Is Half-and-half Really Half and Half?

half and half
Those little containers of half-and-half appear on breakfast tables all over the world, but what is really in them and who came up with the idea? Steve Snodgrass/Flickr (CC By 2.0)

In an age where you can find a type of milk made every conceivable plant or animal out there, knowing what's going into your coffee is paramount. Let's start with the basics.

The milk you probably grew up on and still put in your cereal comes from those magical spotted herbivores known as — wait for it — cows. This lesson in bovine biology could end here, but there's recently been an air of confusion around a seemingly straightforward product produced by these wonderful ruminant ungulates. It concerns a product many of us (save for the lactose-intolerant bunch) use every day: half-and-half.


So, what the actual heck is half-and-half? Simple answer: Half-and-half is literally half whole milk mixed with half heavy cream. It was invented by a man named William A. Boutwell of Boutwell Dairy in Lake Worth Beach, Florida. The dairy regularly distributed the blend regionally between 1927 and 1956, before it eventually made its way into the refrigerators of Americans everywhere.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration classifies half-and-half as the "food consisting of a mixture of milk and cream which contains not less than 10.5 percent but less than 18 percent milkfat," and says it must be "pasteurized or ultrapasteurized, and may be homogenized." These rules, of course, are different in countries like England where pasteurization isn't as important as during the preparation of milk and cheese.

In the U.S., Americans view half-and-half as an addition to coffee, but it can be used for ice cream, cream sauce, ganache and white Russians. With its thick consistency and rich, creamy flavor, half-and-half packs more of a punch than milk but is a bit more caloric at around 20 calories per tablespoon, whereas whole milk contains only 9 calories per tablespoon.

Heavy cream is even richer than both milk and half-and-half and contains at least 36 percent milkfat. One would usually use heavy cream for making caramel, custard, cheese and whipped cream.

And for those who would prefer to make your own half-and-half at home, it's simple. If a recipe calls for 1 cup half-and-half, you’ll need 1/2 cup whole milk and 1/2 cup cream. Simply mix the two and enjoy.


Half and Half FAQ

Is half and half the same as heavy cream?
No, heavy cream contains at least 36 percent milkfat, while half and half is lighter, between 10.5 percent and 18 percent milkfat. Heavy cream is used for making caramel, custard, and whipped cream. Half and half is commonly added to coffee, but is sometimes also used to make ice cream, cream sauces, and ganache.
Can you freeze half and half?
You can freeze it, but it may split when you defrost it, which messes with the consistency. If you want to buy a few extra cartons on sale to freeze for baking or cooking at a later date, you'll be fine. Just don't plan on using previously frozen half and half in your coffee.
What can I use instead of half and half?
If you have them, mix equal parts whole milk and heavy cream. If you don't have whole milk, mix 2/3 cups of low-fat milk and 1/3 cup of heavy cream for one cup of half and half. You can also try a cup of whole milk and a tablespoon of butter, which will work especially well in baking.
Can I substitute milk for half and half in a recipe?
Substituting milk will have an impact on the flavor and consistency of the recipe, but in some cases it doesn't matter that much. For example, homemade Alfredo sauce will definitely taste better with half and half or whipping cream, but you can get away with using milk. Just don't expect it to be as rich and flavorful.
How many calories are in half and half?
The calories in a cup will vary depending on what brand you're using. This is because half and half is classified as a mixture of milk and cream that's between 10.5 percent and 18 percent milkfat. Of course, the higher the milkfat, the higher the calories will be. That said, most brands are roughly 20 calories per tablespoon.