Cream cheese is a soft, mild-tasting fresh cheese made from milk and cream. Stabilizers such as carob bean gum and carrageenan are typically added in industrial production.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines cream cheese as containing at least 33% milk fat with a moisture content of not more than 55%, and a pH range of 4.4 to 4.9. In other countries, it is defined differently and may need a considerably higher fat content.
Cream cheese is not naturally matured and is meant to be consumed fresh, so it differs from other soft cheeses such as Brie and Neufchâtel. It is more comparable in taste, texture, and production methods to Boursin and mascarpone.
Early prototypes of cream cheese are mentioned in England as early as 1583 and in France as early as 1651. Recipes are recorded soon after 1754, particularly from Lincolnshire and the southwest of England.
Recipes for cream cheese can be found in U.S. cookbooks and newspapers beginning in the mid-18th century. By the 1820s, the dairy farms in and around Philadelphia and New York City had gained a reputation for producing the best examples of this cheese. Cream cheese was produced on family farms throughout the country, so quantities made and distributed were typically small. Around 1873, William A. Lawrence, a Chester, New York, dairyman, was the first to mass-produce cream cheese. In 1872, he purchased a Neufchâtel factory and shortly thereafter, by adding cream to the process, was able to create a richer cheese that he called “cream cheese”. In 1877, he created the first brand of cream cheese: its logo was a silhouette of a cow followed by the words: Neufchatel & Cream Cheese. In 1879, to create a larger factory, Lawrence entered into an arrangement with another Chester merchant, Samuel S. Durland. In 1880, Alvah Reynolds, a New York cheese distributor, began to sell the cheese of Lawrence & Durland and called it "Philadelphia Cream Cheese". By the end of 1880, faced with increasing demand for his Philadelphia-brand cheese, Reynolds turned to Charles Green, a second Chester dairyman, who by 1880 had been manufacturing cream cheese, as well. Some of Green’s cheese was now also sold under the Philadelphia label. In 1892, Reynolds bought the Empire Cheese Co. of South Edmeston, New York, to produce cheese under his "Philadelphia" label. When the Empire factory burned down in 1900, he asked the newly formed Phenix Cheese Company to create his cheese, instead. In 1903, Reynolds sold rights to the "Philadelphia" brand name to Phenix Cheese Company under the direction of Jason F. Whitney, Sr. (which merged with Kraft in 1928). By the early 1880s, Star cream cheese had emerged as Lawrence & Durland's brand and Green’s made World and Globe brands of the cheese. At the turn of the 20th century, New York dairymen were producing cream cheese under a number of other brands, as well: Triple Cream (C. Percival), Eagle (F.X. Baumert), Empire (Phenix Cheese Co.), Mohican (International Cheese Co.), Monroe Cheese Co. (Gross & Hoffman), and Nabob (F.H. Legget).
Cream cheese is easy to make at home, and many methods and recipes are used. Consistent, reliable, commercial manufacture is more difficult. Normally, protein molecules in milk have a negative surface charge, which keeps milk in a liquid state; the molecules act as surfactants, forming micelles around the particles of fat and keeping them in emulsion. Lactic acid bacteria are added to pasteurized and homogenized milk. During the fermentation around 22 °C (72 °F), the pH of the milk decreases (it becomes more acidic). Amino acids at the surface of the proteins begin losing charge and become neutral, turning the fat micelles from hydrophilic to hydrophobic state and causing the liquid to coagulate. If the bacteria are left in the milk too long, the pH lowers further, the micelles attain a positive charge, and the mixture returns to liquid form. The key, then, is to kill the bacteria by heating the mixture to 52–63 °C (126–145 °F) at the moment the cheese is at the isoelectric point, meaning the state at which half the ionizable surface amino acids of the proteins are positively charged and half are negative.
Inaccurate timing of the heating can produce inferior or unsalable cheese due to variations in flavor and texture. Cream cheese has a higher fat content than other cheeses, and fat repels water, which tends to separate from the cheese; this can be avoided in commercial production by adding stabilizers such as guar or carob gums to prolong its shelf life.
In Spain and Mexico, cream cheese is sometimes called by the generic name queso filadelfia, following the marketing of Philadelphia branded cream cheese by Kraft Foods.
Cream cheese is often spread on bread, bagels, crackers, etc., and used as a dip for potato chips and similar snack items, and in salads. It can be mixed with other ingredients, such as yogurt or pepper jelly, to make spreads.
Cream cheese can be used for many purposes in sweet and savoury cookery, and is in the same family of ingredients as other milk products, such as cream, milk, butter, and yogurt. It can be used in cooking to make cheesecake and to thicken sauces and make them creamy. Cream cheese is sometimes used in place of or with butter (typically two parts cream cheese to one part butter) when making cakes or cookies, and cream cheese frosting. It is the main ingredient in the filling of crab rangoon, an appetizer commonly served at U.S. Chinese restaurants. It can also be used instead of or with butter or olive oil in mashed potatoes, and in some westernized sushi rolls.
American cream cheese tends to have lower fat content than elsewhere, but "Philadelphia" branded cheese is sometimes suggested as a substitute for petit suisse.