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 cream cheese.

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

So What Is Cream Cheese?

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

According to the Philadelphia cream cheese brand, the company invented cream cheese in New York in 1872. Not too long after, in 1880, the company introduced its familiar foil wrapping along with the brand name “Philadelphia.” Why Philadelphia? The city had a reputation for producing high-quality food.

How Is Cream Cheese Made?

The recipe for cream cheese 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 separates 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. Some cream cheese recipes require a starter culture, but the only ingredients you really 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 creamy. Not only is the method easy, but it also lends itself to customization. You can add herbs, spices, fruits, vegetables and more to cream cheese.

Variety of toasts with berries and cream cheese and chocolate swirl. Red currant, blueberries, sliced kiwi, figs in white plate over gray texture background.REDA&CO/Getty Images

What Can You Substitute for Cream Cheese?

You already preheated your oven to bake a lovely swirled breakfast loaf (like this pumpkin swirl bread) and you realize you have no cream cheese. Luckily, there are quite a few substitutes for cream cheese you can swap in when baking. Some popular ones are Greek yogurt, sour cream and mascarpone cheese because they can be used as 1:1 substitutes.

Neufchatel cheese, a soft French cheese, is very similar to American-style cream cheese. It has a bit more moisture than cream cheese, so if you use it in baked or cooked foods, you may notice a different texture. A good way to use Neufchatel is in dips and spreads where the texture difference won’t be as noticeable.

How Do You Store Cream Cheese?

Like other soft cheeses, cream cheese has to be refrigerated. If it’s left out for too long and reaches temperatures between 40° and 140°F, it should be thrown away since bacteria likely began to grow. That being said, cream cheese is made from pasteurized milk, so there’s a lower risk of getting a foodborne illness compared to cheeses made from unpasteurized milk (like Brie or Camembert).

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. If it’s been more than 10 days and you can see mold growing on the surface or the texture is slimy, toss your cream cheese in the trash.

Although it is safe to freeze cream cheese, Philadelphia brand doesn’t recommend freezing it because it can affect the quality. Don’t worry about wasting leftover cream cheese though—we have plenty of ideas for desserts that use a package of cream cheese.

How Do You Use Cream Cheese?

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

Whether you make your own or stick to the best cream cheese brands at the store, 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.
Rosemary Siefert
Rosemary is an editor at Taste of Home where she can combine her love of writing with her love of all things food. When she's not working, Rosie can be found curled up with a coffee and a book, testing a new recipe for dinner or trying a new dish at a local restaurant.