Heavy, man
cream splash strawberry
Credit: Photo by Lew Robertson via Getty Images

You might, perhaps, think cream is just cream. But head to the dairy aisle at the grocery store and you will find a wider selection of creams than you probably thought possible. Heavy cream? Whipping cream? Half-and-half? What’s the difference?

The answer is fat. (Although don’t get me started on fat free half-and-half, that’s a whole other bag of processed tricks.) Milkfat is the difference between milk and cream, so it makes sense that it’s also the difference between different types of cream. And, depending on how much fat is in your cream, it has different uses in the kitchen.

If you’re going to talk dairy, you have to go to the source, so I spoke with Adam Brock of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board to get the details on each type of cream. Below, let’s break it down, from lowest fat content to (gulp) highest.

Half and Half: 10.5 to 18 percent fat

You know, the stuff you put in your coffee. Or maybe you use it to finish off some grits. Half and half is a “mixture of whole milk and light cream,” say Brock, which puts it at a higher fat content than whole milk—which clocks in at about 3.5% fat—but the lowest fat content on this list.

Light Cream: 18 to 30 percent fat

Light cream is not the most common of the cream varieties, but is incredibly useful “to add richness to a sauce,” says Brock, or “to drizzle over desserts.” Just don’t expect to make whipped cream with it, you’ll need a higher fat content for that. Time to pull out the big guns, like…

Whipping Cream: 30 to 36 percent fat

Or, as you probably know it, cream. This is the good stuff, the common stuff, and the stuff you use to make whipped cream. Use it in any recipe that calls for plain old cream, and you’ll do a-okay.

Heavy Cream: Greater than 36 percent fat

And finally, on the, um, most lavish end of the cream spectrum is heavy cream. Also called “heavy whipping cream,” Brock says “it can easily be whipped, and, because of its high fat content, holds its shape longer than whipping cream.” In other words, use it when you need your whipped cream to stick around for a minute.

As for which one to drink in your coffee? That’s a matter of personal preference—although, to be honest, they all taste pretty good.