A cream-splainer, if you will
We've all been there. A recipe calls for light whipping cream, and you only have a carton of half-and-half in your fridge. That's when you start panicking, frantically searching "half-and-half vs. heavy cream" to see if you can make the substitution. The good news is that more often than not, you can swap out cream with half-and-half. You can even sometimes use half-in-half or cream instead of milk in some recipes. So what's up with all these different types of cream, then? Well, as with the different kinds of milk, the difference between light cream and whipping cream has to do with the amount of milkfat.
In fact, the basic difference between milk and cream is all about fat content, and in the United States, these definitions are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. So according to the U.S. government, milk is the stuff that comes from a cow when it has less than 3.25 percent milkfat, and if it has more milkfat than that, that white stuff is cream. (That's a gross image. I'm sorry. Milk is kind of gross, so bear with me.)
The difference between half-and-half, whipping cream, heavy cream, and the rest, then, just comes down to fat content, though the exact definitions might differ from country to country since it is usually the government making these distinctions. But understanding those differences in milkfat will help you understand why one type of cream might be slightly better for certain recipes than others, even if you could just drink them all straight.
So let's break it all down, shall we?
Half-and-half is, according to F.D.A. guidelines, "a mixture of milk and cream which contains not less than 10.5 percent but less than 18 percent milkfat." You probably know it best as the stuff you put in your coffee. The relatively low fat content means that it won't whip, but if you're making, say, macaroni and cheese, you can definitely swap in half-and-half for milk.
Light cream is cream which contains not less than 18 percent but less than 30 percent milkfat. It's also great in coffee, especially if you're looking for an especially rich cup, but it still doesn't have enough fat to be whipped successfully. It also has a tendency to curdle more easily than higher fat creams, so if you're working light cream into a sauce, add it at the end. This style of cream also usually known as table cream in Canada—though in the Great White North, it has between 16 and 32 percent milkfat.
Whipping cream is referred to as light whipping cream by our friends at the F.D.A., which defines it as cream that "contains not less than 30 percent but less than 36 percent milkfat." This is the stuff that, with an electric beater or a whisk and some elbow grease, can be whipped up into, well, whipped cream.
Heavy cream is "cream which contains not less than 36 percent milkfat," and it's pretty similar in texture to whipping cream. The high fat content means it's even more stable than whipping cream, which means that your whipped cream will have even stiffer peaks. It's also your best bet for creamy sauces—but hey, there's no one to stop you from pouring a bit into your coffee, either. These are also sometimes known as single cream.
If you though 36 percent milkfat was a lot of milkfat, you should meet double cream. It's a British designation for cream that "contains no less than 48 percent milk fat." It's probably best enjoyed when poured over fruit or desserts, though you could put it in your coffee if you want.
The F.D.A. has no formal definition for clotted cream, that classic British dairy product that's an essential ingredient in cream tea, because it would be considered butter by U.S. definitions. But in the United Kingdom, where clotted cream enjoys a protected food name status, the definition is precise, and the cream must contain "no less than 55 percent milk fat," according to the Dairy Council, and cooked down properly. That gives clotted cream its signature texture. Just don't try to whip it.
Sour cream might not seem like it belongs in this explainer, but it is, in fact, considered a milk and cream product by the F.D.A. "Sour cream results from the souring, by lactic acid producing bacteria, of pasteurized cream," according to the government agency's guidelines. That cream has a very specific fat content—between 14.4 and 18 percent.
Crème fraîche is similar to sour cream, except it's European AF. It's basically the European version of American sour cream, but it's made slightly differently. Instead of adding lactic acid-producing bacteria, the cream, which has a higher fat content between 30 and 40 percent, is fermented, according to the authors of the Handbook of Animal-Based Fermented Food and Beverage Technology. The result is a spoonable cream that can top desserts or become the base for a cream sauce.