Artisanal Cream Cheese
How we tested
While artisanal cream cheese won’t be putting big national brands out of business anytime soon, we wondered if a small-batch, handmade approach to this everyday supermarket staple could take it to the next level. To find out, we mail-ordered three cheeses, from Vermont, Michigan, and Virginia.
To focus on flavor, we sampled the cheeses plain. Tasters gave top marks to the most complex-tasting cheeses, which had strong notes of herbs and radishes. We continued our evaluation with the classic application: the bagel test. If our tasters were expecting a schmear of Philadelphia Brand, they quickly realized that this was a different thing altogether. Instead of the familiar tacky, dense consistency of a foil-wrapped block, tasters noted that these small-batch samples were looser and lighter. Two of the three spread easily over bagels and were both so fluffy that they brought to mind lightly whipped cream. Tasters liked the third sample, too, but it lost points for its drier, almost crumbly consistency, which made it harder to spread.
But how would these artisanal products fare in baked applications? Our dessert recipes, like most published recipes, were developed using national supermarket brands that contain stabilizers. No surprise, then, that stabilizer-free artisanal cheeses led to textural problems in recipes for cheesecake and cream cheese frosting, in which the cream cheese was the primary ingredient. In the cheesecake, excess moisture sank to the bottom, while frostings made with each of the three cheeses looked curdled. But as a secondary ingredient in cream cheese brownies, the artisanal cream cheeses excelled, providing a pleasant, tangy contrast to the rich chocolate. In fact, all three brands in our tasting beat out brownies made with our supermarket favorite.
THE BOTTOM LINE: For baking recipes in which cream cheese is the primary ingredient, we recommend sticking with supermarket brands. However, if you are making our Cook's Illustrated Cream Cheese Brownies, or if you want a superior spread for your bagels, artisanal cream cheese will deliver a more complex flavor and lighter texture that is well worth the money. (If you want to use it as a secondary ingredient in another baking recipe, proper results may require some testing and adjustment.) Our favorite won the top spot for its full flavor and well-rounded balance between saltiness, tanginess, and creaminess.