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—
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!)
A FUDGY CAKE WITH (COUGH, COUGH) REAL CREAM CHEESE
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!
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).
Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing stories about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now, she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter.