All About Cream Cheese

A bagel with cream cheese

John E. Kelly / Getty Images

While most people probably don't think of cream cheese when they're thinking of their favorite cheese, this popular dairy product is, in fact, a cheese! Cream cheese is a fresh cheese that is not aged. It's an American culinary invention developed in 1872 in New York state. A cheese distributor soon commissioned the enterprising dairyman to produce the cream cheese in volume under the trade name "Philadelphia Brand."

The company was eventually bought out by Kraft Foods in 1928, and still remains the most widely recognized brand of cream cheese in the United States. For many American's it's a tasty breakfast staple but there are many other uses for cream cheese as well. 

What Is Cream Cheese?

Cream cheese is similar to French Neufchatel in that it is made from cow's milk, but differs in that it is unripened and often contains emulsifiers to lend firmness and lengthen shelf-life. USDA law requires standard cream cheese must contain at least 33 percent fat and no more than 55 percent water, although there are low-fat and nonfat varieties now on the market.

Cream cheese is categorized as a fresh cheese since it is unaged. As a result, it has a short shelf life, once opened.

Cream cheese should be refrigerated even if unopened to prevent it from spoiling. The flavor is mild, fresh-tasting, and sweet, yet has a pleasing slight tang. At room temperature, cream cheese spreads easily and has a smooth and creamy texture. It is sold in foil-wrapped blocks or in a soft-spread form which has air whipped in to make it spreadable right from the refrigerator. Many flavored versions are also now available, including those with herbs, fruits, and even salmon blended in.

Can You Make Cream Cheese at Home?

It is certainly possible to make your own cream cheese provided you have a starter culture. The recipes are pretty simple and allow chefs to make their own flavored variety. While the recipes aren't hard to follow some find them time-consuming and a bit labor-intensive. It can take up to 12 hours for cream cheese to drain to it's desired consistency. After all those hours of waiting the creation will still only last about a week in the refrigerator. It can be fun to show off homemade cream cheese at a party but most chefs find store-bought to be far simpler. 

What Is Cream Cheese Used for?

Cream cheese is one of America's most widely-consumed cheeses because of its wide variety of uses. Its soft creamy texture gives richness too, frosting, bagel-toppers, bialys and makes wonderfully light and flaky pastry crusts. Cream cheese is the signature frosting for red velvet cakes. It can also be used in simple no-bake cheesecake recipes that are especially popular with those who need desserts that are low in sugar. Along with these more well-known uses, cream cheese is the main ingredient in many savory dishes as you will see in the cream cheese recipe collection.