Cream Cheese

Don't Tell My Bubbe, But I'm Obsessed With Dairy-Free Cream Cheese

August 24, 2018

There are 20-something people behind me in line at Murray’s Bagels—my tried-and-true bagel shop in Manhattan—but I’m ooh-ing and aah-ing and whoa-ing over their tofu-based cream cheeses. There’s plain, there’s vegetable, there’s scallion, there’s nova...

Someone clears their throat behind me, so I panic-pick, uhhh, scallion.

Between then and the register, though, I start to wonder: Why scallion? Why not nova? It’s not like I have sliced nova to put on my bagel and what am I going to do, just eat scallion cream cheese on a bagel? Who am I to turn up my nose at nova? Who am I to—

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“Cash or credit?” asks the woman at the register.

“About that,” I say. “Could I add something? To my order?”

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Top Comment:
“It's closer to "real" cream cheese compared to some I've tried. Finally - I've found a vegan ice cream that is so near the real stuff that non-vegan eaters cannot tell the difference. Try the cashew milk "ice cream" by So Delicious. It will change your life!!”
— T

She stares at me in a way that invites to me to say, Actually! Never mind. Credit. But I stare back in a way that says, I need the nova tofu cream cheese.

“You want to add something to your order?”

“I need the the nova tofu cream cheese,” I say. I need it.

And yes, I am ashamed of my behavior. After all, I had my turn in line. And it’s morning rush hour. And I’m not even a vegan. But it was worth it.

I wasn’t always like this.

For most of my life, I was a scallion cream cheese girl. Like, real cream cheese made with, you know, cream. This was one of the standard two options at synagogue events, Jewish holidays, family brunches: scallion and plain. (And who wants plain? Don’t @ me.)

But a few months ago, I started an experiment: less dairy. Not no dairy, just less. Like maybe instead of yogurt in the morning, I have oatmeal. And maybe instead of crumbled feta in my salads, a drizzle of tahini. And then when I want pizza for dinner, pizza it is.

The research that spurred this decision was—how do I put this—shoddy. I was complaining about my skin to one friend and she said, Maybe less dairy. I was complaining about my stomach to another friend and she said, Maybe less dairy. And just like that I thought: less dairy! This will solve everything.

What’s cool is: My skin did get better. My stomach did, too. I can’t confirm whether this was the dairy or placebo effect or something else entirely. But I can confirm something else I figured out along the way:

Dairy-free cream cheese tastes better than regular cream cheese. There, I said it.

At bagel shops, you’re likely to find it in tofu form. Murray’s uses ever-popular Tofutti, which is made of:

water, expeller processed natural oil blend (soybean, palm fruit and olive), maltodextrin, non-gmo (soy protein, tofu), non-dairy lactic acid, blend of natural gums (locust bean, guar, cellulose and xanthan), organic sugar and salt.

The cheat sheet? It’s mostly an emulsion of water and oil (just like most grocery-store salad dressings), plus tofu, thickeners, and stabilizers.

Beyond the bagel shop, you can buy nut-based cream cheeses in addition to tofu ones. My current darling is the chive-almond cream cheese by Kite Hill. It is (kisses fingertips) on a pumpernickel bagel with lots of smoked whitefish.

Because non-dairy cream cheese is, by name, compared to the original, it has to try so dang hard to measure up—and this usually pays off. It’s like my Vegan Ice Cream Theory. If you stumble upon any old ice cream shop, who’s to say if it’s any good? If you stumble upon a vegan ice cream shop, which constantly has to prove its worth, your odds are much better. (Disclaimer: This theory is still being tested. But I invite you to join my research and share your results!)


Which is all to say, non-dairy cream cheese accomplishes what it sets out to—creamy spreadability—but it also brings some bonuses. I love its relative lightness, rich but not heavy. This means I can slather even more on my bagel (huzzah!) without offending the fish or fixings. The nut-based varieties tend to be less gluey and gummy. And the tofu ones—well, I just like the taste of tofu, and it does really go well with fish.

What would my bubbe—my sweet, Jewish, cream cheese–loving grandma—think of all this? Probably a big eye roll and bigger oy vey! Kids these days.

Have you tried dairy-free cream cheese before? What’d you think? Tell us in the comments!

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The Food52 Vegan Cookbook is here! With this book from Gena Hamshaw, anyone can learn how to eat more plants (and along the way, how to cook with and love cashew cheese, tofu, and nutritional yeast).

