It’s hard to think of a more versatile dairy ingredient than cream cheese. It’s mandatory for a proper bagel, and it’s an essential ingredient in all things party food: cheesecake, dips, cakes, casseroles.
This fresh, i.e., non-aged, cheese made from cow’s milk and cream is buttery rich, with a mild, sour cream-like kick that’s delicious every which way — straight-up, mixed with herbs or stirred into eggs, pasta or soup. But what makes cream cheese such a go-to for home cooks is its thick consistency; it provides body and creaminess to everything from carrot cake frosting to spinach dip.
Interestingly, as rich as cream cheese seems, it’s actually a nutritional step up from butter with half the calories and higher protein levels. Like butter, the high fat content means cream cheese can last for weeks in the fridge — and even longer in the freezer. Just note that the smallest introduction of bacteria can turn it into a package of mold.
Great cream cheese is soft and creamy, with a delicate, mouthwatering, slightly sour tang. It spreads evenly, even when cold, and literally melts on the tongue. Bad cream cheese is not just tasteless, it’s sticky and gluey due to an overdose of stabilizers. The worst cream cheese is nothing more than a rubbery, greasy white block.
Here are details on the cream cheeses that will elevate every holiday dish, and the ones to avoid. Nutrition info refers to 2 tablespoons.
Organic Valley Cream Cheese
Those who love the tang of sour cream should check out this dreamy, fresh cheese. It’s silky, lush and cheese-forward. 110 calories, 10 g fat, 100 sodium. $6.49 for 8 ounces at Whole Foods. (4 stars)
Clover Sonoma Organic Cream Cheese
The sweet taste of fresh cream shines in this buttery block. It has a distinct butterlike flavor that’s utterly delicious on bagels and toast. 90 calories, 9 g fat, 95 sodium. $4.99 for 8 ounces at Whole Foods. (4 stars)
Lucerne Cream Cheese
Soft, creamy texture and a pleasant tang make this one of the best bargain-priced cream cheeses at the market. It contains three kinds of stabilizer, but they are used judiciously enough to preserve the velvety texture of cream cheese. 90 calories, 9 g fat, 95 mg sodium. $2.50 for 8 ounces at Safeway. (3½ stars)
Philadelphia Cream Cheese
This ubiquitous brand gets it mostly right — it’s both creamy and tangy and far more spreadable than most. It lacks the freshness of the top-rated brands, but it’s a fine go-to for any recipe. 100 calories, 10 g fat, 110 mg sodium. $4.99 at Raley’s, $1.99 at Target. (3 stars)
365 Organic Cream Cheese
If flavor were the only criterion, this butter-forward cheese would score much higher. Unfortunately, too much locust bean gum makes it unpleasantly gummy. 100 calories, 10 g fat, 95 mg sodium. $3.49 for 8 ounces at Whole Foods. (2½ stars)
Raley’s Original Cream Cheese
In a pinch, this will do, but it would be best in highly flavored, hot foods, as it’s sticky rather than creamy and has a mere trace of flavor. 90 calories, 9 g fat, 95 mg sodium. $2.50 for 8 ounces. (1½ stars)
Trader Joe’s Cream Cheese
This cheese is rubbery, thanks to a massive overdose of stabilizers. The flavor is neutral, but the texture is so dense that it doesn’t even melt on the tongue. 90 calories, 9 g fat, 95 mg sodium. $1.99 for 8 ounces. (1 star)
Great Value Cream Cheese
Greasy and literally tasteless, this regrettable white block is an efficient way to derail any dish. 90 calories, 9 g fat, 95 mg sodium. $1.54 for 8 ounces at Walmart. (No stars)
Tillamook Original Cream Cheese Spread
The sweet-sour chalky stuff in this tub is so odd, it barely qualifies as cream cheese. It’s more like bouncy sour cream. 100 calories, 10 g fat, 120 mg sodium. $3.99 for 7 ounces at Raley’s. (No stars)
Reviews are based on product samples purchased by this newspaper or provided by manufacturers. Contact Jolene Thym at [email protected]. Read more Taste-off columns at BADpi.com/tag/taste-off.