Half-and-half: What you should know before you buy

If you've ever sat down at a cozy cafe or a classically decorated diner, chances are you've added half-and-half to your coffee, whether it was served up in a metal pitcher or those individually-sized plastic containers. Or, perhaps it's been a part of your daily routine at home for years, adding a splash to your morning cup of joe

Half-and-half has many uses in addition to making your coffee that much better, as it's featured in a number of recipes for quiches, soups, sauces, and more to make them creamier, but what exactly is the stuff? Half-and-half is one of the many options found in the refrigerated dairy section at your local grocery store, but do you know exactly what you're getting when you pick up that carton off the shelf? There's much more to it than just a great splash of dairy to add texture to your coffee. Here's what you need to know about half-and-half before you buy it.

It's half milk and half cream

People have been putting a splash of half-and-half in their morning coffee or afternoon iced Americano for a long time, but what exactly is it made of? Half-and-half is simply just a mixture of milk and light cream, and according to Kitchn, it's typically made with whole milk rather than skim or 2 percent. But that's it. Equal parts milk, equal parts cream, equals half-and-half. The name makes a lot of sense now. 

To truly call the dairy product half-and-half, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it is required to consist of no less than 10.5 percent milk fat, but less than 18 percent. From there it can be pasteurized or ultra-pasteurized, or include stabilizers or flavors, as long as the label notates its additions. 

There are a few varieties such as low-fat and fat-free half-and-half that use other types of milk or additives, but true half-and-half is about as simple of a dairy combo as it gets.

Half-and-half has less fat than heavy cream

Standing in front of the dairy cooler, dumbfounded, you may find there's a ridiculous number of cream options. Seriously, how are there so many? Half-and-half is different than heavy cream, which is also different than whipping cream and light cream. But what's the difference when it comes to fat content? 

According to The Kitchn, products with a higher fat content will be a thicker cream. Half-and-half typically contains 12 percent fat, while heavy cream clocks in all the way up to 38 percent fat. One tablespoon of half-and-half will add 1.6 grams of fat to your count for the day, with 1.1 grams of that coming from saturated fat. Alternatively, one tablespoon of heavy cream will add a whopping 5.4 grams of fat to your count, with 3.5 grams from saturated fat. 

According to the USDA, adults consuming a 2,000 calorie per day diet should typically eat 44 to 77 grams of fat daily, and it's pretty easy to get to that number without even thinking. But at least opting for half-and-half instead of cream will give you a fraction of the amount of fat you're adding to your morning coffee.

You can't use half-and-half to make whipped cream

If you've ever gone to the store and decided you were feeling brave enough to make your own whipped cream instead of the aerosol can in the dairy coolers, this may have happened to you. It's not uncommon to grab half-and-half off the dairy shelf instead of whipped cream. After all, it's pretty much in the same carton. 

But once you get home and try to whip it up, you'll sure realize it doesn't work. And that's all due to the difference in fat content. According to The Kitchn, the thicker the cream, and those with a higher fat content, are easier to whip into stable peaks. 

Because of the lower fat content in half-and-half, it will never be able to achieve those fluffy, cloud-like peaks of whipped cream you're looking for. When making whipped cream correctly, you need heavy cream with its 38 percent fat content. According to Cooking Light, that's what gives you a more-versatile whipped cream that will hold its shape much longer than other options. With a difference in milk fat content of over 20 percent on average, there's just no way half-and-half is up to the task.

Half-and-half has to be tempered when cooking

When you throw heavy cream into a vodka sauce for your upcoming penne pasta dish, it usually will work right into the mixture without much fuss, adding a beautiful, creamy texture to the sauce. But it's just not that easy if you've decided to use half-and-half. According to Real Simple, dishes like quiche, mashed potatoes, or soups work well with the addition of half-and-half, and it can pretty well be used interchangeably with heavy cream, but it needs a little help along the way. 

According to Real Simple, cream options with a higher fat content are more resistant to curdling, but if you're using half-and-half, curdling can be avoided with tempering. 

To temper half-and-half, you should put a small amount of the hot liquid you're trying to add it to into a bowl. Then, add the half-and-half and slowly whisk it. According to Real Simple, you should repeat these steps two times to slowly introduce the cream into the mixture before adding it back to your dish. This makes the temp gradually increase, rather than the abrupt addition that would cause curdling. 

Half-and-half is designed for a long shelf life

When you grab your carton of half-and-half from the dairy cooler, along with your gallon of milk, you may notice their 'best by' dates definitely don't match up. Well, different dairy equals a differing best by date. And it's all due to the processing that occurs before dairy products hit the grocery store shelves. 

The majority of half-and-half products on the market are ultra-pasteurized before hitting the shelves. According to Cornell University, when a product is ultra-pasteurized, it's heated to a minimum of 280 degrees Fahrenheit, and it stays at that temp for at least two seconds. During this process, it kills any bacterial concerns, and from there it's packaged in sterile conditions so bacteria can't find its way back into the product. Cornell University reports that on average, ultra-pasteurized products can hang out on the shelves for 30-90 days with refrigeration. But once the carton is open, it becomes contaminated by open elements and only has 7-10 days left for ideal consumption. 