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • FRuiz
  • T
  • Aribakes
  • ctgal
  • Ella Quittner
    Ella Quittner
Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


FRuiz September 2, 2018
The Tofutti Whipped Cream Cheese is the best hands down plain cream cheese!
T August 31, 2018
First off - I haven't tried the Tofutti brand, but I will now! Second - I have tried Daiya and I like it quite a bit. It's closer to "real" cream cheese compared to some I've tried. Finally - I've found a vegan ice cream that is so near the real stuff that non-vegan eaters cannot tell the difference. Try the cashew milk "ice cream" by So Delicious. It will change your life!!
ctgal August 31, 2018
That's my go to ice cream. Even my husband was impressed and he is an ice cream maven. The problem is that it's too good!
T August 31, 2018
That's very true!! :)
Aribakes August 30, 2018
I’m plant based and love the Tofutti cream cheese & sour cream, although since moving to the Midwest it can be harder to find. The plain cream cheese reminds me of the bagels w/ a schmear I used to have in high school. I think the Diaya brand of cream cheese has an off taste & I haven’t had the Kate Hite yet.
ctgal August 30, 2018
I am lactose free, but it's not a problem. Whole Foods has a lactose free cream cheese , and it's totally acceptable. And, when I eat it, I don't get sick. I have tried all those other cream cheese subs. I really don't like them at all!
Lactose pills work for me too, but not everyone can take them successfully.
Ella Q. August 28, 2018
You have converted me, Emma! The Nova flavor is gold.
Tina N. August 26, 2018
My 16 year old can't digest dairy, so she uses tofutti cream cheese. She really likes it. I tried it, and I couldn't stand the taste. It sounds like kite Hill might be better, if I can find it we'll give it a try. She also tried the Trader Joe's vegan cream cheese, but she didn't really like it.
Rye M. August 30, 2018
Cashew cream cheese is also good! I get my cashews at aldi's where the 32 oz is $13
Katie B. August 26, 2018
I 100% agree with the Kite Hill rec! I've been known to go to 3-4 different stores looking for it since it seems to sell out quickly in Houston. Spread some of the chive cream cheese on a Trader Joe's Norwegian cracker and add some Nova...pure bliss.
Terri August 26, 2018
Do they sell Kite Hill at Trader Joe’s?
Alison August 26, 2018
My dairy problem is, specifically, a lactose problem, so although milk and cheese can be problematic (let's call it that), cultured dairy products like yogurt or kefir don't trouble me. I do think that dairy-free cream cheese can be pretty good (I like Kate Hill and Daiya), but I don't find it quite as tasty as the real thing. Another option for people like me is Labneh, which is basically a soft, spreadable thickened yogurt (sort of like a drained Greek yogurt). It works well as a substitute for cream cheese, although it is a little bit tangy (I like that, but might not be to everyone's taste).
Lisa A. August 26, 2018
I was a die hard cream
cheese fan but have now switched to the Kite Hill- it is outrageously good with nova or on a cracker!
carriemb August 26, 2018
I’m obsessed with Kite Hill jalapeño cream cheese on pumpernickel bagels
Emma L. August 27, 2018
Mmmm I must try that!
Alison M. August 26, 2018
I stopped eating dairy and it changed my life. No more GI issues! Big tip: use Tofutti brand cream cheese with Tofitti brand sour cream and you get a non-dairy New York-style cheesecake that I actually prefer over the dairy version. No, I am not An employee of or paid by Tofutti!
Emma L. August 27, 2018
Wow! Is there a specific recipe you follow?
bellw67 August 25, 2018
I served the Garlic & Herb Tofutti Cream Cheese just recently at a bbq and it was a hit with the non Vegans. It was very good, a little expensive but worth the price.
Emma L. August 27, 2018
Yum! I haven't tried that one. Yet.
Catherine August 25, 2018
The only vegan cream cheese I have tried is from Trader Joe's, and it was pretty awful... expectations instantly dashed to bits.
Terri August 25, 2018
Nearly everyone in my family has gone off dairy and they feel so much better. I’m the only hold out, but the bloating and gas has me rethinking. If there’s a good non-dairy cream cheese, I could probably survive the lifestyle change. In the meantime at least I have a dog I can blame for the gas.
Ray M. August 25, 2018
My new favorite is the dairy free cream cheese from Aldi. Super creamy and way cheaper than all other vegan cream cheeses.
HalfPint August 24, 2018
I use to get the chive Tofutti at a bagel shop near my office. It was pure magic even for me the non-vegan. I don’t how the shop did it but their Tofutti was amazing. I tried my bagel with store-bought Tofutti and it just wasn’t the same. Like all foods that I obsess over, the shop closed down and I haven’t had non-dairy schmear like that since.
Kim August 24, 2018
My fave vegan cream cheese by far is Trader Joe’s
Emma L. August 27, 2018
I shop at TJ's almost every week but have yet to try theirs! (Adds to to-do list.)