are familiar with half and half, those little packaged creamers at the diner, or perhaps your preference for adding to your cup of coffee in the morning. But do you know exactly what it is? Is it a cream or a milk?

Half and half is actually a combination of the two—it is half whole milk, half heavy cream. This not only affects the taste but also the way it works in recipes. If you are watching your calories, half and half is a good alternative to heavy cream; one cup of half and half has approximately 315 calories, mainly from fat, while heavy cream has 821 calories.

Using Half-and-Half

Whereas heavy cream has at least 36 percent fat, half and half has between 10 1/2 and 18 percent. Half and half can be incorporated in recipes, but because of the lower fat content, it cannot be used to make whipped cream since it won't hold its peaks. It also won't thicken a sauce the way that heavy or whipping cream does.

One thing for which half and half happens to superb is adding to your coffee. Milk is all right for tea since tea has far fewer dissolved solids and is thinner. But for a strong cup of coffee, half and half adds just the right body and richness.

When you bring a container of half and half home from the grocery store, you immediately place it in the refrigerator. But the tiny containers of half and half at the local coffee shop are sitting out, along with the packets of sugar and coffee cup lids. That is because these containers of half and half are shelf-stable do not require refrigeration; they will actually keep at room temperature for up to six months. So no reason to panic when you see them sitting out, but it's probably a good idea to check the expiration date.

Cooking With Half-and-Half

When recipes will specifically call for half and half, you should try not to substitute with something else since that might not give you the results you want; the combination of milk and cream creates a certain balance in flavor and richness. When a recipe calls for cream without specifying what type, it is best to use heavy cream; its higher fat content makes it more stable in sauces, meaning it won't curdle when it's heated and won't form a skin on top. Heavy cream will also hold firm peaks when whipped.

In restaurants, cooks use a special product called manufacturing cream, which is 40 to 45 percent fat. You can bring it to full boil and it will not curdle. It also tastes great and adds incredible richness to sauces. (It's also one reason eating out is notoriously bad for your waistline.) Manufacturing cream is rarely seen at the supermarket, but restaurants order it by the case.

Make Your Own Half-and-Half

Making your own half and half from other dairy products is as simple as mixing together equal parts light cream and milk. Unfortunately, light cream (16 to 29 percent fat) isn't commonly available in the U.S. So you may have to blend whole milk with either heavy whipping cream (36 to 40 percent) or light whipping cream (30 to 35 percent).

If you are using heavy whipping cream and milk, you can make half and half by combining four parts whole milk with one part heavy cream. If you only have light whipping cream, use three parts whole milk and one part light whipping cream.

If you should ever encounter something called "fat-free" half and half, set the container down and walk away. It's an emulsion of skim milk, corn syrup, and a thickener called carrageenan, and it has no business in your food, in your coffee, or in your fridge.