It’s hard to imagine a more versatile dairy ingredient than cream cheese. It’s mandatory for a good bagel, and it’s an essential ingredient in all things party food: cheesecake, dips, cakes, casseroles.
This fresh, i.e. unripened, cheese made from cow’s milk and cream is rich in butter, with a light touch of sour cream which is delicious in every way – pure, mixed with herbs or incorporated into eggs, pasta or soup. . But what makes cream cheese a must-have for home cooks is its thick consistency; it gives body and creaminess to everything from carrot cake frosting to spinach dip.
Interestingly, as rich as cream cheese may seem, it’s actually a nutritional step up from butter with half the calories and higher protein levels. Like butter, its high fat content means cream cheese can last for weeks in the refrigerator and even longer in the freezer. Just note that the slightest introduction of bacteria can turn it into a bunch of mold.
A great cream cheese is soft and creamy, with a delicate, mouth-watering, slightly sour flavor. It spreads evenly, even when cold, and literally melts on the tongue. Bad cream cheese is not only tasteless, it’s sticky and gooey from an overdose of stabilizers. The worst cream cheese is nothing more than a rubbery, greasy white block.
Here are details on which cream cheeses will enhance every holiday dish and which ones to avoid. Nutritional information refers to 2 tablespoons.
Organic Valley Cream Cheese
Those who love the taste of sour cream should check out this dreamy fresh cheese. It’s silky, lush and fashion-forward. 110 calories, 10g fat, 100 sodium. $6.49 for 8 ounces at Whole Foods. (4 stars)
Clover Sonoma Organic Cream Cheese
The sweet taste of crème fraîche shines in this buttery block. It has a distinct buttery flavor that is quite delicious on bagels and toast. 90 calories, 9g fat, 95 sodium. $4.99 for 8 ounces at Whole Foods. (4 stars)
Lucerne cream cheese
Its soft, creamy texture and pleasant taste make it one of the most affordable cream cheeses on the market. It contains three kinds of stabilizers, but they are used quite judiciously to preserve the velvety texture of the 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 has a lot of it right: It’s both creamy and tangy and much more spreadable than most. It doesn’t have the freshness of top-rated brands, but it’s a good choice for any recipe. 100 calories, 10g fat, 110mg sodium. $4.99 at Raley’s, $1.99 at Target. (3 stars)
365 Organic Cream Cheese
If flavor were the only criterion, this buttery cheese would score much higher. Unfortunately, too much locust bean gum makes it unpleasantly gummy. 100 calories, 10g fat, 95mg sodium. $3.49 for 8 ounces at Whole Foods. (2½ stars)
Raley’s Original Cream Cheese
In a pinch this will do, but would be better in hot, highly flavored foods, as they are sticky rather than creamy and have only 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 unfortunate white block is an effective 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 sour-sweet chalky substance in this tub is so strange it barely qualifies as cream cheese. It’s more like bouncy sour cream. 100 calories, 10g fat, 120mg 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 Thyme at email@example.com. Read more Taste-off columns at www.mercurynews.com/tag/taste-off.