The shelf-stable half-and-half minis have a bunch of extra ingredients

When you're sitting at your favorite diner, adding those cute mini containers of half-and-half to your coffee, you may want to consider how many extra ingredients are in them. It's definitely not your normal mixture of just milk and cream found in refrigerated half-and-half.

The shelf-stable minis do contain milk. Yet, somehow, they're able to be kept out of refrigeration, with an ideal temp of 45 to 80 degrees. And that's all due to chemical additives.

Many of the individual serving sized half-and-half options on the market contain sodium citrate, datem, tetrasodium pyrophosphate, and carrageenan. According to Healthline, carrageenan is an additive meant to thicken foods and drinks, but it also acts as a preservative. Sodium citrate is used as a flavoring agent, as well as an anticoagulant. With the number of items added to make the shelf-stable minis, it makes you wonder whether you're just better off grabbing the carton from the refrigerated section.

You can get low-fat half-and-half

Because regular half-and-half is made up of the simple combination of cream and whole milk, the mixture leaves a bit of room for adjustments, particularly in the milk category. In theory, with options of 1 percent, 2 percent, and skim milk on the market, half-and-half producers could mix any option of milk fat percentages with cream. Whole milk is used as a standard to achieve that creamy consistency, but using low fat milk offers consumers a welcome option with lower fat and calorie counts. 

According to food labeling standards set by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, any product labeled low fat must contain 3 grams or less of total fat per 100 grams. Or, no more than 30 percent of calories coming from fat. To achieve this title, some companies will combine non-fat milk with cream to lower the fat content to less than .5 grams per tablespoon. But even with the lower fat content, it can pretty much be used interchangeably with regular half-and-half. 

You should never buy fat-free half-and-half

While low-fat half-and-half is a fair option if you're trying to consume less calories and fat, fat-free half-and-half definitely is not. If you actually want an option that still has milk and cream , do not ever buy fat-free half-and-half. Seriously, never. 

As it turns out, fat-free half-and-half has no cream in it whatsoever. According to Bon Appetit, fat-free half-and-half is actually just skim milk that went through a thickening process with the help of corn syrup and other additives. According to Time, fat-free half-and-half will typically incorporate carrageenan, artificial color, disodium phosphate, guar gum, and vitamin A palmitate. But if you're comparing a laundry list of additives to simply milk and cream, senior clinical dietitian at Texas Children's Hospital, Kristi King, told Time you might as well just have the real thing. 

But if you're needing a lower calorie option other than half-and-half, Bon Appetit says you should just use skim milk. Whatever other option you choose, at least, you won't be dumping a bunch of additives into your morning coffee

You can make half-and-half yourself

If the day comes when you wake up, head to the fridge, and try to pour yourself a cup of coffee with half-and-half, only to find the carton empty, there's still an alternative. Since half-and-half and literally just a mixture of milk and cream, you can easily make it yourself! 

If you're working on a recipe for baked goods or cooked dishes like soups or pasta sauces, making a substitute will work in a pinch if you run out as well. According to Bon Appetit, simply mix equal parts of whole milk and cream together. Put the mixture in a jar or a cup with a lid and shake it up a bit. That's it! Bon Appetit says it may end up separating slightly when you add it to your coffee, since it didn't go through the homogenization process, but it's barely noticeable. 

According to The Spruce Eats, it's also possible to combine low-fat milk and heavy cream together for a lighter mix. Or, if you don't have any heavy cream in the house at all, you can add a tablespoon of melted butter to a cup of whole milk to achieve the same consistency and milk fat content. 

Half-and-Half means different things in other countries

As it turns out, half-and-half does not mean the same thing to all people. In the U.S. and Canada, hearing half-and-half referring to a dairy product is pretty commonplace, but rumor has it, in order to receive the same product in the U.K., you'll have to ask for half cream instead. 

But the variable names don't stop there. According to Huffpost, saying half-and-half in Ireland means you're ordering a beer made up of two brew styles combined. According to Vine Pair, the drink, also sometimes known as a Black and Tan, is a two-toned layered beer made up of Guinness and Bass Ale, or another type of pale ale. The ale is poured in the glass first, with Guinness topping it off. 

Huffpost also says that asking for half-and-half in Brussels will get you a mixture of champagne and white wine. As for North America, our use of the world half-and-half will still get you that half milk/half cream mixture we've all come to know and love, without any alcohol.  

You can put half-and-half in cocktails

If you've ever sipped on a White Russian, Spanish Coffee, or even a Key Lime Pie Martini at the bar, chances are you've had heavy cream or half-and-half in your cocktail. Heavy cream is often added to cocktails to give them a creamy texture, breaking through a bit of acidity from the alcohol. But half-and-half is a great alternative to ask for when you're not all that interested in sipping on a whole cup of cream and don't want to dilute the flavor of the alcohol. Plus, restaurants usually have it on hand more often since it's used for coffee anyway. 

But you can't just pour a bunch of half-and-half in a cocktail and assume it will mix together perfectly. There's a bit of science that goes on with the process

Because of the acidity of alcohol, it doesn't always mix well with just plain milk. Milk doesn't have a high enough fat content to fend off what happens during the curdling process, which is why heavy cream is often used. But, if you introduce it correctly, with just topping off your cocktail glass, half-and-half works wonderfully and a little bit can go a long way in making a cocktail so much more delicious.