Cream Cheese

Production, Uses, and Recipes

A bagel with cream cheese

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An enterprising dairyman started making cream cheese in 1872 in New York state and before long a distributor commissioned him to produce it in volume under the trade name "Philadelphia Brand." Kraft Foods bought the company in 1928, and it remains the most widely recognized brand in the United States. Cream cheese is a fresh, soft, mild-tasting cheese with both sweetness and a slight tang that's commonly spread on bagels for breakfast. It starts with a combination of cow's milk and cream, resulting in a higher fat content of at least 33 percent, which gives the cheese its richness and smooth mouthfeel in addition to extra calories.

Fast Facts

Source: Cow's milk and/or cream

Flavor: Milky and sweet but also slightly tangy

Uses: As a breakfast spread; in baking

What Is Cream Cheese?

The United States Food and Drug Administration requires at least 33 percent fat and no more than 55 percent moisture in standard cream cheese, although low-fat and nonfat varieties deviate from that formula. It is a widely available, inexpensive cheese favored for its relatively neutral flavor and creamy texture.

Cream Cheese vs. Neufchâtel

True French Neufchâtel is an appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) fresh cheese made from raw cow's milk that you would not find in the U.S., where cheese made from unpasteurized milk must be aged for at least 60 days. The cheese labeled as Neufchâtel that you find in similar packaging next to the cream cheese in U.S. grocery stores really does resemble American cream cheese more than its French namesake. This mass-produced Neufchâtel contains 23 percent milk fat vs. the 33 percent required by law for cream cheese. The two can almost always be used interchangeably.

How Cream Cheese Is Made

To make cream cheese, producers start with fresh pasteurized cream or a combination of milk and cream, then add lactic acid bacteria to lower the pH, which causes curds to form. The whey gets drained, the curds get heated, and added stabilizers provide structure. Cream cheese is meant to be eaten fresh and does not require aging.

You can make cream cheese at home by adding salt and an acid such as lemon juice or vinegar to cream or milk, then straining the resulting curds and pureeing them in a food processor or blender until smooth.

Types of Cream Cheese

Cream cheese is sold in foil-wrapped blocks or in a soft spread whipped with air to keep it pliable right out of the refrigerator. It's available in full-fat, low-fat, and nonfat versions. Flavored cream cheese may include herbs, vegetables, fruit, or smoked salmon.

Substitutes

It's easy to swap cream cheese and Neufchâtel one-to-one. It's also possible to use a combination of pureed cottage cheese or plain yogurt blended with milk or cream in place of cream cheese in some recipes. Mascarpone, an Italian double or triple cream cheese, makes a good substitute in desserts, and tofu spread works as a vegan alternative.

Uses

Cream cheese is one of America's most widely consumed cheeses because of its wide variety of uses. At room temperature, cream cheese spreads easily. Its smooth texture adds richness to frosting and makes wonderfully light and flaky pastry crusts. Cream cheese is the signature frosting for carrot cake and red velvet cake. It can also be used in simple no-bake cheesecake recipes that are especially popular with those looking for low-sugar desserts. Cream cheese also adds structure and flavor to savory dishes.

Storage

An unripened fresh cheese, cream cheese has a short shelf life once you open it. To prevent premature spoilage, always keep it refrigerated. You can store cream cheese in the tub it comes in from the store, or wrap opened blocks of it in plastic wrap and store them in the deli drawer of your refrigerator. If you see any mold forming, toss the entire container or block. Cream cheese lasts in the freezer for up to six months, but the texture may be affected. It's best to use thawed cream cheese in cooking rather than for a breakfast spread.

Cream Cheese Recipes

Cream cheese appears in recipes from breakfast to dinner, both sweet and savory.