We love a schmear on our morning bagel, but cream cheese isn’t just a savory breakfast spread. In fact, this deliciously creamy dairy product boasts a variety of culinary uses—often making an appearance in baked goods (like this chocolate chip cake with cream cheese frosting) as well as savory dips and dishes (think: warm crab and artichoke dip and grown-up grilled cheese). Yep, it’s an impressively versatile and inexpensive kitchen staple. That said, for (almost) every prized ingredient, there’s a decent alternative. Whether you’re seeking a low-fat or dairy-free alternative, or simply used up your supply yesterday morning, we’ve got good news: There are several ways to substitute for cream cheese in any dish, be it sweet or salty. Read on for eight of our favorite swaps.
But First, What Is Cream Cheese?
In his award-winning cooking companion, The Food Substitutions Bible, author David Joachim gives a brief account of the birth of cream cheese, and it turns out this yummy stuff owes its origins to a knock-off gone wrong. “In 1872, New York State dairyman William A. Lawrence developed a method for making cream cheese while attempting to duplicate French Neufchatel,” he writes. In case you’re not a cheese wiz, true Neufchatel—a mold-ripened and AOC-protected fresh cheese—is far fancier than your standard aluminum-wrapped block of Philly cream cheese. OK, so this mass-produced American impostor will likely never have its day on a gourmet cheese plate. But, unless you’re running a fine dining establishment, there’s a good chance that cream cheese still has a special place in both your heart and your kitchen, because, you know, it tastes so damn good.
So what is cream cheese exactly? Soft (i.e., spreadable) and mild, this young cow’s milk cheese is the result of a reaction between pasteurized cream—or a combination of whole milk and cream—and lactic acid. The lactic acid, which causes the cream to coagulate (thicken) into cheese, is responsible for the signature tangy taste of cream cheese. Once the reaction has caused curds to form, they’re strained from the whey and blended with stabilizers like carob bean gum to maintain a smooth texture...and voila, cream cheese. Fun fact: It’s surprisingly quick and easy to make homemade cream cheese with nothing more than lemon juice, salt and cream (try this recipe from chef Gemma Stafford if you’re feeling inspired). The more legit method, preferred by artisanal cheesemakers, requires a couple of specialty ingredients (like rennet and mesophilic cheese starter) but is also very DIY-friendly if you’re looking for a new culinary project.
How to Use Cream Cheese
Bagels, lox, tomato. We all know about these common (and scrumptious) cream cheese companions—but there are many other applications, so to speak, for this beloved spread. Don’t take our word for it, though. Just book yourself a spot at the Kentucky Derby, where you can enjoy a classy cucumber-and-cream cheese delight known as a benedictine sandwich. Or combine cream cheese with powdered sugar in your trusty stand mixer to whip up a frosting you’ll want to slather on any and every baked good (or maybe just eat with a spoon). In the mood for a dip? Make cream cheese your base and then add flavorings to complete the dish. And did we mention you can include it in your breakfast routine even if you’re cutting carbs? Case in point: This crave-worthy recipe for sheet pan eggs with smoked salmon and dill. Yes, a tub (or brick) of cream cheese can do quite a lot, friends. So what’s a hungry home cook to do when cream cheese is called for and none can be found? Easy. Just pick from one of these expert-approved swaps and your culinary designs will come out, well, good enough to eat.
8 Ways to Substitute for Cream Cheese
1. Mascarpone Cheese
Per Joachim’s Food Substitution Bible, mascarpone is a top swap. This Italian fresh cheese is similar in texture but richer than cream cheese. Still, it makes an excellent, albeit slightly more decadent, all-purpose alternative to cream cheese when used as a 1:1 substitute. Pro tip: Add a squeeze of lemon juice to mascarpone in any recipe that relies on the slightly acidic taste that cream cheese imparts.
