Here’s what you need to know about half-and-half, when to use it, and how to make it at home.

By Corey Williams
January 28, 2021
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You're probably familiar with half-and-half. If you haven't baked or cooked with it, you've likely stirred it into your coffee a time or two. But what exactly is half-and-half — and what can you use as a substitute? Here's what you need to know: 

What Is Half-and-Half? 

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Half-and-half is simply a mixture of half whole milk and half cream. It's what you use when you need something richer than milk, but not quite as thick as cream. You'll find it in rich and velvety sauces, soups, and desserts. Many people like using half-and-half in their coffee because it strikes the perfect balance between too creamy and too thin. Store-bought half-and-half is homogenized, which means it's been emulsified so that it doesn't separate when added to other ingredients. 

Half-and-Half vs. Heavy Cream vs. Light Cream vs. Whole Milk

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Milk and cream products are packaged and sold according to the amount of butterfat they contain. 

  • Whole milk has 3.5 percent butterfat. 
  • Heavy cream has 38 percent butterfat. 
  • Light cream has 20 percent butterfat.
  • Half-and-half contains 12 percent butterfat.

Half-and-Half Substitute

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No half-and-half? No problem! You can make your own substitute at home by combining equal parts whole milk and heavy cream. It'll have a slightly higher fat content than the half-and-half you buy at the store, so it may result in an ever-so-slightly richer final product. If you want to get more technical with it, you can combine ¾ cup milk with ¼ cup heavy cream — that'll get you in the 12 percent fat range. 

If you don't have any heavy cream on hand, mixing one or two tablespoons of melted butter with one cup of whole milk will give you similar results. 

How Long Does Half-and Half Last?

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Here's the struggle with half-and-half: Most recipes don't call for a whole container, so you're often left with a part-full carton in your fridge. Sometimes it comes with a use-by label, but usually you're just given a sell-by date. So when should you toss it? Half-and-half generally stays good for about a week after you open it. An unopened container, meanwhile, should be OK for three to five days after the best-by date. 

If you give it a sniff and it smells rancid or "off" in any way, it's best to err on the side of caution and throw it away — when in doubt, throw it out. 

Can You Freeze Half-and-Half?

You can freeze half-and-half, but that doesn't necessarily mean you should. Freezing fundamentally changes ingredients on a chemical level so, even when they're thawed, the texture and taste will be different. Frozen and thawed half-and-half will probably be fine to stir into your coffee, but we don't recommend using it in creamy dessert recipes like panna cotta

To freeze leftover half-and-half:

  1. Pour into an ice cube tray. Cover. Freeze overnight. 
  2. Transfer frozen cubes into a freezer-safe bag labeled with the date. 
  3. Freeze up to three months. 

Half-and-Half Nutrition and Calories

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Half-and-half has about 20 calories per tablespoon. This is substantially less than heavy cream, which has about 51 calories per tablespoon, but more than whole milk, which has about 9 calories per tablespoon. 

You can buy fat-free half-and-half, but be aware that it's not necessarily healthier than the full-fat version. When the carton says it's fat-free, that probably means it's skim milk mixed with corn syrup instead of cream — this results in a final product that's lower in fat, but higher in sugar. 

Can You Make Whipped Cream with Half-and-Half?

No. Whipped cream requires a dairy product that contains more than 30 percent fat. The higher the fat content, the quicker it will whip up into a light and airy cream. You could theoretically add a bit of butter to your half-and-half to fatten it up enough for whipping, but you'd be better off just using heavy cream or heavy whipping cream. 

This story originally appeared on allrecipes.com