What Exactly *Is* Cream Cheese? + 18 Ways to Use It

January  2, 2018

I often forget about cream cheese until I need it: A forlorn, toasted bagel begs for some schmear. A craving for cheesecake hits—and hits hard. A last-minute party demands a savory, creamy dip. Or it's someone's birthday who loves carrot cake (which, in my experience, actually means that they love cream cheese frosting). It's then that I search my fridge for the telltale foil-wrapped bricks, building blocks for any tangy, rich dish worth its salt (or sugar).

Recently, however, as I was putting cream cheese on the shopping list, I started wondering: what exactly is cream cheese, anyway? Is it a cheese? How is cream involved? And why is it so dang delicious? So I decided to investigate—and round up a few of my favorite ways to use cream cheese (both sweet and savory), in the process.

So, what is cream cheese?

Cream cheese is a soft, mild-tasting fresh cheese made from cow's milk, meaning it's unaged. To produce it, lactic acid bacteria is added to cream, causing the pH of the cream to decrease, driving the fat away from the liquid—in short, curdling it. At this point the mixture is heated, stabilizers (such as carob bean gum and carrageenan) added, and voila—you've got cream cheese.

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Cream cheese is similar to Neufchâtel, a fresh French cheese also made of cow's milk, typically sold in the shape of a heart (aw). The main difference lies in the fat content: cream cheese traditionally contains cream, and thus has a higher fat content than its French counterpart, which is made only with milk. While they are quite similar in flavor, don't sub in Neufchâtel for cream cheese willy-nilly; the differing fat contents could cause some discrepancies.

Today, cream cheese is one of America's most widely-consumed cheeses—probably because its mild flavor means it's used in a myriad of sweet and savory applications. While most of us will pick up foil-wrapped blocks to use in spiced cheesecakes, creamy, savory dips, or to just to spread on toasted bagels, ambitious burgeoning cheesemakers may try to make their own. Regardless, now that you know what it is, use cream cheese to give a tangy richness to these 18 recipes—both sweet and savory.

make it sweet

...and savory

What's your favorite way to use cream cheese? Or do you just spread it on bagels and that's it? Tell us below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Joan Browne
    Joan Browne
  • sgoyette
  • Elizabeth
  • AntoniaJames
  • Catherine Lamb
    Catherine Lamb
A kitchen scientist and dog-lover. Someday I want to have you over for dinner.


Joan B. January 7, 2018
I've never been enamored of the texture of commercial cream cheese. The stabilizers put me off. It is possible to find cream cheese on the west coast that has no stabilizers, and of course if you make it yourself it will have no stabilizers. The texture is more crumbly, which the stabilizers are there to counteract I suppose, but which I find much more appealing. I've never tried baking with it but highly recommend seeking it out or making it just once to see if you prefer the real deal for spreading on bagels or whatever.
sgoyette January 2, 2018
Neufchâtel, as tge article you linked says, is similar to Brie, with a mild white rind. In France, cream cheese is "fromage à tartiner", or spreadable cheese. Neufchâtel that one sees in American stores is typically just lower fat cream cheese with a fancy name.
sgoyette January 2, 2018
I learned this the hard way making carrot cake with friends in France. They bought Neufchâtel - aged, like Brie. I cut out its heart and made frosting anyway.
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Catherine L. January 3, 2018
Interesting! Yes, I'd read that it could be sold very fresh (similar to cream cheese) or aged with a rind like Brie. I've never tried *actual* Neufchatel cheese, but am eager to do so!
Elizabeth January 2, 2018
Adding lactic acid bacteria causes the pH of the cream to decrease, not increase! Can't wait to try the butternut squash and spice cheesecake.
Author Comment
Catherine L. January 3, 2018
Whoops! Correcting now.
AntoniaJames January 2, 2018
Berenbaum's pie crust recipe is terrific. I tried it for the first time over the holidays, strictly following the brief, for a lattice topped pear pie (fruit prep and baking methods adapted from recipes by Stella Parks and Kate McDermott, respectively). It was one of the best pies I've ever made - and I've made quite a few over the years!
Another great use for cream cheese is -- hold on -- mixed with butter and aromatics, either in the form of a traditional liptauer or this riff, what we call "anchovy cheese": ;o)