Cream Cheese 101: Is a Real Cheese? and How Is It Made?

Cream cheese is a soft, spreadable cheese that is made from cow’s milk and cream. It has a mild flavor and creamy texture, which makes it a popular choice for cheesecakes, bagels, and other baked goods.

In this blog post, we will take a closer look at what cream cheese is made of and how it is produced.

We will also explore a few different types and varieties of cream cheese, and we’ll show you how to make your own at home.

Is Cream Cheese a Real Cheese?

While many people think of cream cheese as a soft, spreadable version of cottage cheese or yogurt, it is actually a type of uncured fresh cheese made by acid-setting. So yes, it is a real cheese like other cheeses such as cheddar or Swiss.

However, cream cheese is not aged and is meant to be eaten fresh.

To give you an idea, regular cheese is made by curdling the milk and draining the liquid part (whey) – so you will get a chunk of solid cheese curd. Think of cream cheese as separating the whey halfway without enzyme (rennet), at the end you will have a gel-like curd.

It is similar to sour milk by milk acidification. We will talk more about how it is made below.

Is cream cheese processed cheese?

It may look like one, but no, cream cheese itself is not processed cheese – It is a “naturally occurring” cheese. In fact, there are as few as only 3 main ingredients needed to make cream cheese – milk, salt, and starter culture (bacteria). You can make it at home quite easily.

What about Philadelphia Cream Cheese?

Philadelphia Cream Cheese uses 5 ingredients (usda) – pasteurized milk and cream, salt, carob bean gum, and starter culture. In particular, the carob bean gum is a food additive (list) used as an emulsifier and stabilizer in cream cheese making.

The “processed cheese” is defined by FDA as – real cheese and non-cheese ingredients mixed with emulsifying agents.

The bottom line is the total amount of carob gum (or combined with others) does not exceed 0.5% of the weight (2). For this reason, Philadelphia cream cheese may not be considered a “processed cheese”, similar to the Canadian version.

That’s why you don’t see it labeled as “processed”.

What is Cream Cheese Made Of?

Cream cheese is made from cow’s milk and cream. It also contains an ingredient called stabilizers, such as xanthan gum or carob bean gum. They help to stabilize emulsions (thickening) – keep the cream and milk from separating.

With that, cream cheese can maintain good consistency for a longer time.

Not just for flavor, salt is added to control the growth of certain bacteria (1).

Lastly, the bacteria culture or starter is needed for milk fermentation. Without it, there would be no cream cheese!

Depending on the brand, cream cheese may also contain additional ingredients such as salt, sugar, colorings, or flavorings. These can vary widely by manufacturer and are often used to create a variety of different flavors.

How Is Cream Cheese Made?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires cream cheese to have a minimum of 33% of milkfat and a maximum of 55% moisture content. The process for commercial manufacturing of cream cheese:

Cream cheese is made from cream and milk mixtures. Milk that arrived needs to be separated into skimmed milk and cream.

  1. Standardize milk – A process to adjust the fat content for milk and cream respectively. Milk at 3.5% fat maximum, whereas cream at 11-20% fat as legal requirements. It’s then blended back together.
  2. Pasteurize – Heated for 73°C (163°F) for 20 seconds (3).
  3. Homogenize – Pressure to homogenize for 12–17 MPa at 50°C and cool to 30°C (86°F).
  4. Starter culture and rennet (optional) – Allow to sit for 12-16 hours. Some manufacturers may use lactic acid.
  5. Heat & Stir – When the pH is 4.6, heated to 51°C (124°F) and stir.
  6. Whey Separation – Draining the whey with a cloth bag for 2 hours.
  7. Salt and Stabilizer – Add 0.75% salt and 0.3% Stabilizers. Can be added under cold-pack or hot-pack. Hot-pack is a heat treatment before being pumped into packages.

For varieties, the cream cheese can also be flavored or added with herbs and spices. The popular varieties such as smoked salmon, chive and onion, strawberry, chocolate, garden vegetable, honey pecan, and mixed berry.

A few other versions such as whipped, blocks, 2x protein, low-fat, full-fat, and non-fat.

Neufchâtel cream cheese

(American) Neufchâtel is a variety of cream cheese that is lower in fat and calories. The production is very similar to the cream cheese except that the fat content must be 20-33% and a maximum of 65% moisture (4). It means that not only does Neufchâtel have lower fat but also allowed to have more moisture.

In addition, the milk of Neufchâtel is 5% fat, which is higher than the 3.5% in cream cheese.

The American Neufchâtel has little resemblance to the French Neufchâtel, which is a semi-soft brie-like cheese in heart shape. The American Neufchâtel is much closer to the cream cheese and mascarpone, despite the name.

Read more on Cream Cheese vs. Neufchâtel.

Make Cream Cheese at Home

Unlike the commercial, the process of making cream cheese at home is relatively simple with just milk, salt, and acid. Let’s start with milk acidification. This is done by adding an acid such as vinegar or lemon juice to the milk, which causes it to coagulate and form firm gel-like curds.

Lactic acid or sour yogurt can be used directly for the same purpose.

Some people may also heat the milk to boiling or near-boiling point. This will denature the protein to help separate the whey from curd faster, but the curds will end up being like ricotta with grainier texture – therefore pureeing until smooth.

Preferably, instead of adding acid, you can add mesophilic starter cultures. The lactic-acid-producing bacteria will sour the milk naturally. You can get it on Amazon like this one here, and let the milk sit for 12-16 hours overnight at ~70°F. If you want a faster result in just 4-6 hours, just bring up the temperature to about 88°F.


Cream cheese without gum?

Gum, such as xanthan gum, guar gum, or carob gum, is not a requirement, but it will help to give the cream cheese a firmer texture. It also helps to reduce spoilage and increase the shelf-life of the product.

The cream cheese brand you can find in the US that did not use gums is Sierra Nevada cream cheese USDA. They only use milk, cream, and salt.

Most of the cream cheese brands in the market contain gums as stabilizers, including Philadelphia cream cheese. If you are thinking of making cream cheese at home without gum, it is possible but considers these:

The moisture content will be much higher than the commercial product. The quality (texture) will not be consistent and may have a grainy texture. It can spoil much faster than the commercial.

Cream cheese without salt?

Salt in cheese making is essential. It restricts the growth of unfavorable bacteria. Also, it controls the moisture and texture (5). The cream cheese normally has about 0.75-1% salt.

If you want to make cream cheese at home without salt, as we described above, it’s possible but be aware when using it with the starter culture method which involved bacteria fermentation.

A better way for no salt cream cheese is just to use acids to curdle milk under high heat, then drain and blend it. Salt can be optionally added for flavoring.

Who made Philadelphia cream cheese?

Philadelphia cream cheese was first produced in 1872 by William Lawrence. The trademarked name was sold to Phenix Cheese Company in 1903. Later, Phenix merged with Kraft.

Today, Philadelphia is one of the most popular brands for cream cheese not only in the US but also around the world. It is a household name for many people when it comes to cream cheese.


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