What Exactly Is Cream Cheese?

You probably have a brick or tub of cream cheese in your refrigerator right now, but you might not have any idea what makes it so creamy or why it's even considered cheese. Here's everything you need to know about your schmear.

You think you know cheese: cheddar, mozzarella parmesan. But what about cream cheese? It’s called cheese but doesn’t seem to quite compare with these others. Let’s get to the bottom of this and find out what is cream cheese.

So What Is It?

Turns out that despite not having a particularly savory reputation like Colby, Swiss or gouda, cream cheese is cheese. It’s a fresh cheese defined by the FDA as containing at least 33 percent fat with a moisture content of 55 percent or less. It’s soft, smooth and mild. This cheese is comparable in flavor and texture to mascarpone cheese. (This decadent dessert uses both!)

It came into popularity in the late 1800s and was produced mostly in Philadelphia—of course! While developed in the States, it’s consumed globally these days.

How Is Cream Cheese Made?

The recipe is fairly simple—lactic acid bacteria are added to cream (or sometimes a combination of milk and cream), and this causes the pH of the cream to decrease, which in turn makes it coagulate. To put it simply, it becomes separated into curds and whey. Then the whey is drained off, the curds are heated, stabilizers are added, and cream cheese is formed.

Can You Make Cream Cheese at Home?

Yes! It’s actually quite simple to make a good replica of cream cheese at home; though some recipes require a starter culture, the only ingredients you need are cream, milk, an acid (like lemon juice or vinegar) and salt. The acid makes the dairy curdle, then the curds are strained from the whey and processed in a food processor until nice and creamy. Not only is the method easy, but it also lends itself to lots of customization—feel free to add herbs, spices, fruits, vegetables, or whatever floats your boat! This type of homemade cream cheese can last up to two weeks in the refrigerator, while most of your store-bought packs should be used within 10 days of opening.

How Can You Use Cream Cheese (Outside of Bagels and Cheesecake)?

Of course, cream cheese is used to top bagels and make cheesecake—here are some simple recipes to get you started! But you can use cream cheese to create all kinds of savory dips, spreads and cheeseballs. It also helps smooth out sauces and other dishes.

Whether you make your own or stick to the tried-and-true grocery store option, it’s a good idea to keep some cream cheese on hand at all times. You never know when an urge for that tangy, smooth dairy delight will strike.

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Grace Mannon
Grace is a full-time mom with a Master's degree in Food Science. She loves to experiment in the kitchen and writes about her hits (and misses) on her blog, A Southern Grace.