2. Boursin, Alouette or Rondele Cheese Spreads
These mass-produced cheese spreads (often found cozying up to cream cheese in the dairy aisle) are also suitable substitutes, says Joachim. Boursin is arguably the best of the bunch, but much like cream cheese, none of these spreadable cheeses have attained gourmet status. In fact, what sets them apart from cream cheese is mostly just the addition of herbs, garlic and other flavorings. No matter which brand you choose, these spreads can be used as a 1:1 substitute for cream cheese—but only in savory dishes (because no one really wants garlic in their carrot cake).
3. Pureed Silken or Soft Tofu
The easiest vegan substitute for cream cheese calls for an ingredient that most popular imitation dairy products are made of, namely, tofu. Of course, Tofutti cream cheese spread is an obvious and very convenient choice (see below) but if you don’t have any on hand, don’t worry—the pros at Chef’s Pencil say you can pull off a bang-up cream cheese stand-in with regular tofu, as long as it’s nice and soft. Simply puree silken or soft tofu with salt and a small amount of water until you achieve a cream cheese consistency—then use the blend as a 1:1 substitution for the real thing.
4. Dry Curd Cottage Cheese
Another one of Joachim’s substitute suggestions is dry curd cottage cheese. But if you aren’t a cheese connoisseur then you might be wondering what that ‘dry curd’ distinction is all about. It is not the same as the sloppy, diet-friendly stuff we typically snack on, but it’s just as low in fat. Dry curd cottage cheese, also known as farmer’s cheese, is made in much the same way as regular cottage cheese, except for one key difference: Once the whey is strained away, the remaining curds are what you call farmer’s cheese, whereas the extra milky texture of cottage cheese is owed to the addition of cream once the curds are separated. That said, if you have regular cottage cheese in the fridge you can try this dry curd hack: Pour the cottage cheese into a colander, rinse off the extra dairy under cold running water and leave it out to dry. The resulting curds can be blended and used as a 1:1 cream cheese substitute when cooking savory dishes.
5. Ricotta Cheese
Milkier and notably lacking in both tanginess and saltiness as compared to cream cheese, ricotta cheese is still a close enough match to make a suitable swap. The staff of food professionals at Chef’s Pencil recommend blending ricotta with an equal amount of full-fat (unsweetened) yogurt as a 1:1 substitute that better imitates both the texture and flavor of cream cheese in savory recipes. Ricotta can also be used as a cream cheese swap in baking—just follow the same advice above, but with a 50/50 blend of ricotta and heavy cream, rather than plain yogurt.
6. Hung Curd
In case you missed it, hung curd is actually just yogurt, except that all of the whey (i.e., water) has been drained from it—and the end result is extra thick and creamy (think Greek yogurt, but even richer). According to those in-the-know over at Chef’s Pen, “One of the best reasons for using hung curd as an alternative to cream cheese is the fact that it has a lower fat content.” So come all ye health-conscious and try this specialty product out as a 1:1 cream cheese substitute for savory recipes, decadent dips and even baked goods—just be sure to add a touch of honey (or a sweetener of your choosing) for the latter. Get step-by-step instructions for hung curd here.
7. Cashew (or Almond) Cream Cheese
Vegans can enjoy this dairy-free cream cheese substitute, courtesy of the Simple Veganista, which comes together with nothing more than cashews, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice and salt. Check out the full recipe here, but the gist of it is this: If you soak nuts (either raw cashews or almonds) overnight, you can blend ‘em with water and a touch of lemon juice to make a luxurious, creamy spread that boasts a salty, tangy flavor that’s similar to the real thing. Best of all, once this homemade alternative has had a chance to firm up in the fridge, it can be used as a 1:1 swap for cream cheese in any recipe—including baked goods, bagel schmears, or even as the literal icing on the (carrot) cake.
8. Store-Bought Vegan Cream Cheese
Need a dairy-free substitute for cream cheese but don’t want to be saddled with the chore of cleaning your blender? No problem. Phone it in with a Tofutti vegan cream cheese spread, or any other store-bought vegan imitation, for a 1:1 cream cheese stand-in that can do the job in savory and sweet recipes alike.