I used to believe that all cream cheeses were created equal. Each one is just a white brick (or frosting-like tub) of a creamy spread with such a faint taste that calling it cheese sounds almost ridiculous. To me, cream cheese is either an ingredient (as in cheesecake) or a vehicle (as in lox and bagels), rather than something to be relished on its own, like a fine aged cheddar or even a creamy chevre is.
Yet there are so many brands, not to mention speciality tastes, that I began to question whether there was truly a difference between cream cheeses. So I compared all the brands I could find, settling on the most basic form: plain, full-fat bricks (with two exceptions). The findings were very unexpected.
The 2 Best Cream Cheeses You Can Buy at the Grocery Store
The more artisanal pick: Gina Marie, $4.99 for eight ounces
I wasn’t expecting to appreciate this odd tiny tube of cream cheese. The packaging was distinct from the typical foil wrapper, and the fluffy-crumbly texture reminded me of chevre, which I don’t want on a bagel. But then I tried it and thought, “Ah! This is what cream cheese is supposed to taste like!” The taste was really fresh cream, with just enough mild tang to give it correct cream-cheesy undertones. As delicious as it tastes, its goat-cheese-like consistency makes it look light at the same time, since it lacks the thick, butter-like texture of traditional cream cheese bricks. Moreover, although it seems crumbly at first, it spreads nicely.
Sierra Nevada Cheese Company, a dairy in rural Northern California, produces Gina Marie cream cheese. It’s been manufactured the same way for the last 50 years, according to the producer’s website, using only slow-cultured milk, cream, and salt — no gums, stabilizers, or additives — and drained in muslin bags. It may be difficult to locate (search local grocery shops), so I’ve included a more mainstream option below.
This is the cream cheese I purchase when I need it for a recipe, such as cheesecake or icing. The Gina Marie’s unique fresh cream taste would be lost in a recipe, so there’s no need in paying a premium for it. If you can’t get Gina Marie, good ol’ Philadelphia cream cheese is the next best thing. It has a delicate, spreadable texture that nicely combines creaminess, tanginess, and saltiness. Milk, cream, salt, carob bean gum, and cheese culture are used to make it. I guess there’s a reason it’s a classic.
Some Other Cream Cheese Options Worth Mentioning
This cream cheese is properly titled, since if any mainstream brand can compete with Philadelphia, it’s this one. While there is a somewhat greasy/buttery aftertaste, it tastes pretty rich without being too buttery. This is a good alternative, but when compared to Philadelphia, it’s certainly not as flavorful. It’s made with milk, cream, salt and a variety of stabilizers (carob bean and/or xanthan and/or guar gums, according to the packaging).
The texture was pretty comparable to Philly, but the tang wasn’t as strong. Actually, the taste was more buttery than cream cheesy. If you’re concerned about gums and stabilizers, this one has organic milk, cream, and whey, cheese culture, salt, and organic locust bean gum.
The … chewiest: Trader Joe’s Cream Cheese, $1.69 per eight ounces
This tasted almost exactly like Organic Valley. In other words, it was very buttery with little tang. The difference was in its gummy, almost chewy feel, which was most likely due to the gums it contained. It’s made with milk, cream, cheese culture, salt and “stabilizers,” which could be “carob bean and/or guar gum.” I love Trader Joe’s, but I would not suggest this cream cheese.
The retail brand from Whole Foods had the same buttery characteristics as Organic Valley and Trader Joe’s, but it was so bland that it bordered on insipid. And, although buttery, it lacked richness. It didn’t have the same chewy texture as Trader Joe’s, but it was a touch slick and slippery. Maybe that’s because it’s made with three different stabilizers: guar gum, carob bean gum and xanthan gum. Another pass.
This Oregon business is famed for its yogurt and super-thick cultured sour cream, but their cream cheese felt too identical to both to stand alone. While I love the probiotics, the flavor was so sour and acidic that it seemed like the cheese had been blended with yogurt. This cream cheese, on the other hand, would make an excellent basis for a savory dip. It’s made with cream, nonfat milk, and four strains of active cultures, but no stabilizers and no added salt. If you’re watching your sodium, a two-tablespoon serving has 40 milligrams of sodium (compared to 90 milligrams for Gina Marie).
The Best Almond Milk to Buy at the Grocery Store
Whether you’re cutting off dairy (or simply trying to drink less of it) and looking for a milk substitute that tastes just like the real thing, almond milk is your best friend. It has a natural sweetness and creamy texture that’s incredibly similar to dairy milk, and some brands don’t retain any of the nut’s natural flavor at all.