What's the difference between heavy cream and whipping cream?

Not all creams are created equal. Here's what to use when you're cooking different dishes.
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/ Source: TODAY
By Lyn Mettler

Confused about cream? Don't be.

When a recipe simply calls for cream, it can be surprisingly confusing to figure out what kind to use. Is there really that much of a difference between heavy whipping cream and half-and-half? Yup, indeed there is.

To help home cooks navigate the dairy aisle, TODAY Food broke down each type of cream and what it should be used for in the kitchen ... with a little help from the experts, of course.

Heavy cream vs. whipping cream: What's the difference?

When it comes to cream, which the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines as "the liquid milk product high in fat separated from milk," the main difference is in how much fat each contains.

Here is the breakdown, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA):

  • Heavy cream has at least 36 percent milk fat.
  • Light whipping cream, also just called "whipping cream," contains between 30 to 36 percent milk fat.
  • Light cream, also called "coffee cream" or "table cream," has between 18 to 30 percent milk fat.
  • Half-and-half contains at least 10.5 percent milk fat, but not more than 18 percent.

Why does the type of cream matter?

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When it comes to cooking, fat plays an instrumental role in pretty much every type of dish.

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"The more fat you have in a cream, the more you can do with it," Amanda Agee, editorial director of Cook's Illustrated magazine, told TODAY.

For example, if you're trying to whip cream into a solid, its fat content must be at least 30 percent, according to Agee. Additionally, to avoid the dairy curdling when exposed to an acidic ingredient (like lemon juice or even tomato), the cream's fat content also needs be at least 30 percent.

"Be wary of substituting half-and-half or even light cream when a recipe with an acidic ingredient calls for heavy cream, because it could ruin your dish," Agee said.

How to cook with different types of cream

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With their higher fat contents, heavy cream and whipping cream are both great for soups and sauces that contain an acidic ingredient. Both of these thick creams can be used interchangeably.

At Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen, Agee said the testers prefer to use heavy cream whenever possible since it not only adds a richer flavor to foods, but it's more stable when turned into whipped cream.

When testing whipping cream against heavy cream (both at room temperature) to make whipped cream, America's Test Kitchen found that the whipping cream actually lost its volume and became watery after only a few hours in the refrigerator. The heavy cream, however, maintained its volume in the fridge for a full day.

Easy Whipped Cream

Easy Whipped Cream

Alessandra Bulow

Additionally, Agee added that heavy cream has a more luxurious and velvety feel in the mouth.

"We prefer the more lush feel of heavy cream made into whipped cream," she said. Though heavy cream does add more calories to a dish, Agee thinks it's worth it.

If you are making whipped cream, it's best to make sure that whatever type of cream you are using is well chilled before you start whipping. It's also important not to over whip heavy cream, as it can quickly become grainy and too stiff.

So what about light cream? Agee said that it's not a product the test kitchen uses often. If you do need some lighter cream, she recommended diluting heavy whipping cream with milk.

Half-and-half, which the USDA defines as a homogenized mixture of milk and cream, is largely associated with coffee, but it can also be used to flavor dishes like mashed potatoes — it will make them incredibly creamy and rich.

Classic Mashed Potatoes

How to store cream

Though many people store milks and drinks on fridge doors, the best place to store any type of cream or dairy is actually in the back of the refrigerator where temperatures are colder. Not only is the temperature on the door about 5 to 8 degrees higher than in the back, anything stored there will receive more air exposure each time you open the fridge.

Ultra-pasteurized creams should remain fresh for at least seven to 10 days once opened, Agee said.

It's also possible to freeze creams for later use. Simply place fresh, unopened cardboard cartons and/or plastic containers directly in the freezer. If the carton or container has been opened, first transfer the remaining cream within to a different airtight container.

Agee added, "You can also successfully whip thawed heavy cream and thawed whipping cream into whipped cream, but just know that the whipped cream won't have as great a volume and will separate more quickly than with cream that was never frozen."