What’s the Difference Between Half-and-Half, Light Cream, Whipping Cream, and Heavy Cream?

How To Make Whipped Cream(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

There are a daunting number of cardboard pints and quarts of different cream varieties at the grocery store. Which is which? Is there a difference between them? Here’s a complete rundown so you won’t find yourself scratching your head the next time you’re in the dairy aisle.

The Difference Between Half-and-Half, Light Cream, Whipping Cream, and Heavy Cream

The difference between these four common cream varieties is really just the amount of fat they contain.

  • Half-and-half contains 12 percent fat
  • Light cream contains 20 percent fat
  • Whipping cream contains 35 percent fat
  • Heavy cream contains 38 percent fat

The higher the fat content, the thicker the cream, and the easier it is to whip into stable peaks (or whipped cream). Higher-fat creams are also more resistant to curdling, so they are a better choice in soups and sauces, when the cream is heated.

If you’re trying to avoid cream with higher fat for a particular reason, try the cream with the fat content just below the one called for, as it will be the closest subsitute, before experimenting with lighter creams.

(Image credit: Faith Durand)


Half-and-half is exactly what it sounds like, equal parts whole milk and light cream. It contains about 12 percent fat, which makes it richer than whole milk (which contains 3.5 percent fat), although less rich than light cream. This makes it a popular addition to coffee because it lends a little more richness to the cup than whole milk does, but not as much as cream. It doesn’t, however, contain enough fat to be whipped. So enjoy it in your mug or try using it in desserts that call for equal parts milk and cream, like panna cotta.

Get a recipe: How To Make Panna Cotta

Light Cream

One step up is light cream, which contains about 20 percent fat. While richer than half-and-half, it still doesn’t contain enough fat to be whipped, so it’s a good choice if you want even more creaminess in your coffee. It’s also nice drizzled over fresh fruit, pound cake, or fruit crisps or crumbles. Light cream could potentially curdle when a substantial amount is heated in a soup or sauce, but you won’t run that risk if you add just a splash to scrambled eggs before cooking them — the result will be extra creamy.

Towering Strawberry Shortcake(Image credit: Christine Han)

Whipping Cream

Now we’re getting into high-fat territory. At a hefty 35 percent fat, whipping cream can indeed be whipped into luscious peaks for all your cake and pie dolloping needs. It’s also rich enough that it won’t curdle when heated in soups and sauces. It’s nearly identical to heavy cream (see below), so if a recipe calls for heavy cream and you can only find whipping cream, feel free to use that instead.

Heavy Cream

At the top of the charts is heavy cream, sometimes also called heavy whipping cream, which contains about 38 percent fat. It’s pretty much indistinguishable from whipping cream — both can be whipped, churned into ice cream, and added to soups and sauces without the risk of curdling. We also wouldn’t tell anyone if you splash a little into that coffee or drizzle a bit onto your morning bowl of oats.

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