It's one of the usual suspects you see when walking down the dairy aisle at your local grocery store. It's commonly added to coffee and is called for in a variety of recipes. But, what exactly is half-and-half? Here's what you need to know.
half and half pouring into iced coffee
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Walking through the grocery store's dairy section, it's common to come across small cartons of half-and-half sitting on the shelves next to milk, heavy cream and whipping cream. But what exactly is half-and-half? Is it only for coffee, or are there more uses for it? Read on to find out how to use this dairy product beyond your coffee and more.

What is half-and-half?

Thicker than milk but lighter than heavy cream, half-and-half is a blend of equal parts whole milk and heavy cream. William A. Boutwell, the owner of Boutwell Dairy in Lake Worth Beach, Florida, first marketed the the dairy product in the U.S. in the 1920s. Half-and-half eventually became a commonly used product, and other dairy manufacturers started producing and selling it. 

Types of half-and-half

Half-and-half comes in variations, including low-fat and fat-free varieties. Regular half-and-half is 10.5% to 12% fat. Low-fat has 50% less fat than regular half-and-half. Fat-free half-and-half has one-tenth the fat of regular half-and-half. To mimic the texture and flavor of half-and-half, manufacturers may add thickeners such as carrageenan, and fat-free half-and-half may also have corn syrup added for flavor and texture.

Nutritional content of half-and-half

According to USDA, a 1 tablespoon serving of regular half-and-half contains:

  • Calories: 20
  • Protein: 1 grams
  • Fat: 2 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 1 grams
  • Calcium: 16 milligrams
  • Magnesium: 2 milligrams
  • Phosphorus: 14 milligrams
  • Potassium: 20 milligrams
  • Sodium: 9 milligrams

Half-and-half consists of a substantial amount of fat, with 78% of its calories coming from fat. The high fat content contributes to its creamy mouthfeel. For this reason, dairy producers may add additives, such as corn syrup, to low-fat and fat-free varieties to mimic the same flavor and sensory qualities of the original half-and-half.

Half-and-half is not fortified with vitamin D like milk is, so it is not as beneficial when it comes to maintaining and improving bone health. Likely, you'll consume it in smaller quantities, too, by the tablespoon instead of the glass.

Can you boil half-and-half?

Boiling half-and-half will cause it to curdle and separate. So, it is best to add half-and-half when the food you are cooking is over low heat or removed from the heating element. For instance, for soups and sauces, add half-and-half as the last ingredient before serving.

Can you make whipped cream with half-and-half?

Whipped cream is made up of tiny air bubbles wrapped around milk fat globules. A fat content of at least 30% to 35% is needed to make whipped cream. Half-and-half, at 10.5% to 12% fat, does not contain enough fat to make it whipped.  

Half-and-half may have also undergone a process called homogenization, where the fat droplets are emulsified to ensure that the milk and cream do not separate. This process causes the cream's fat globules to break into smaller structures. Since smaller globules do not bind well together, no matter how fast you whisk, this half-and-half will not become whipped cream.

Low-fat half-and-half, fat-free half-and-half and even light cream may have carrageenan added as a thickener, but the foam formed when these are whisked does not have the same thick and airy texture that whipped cream possesses

Uses for half-and-half

There are many ways to use half-and-half in your favorite recipes. In addition to using it in coffee, you can add half-and-half to mashed potatoes for a creamier texture than is provided by milk, to soups like our Crab Bisque, to pasta sauces, such as our Pasta with Asparagus and Shrimp, or to a quiche, like our Spinach & Mushroom Quiche

Using half-and-half also allows you to replace milk or cream in your recipe to find that perfect balance—except for recipes that call for whipping cream. If you have a recipe that calls for cream but you want a lighter texture, or a recipe uses milk but you want a richer flavor and texture, then half-and-half may be the solution.

Substitutes for half-and-half

If you don't have half-and-half, you can easily make your own version at home. There are several ways:

Whole milk and heavy cream

Mix ¾ cup of whole milk and ¼ cup of heavy cream for the same consistency as store-bought half- and-half. For a slightly creamier texture, mix equal amounts of whole milk and heavy cream.

Whole milk and melted butter

Mix 1 cup of whole milk with 1 to 2 tablespoons of melted butter.

Evaporated Milk

Evaporated milk is a concentrated form of milk with 60% of the water content removed. While half-and-half may have a slightly thicker texture than evaporated milk, the substitution can be made at a 1-to-1 ratio. 

Sour cream or yogurt

These ingredients are also good alternatives to half-and-half, but they may offer a tangier flavor. In addition, both sour cream and yogurt may not be the best substitutes to use in hot soups and sauces, as heat may cause sour cream and yogurt to separate, creating a chalky texture.

Nondairy alternatives

Are you lactose intolerant or simply looking for a dairy-free product? You can find nondairy half-and-half products. For example, Silk has a dairy-free alternative made of coconut milk and oat milk. 

How to store half-and-half

Aside from shelf-stable half-and-half in mini cups that do not require refrigeration, half-and-half, like other dairy products, should be kept in the fridge. The USDA Foodkeeper app recommends consuming half-and-half within three to four days after purchase. 

Given that you may not use a large volume of half-and-half in your cooking, you can freeze it for later. However, freezing may change the structure of the molecules, creating a different texture and flavor when thawed. So, thawed half-and-half may not be ideal for creamy desserts, but you could use it in your coffee. If it is frozen, you can use it within four months. 

Sometimes, despite the best-by date, your half-and-half may need to be tossed out if it smells sour or has an off smell.

Bottom line

Half-and-half is a common ingredient used in variety of ways. It offers a balance of creaminess between that of milk and heavy cream. If you do not have half-and-half on hand, you can also easily replace it with your homemade version.