A Guide To Cooking With Cream Cheese

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Cream cheese is a mild cheese product with a rich but neutral flavor and smooth texture. You love it on a bagel, and your favorite carrot cake frosting would probably be lost without it.

The History Of Cream Cheese

Invented in the late 1800’s by a farmer in New York, cream cheese was the product of an accident while attempting to create an established French cheese. Though foods similar to cream cheese are thought to have been made for centuries, it was not officially marketed until 1880, when it began to be sold in the now classic foil wrapper. Cream cheese has become a hugely popular ingredient in cooking, and is now used as a spread, ingredient in cheesecake, replacement for heavy cream or butter, dip and more.

What Is Cream Cheese?

The cheese industry officially categorizes cream cheese as a fresh cheese rather than an aged cheese, which may explain its mild flavor. Cream cheese was originally made from milk fortified with cream for a thick, rich texture. Today it can be processed using thickeners that keep the creamy consistency but lose the fat for a range of "cream cheese" products to suit most recipes, tastes and diets.

Cream Cheese Varieties And Variations

In different parts of the world the term "cream cheese" may be used on products with a much higher fat content than we're used to in the U.S.

  • American full-fat cream cheeses are comparable to the Italian Mascarpone cheese. 
  • There's been a revolution in the types of cream cheese available at the market. Looking back a couple of decades, most cream cheese was available in a distinctive silver brick or half-brick of 8-ounces and 4-ounces respectively. Low fat varieties were unheard of.
  • Today cream cheese is available in the traditional bricks and also in tubs. 
  • There are whipped, easy spread varieties that remain soft to 39 degrees F in your fridge. 
  • Flavored cream cheeses are growing in popularity too. All this cream cheese innovation is blurring the lines between a classic fresh cheese and a prepared spread product. 
  • Cream cheese is still a great ingredient cheese, but it's also becoming a dip and softened, flavored spread right off the grocery store shelf, too.
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Cooking With Cream Cheese

Cream cheese can be used hot or cold, and it's often at its best when combined with other ingredients. A classic cream cheese frosting uses two parts cream cheese to one part butter, and many dips use cream cheese with other rich ingredients like mayonnaise, sour cream, Parmesan cheese and Swiss cheese. The result is almost always a creamier product with a rich flavor and the hint of a cheesy bite.

  • Use room temperature cheese - Even though spreadable cream cheese is becoming more popular, many legacy recipes call for a simple 8-ounce brick of softened cream cheese. The "softened" part is important here. The trick is to let cream cheese come to room temperature but not leave it out long enough to attract bacteria. This is complicated by the fact that the aluminum packaging on most cream cheese bricks make it microwave unfriendly for softening purposes. Ninety minutes at room temperature should soften an 8-ounce brick of cream cheese adequately for hand mixing. Breaking a cream cheese brick into smaller pieces before adding it to other ingredients will help, too.
  • Cream cheese substitutes – Cream cheese is incredibly versatile, and is a great way to substitute ingredients. Cream cheese can also be substituted when a particular recipe calls for it. If a recipe requires cream cheese and you don't have any on hand, consider using a puree of cottage cheese or plain yogurt strained through two lengths of cheese cloth to remove the excess water. Also, if you have a little extra cream cheese on hand, you can substitute it for butter in recipes that don't require sautéing.
  • Be careful of low-fat options - When substituting low or nonfat cream cheese in recipes, watch the melting characteristics of the brand you've chosen. The lack of fat makes some cream cheeses melt more slowly, which can result in lumps. If you're cutting back on fat, prepare to blend low fat cream cheese for a few extra minutes.
  • When substituting whipped cream cheese - The low calorie count in most whipped cream cheese products can be deceptive. Whipped products are less dense because they're partially composed of air. Use the weight measurement to determine ingredient proportions for your recipes.

Cream cheese remains an incredibly popular ingredient in many appetizers, entrees and desserts, proving this cheese product is incredibly handy to keep in the kitchen.

Last Updated: December 29, 2011
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About Sara Elliot Sara Elliott is a freelance copywriter and dedicated blogger. Her popular gardening, cooking and crafting blog, The Herb Gardener, was cited by The Wall Street Journal for its fun and frugal tips. Sara has a degree in English, and you can find her health, crafting, and lifestyle pieces on sites like DiscoveryHealth.com, HowStuffWorks.com, Savvi.com and TLC.com.

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