Whether you had a busy mom moment at the grocery store and missed picking up that carton of whipping cream, or you're looking to cut some fat out of your life, it can be tempting to use half-and-half in your favorite Alfredo or other creamy sauce. Unless you're willing to tread carefully, and possibly end up with a visually flawed final product, you might want to save the half-and-half for your morning coffee.
Know Your Creams
The fat in cream thickens sauce, adding a rich taste and smooth appearance. Many cooked sauce recipes call for creams with a high fat content, such as whipping cream or heavy whipping cream, which are 35 percent and 38 percent fat, respectively. On the other hand, half-and-half, made from a milk-and-cream mix, is the lightest of all cream products, with 10 1/2 percent to 18 percent fat. Recipes for beverages or cold soups often call for half-and-half, because of its light, liquid consistency.
Half-and-half tends to separate and curdle, due to the lower fat content. Without sufficient fat to coat the proteins in dairy products, the proteins will clump together when exposed to heat. Although sauce that contains curdled half-and-half is generally safe to eat, if you follow all other standards regarding freshness and safe handling, it can make your sauce look unappetizing, because white flecks of curdled half-and-half will appear throughout your sauce. Additionally, a cooked sauce made with half-and-half will have a runnier texture than the same sauce made with whipping cream.
If you're going to give half-and-half a go in your cooked sauce, it's important to use minimal heat once you've added the half-and-half. While whipping cream generally does well at a simmer, you should only warm half-and half as you whisk or stir it into the sauce. You may even remove the sauce from heat and add half-and-half as a final step before serving. Adding a few teaspoons of cornstarch, arrowroot powder or potato starch to the half-and-half before incorporating it into the sauce may prevent curdling, and it will also thicken the final product. If your sauce curdles despite these efforts, processing it in a blender immediately before serving can help salvage the appearance and texture.
If you're out of whipping cream but don't want to risk a curdled sauce by substituting half-and -half, another option may lurk in your refrigerator. The Land 'O Lakes Test Kitchen recommends combining one part melted butter with two parts whole milk as an effective replacement for whipping cream.