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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. Cream cheese, to me, is either an ingredient (i.e., cheesecake) or a vehicle (i.e., lox and bagels), but not something to be savored on its own, like, say, a great aged cheddar or even a creamy chevre.
But there are a lot of brands out there, not to mention specialty flavors, which made me wonder if there really was 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 tasted it and realized, “Oh! This is what cream cheese should taste like!” The flavor smacked of actual fresh cream, with enough of a delicious mellow tang to give it proper cream-cheesy notes. 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. According to the producer’s website, it’s been made the same way for the past 50 years, with just slow-cultured milk, cream, and salt — no gums, stabilizers or fillers — 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 balances creaminess, tanginess, and saltiness perfectly, with a soft, spreadable texture. 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 created using milk, cream, salt, and a variety of stabilizers (depending to the package, carob bean and/or xanthan and/or guar gums).
The texture was pretty comparable to Philly, but the tang wasn’t as strong. Actually, the taste was more buttery than cream cheesy. In case you’re paying attention to gums and stabilizers, this one is made with 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, though, was in its gummy, almost chewy, texture, which is likely from the gums it contains. It contains milk, cream, cheese culture, salt, and “stabilizers” such as “carob bean and/or guar gum.” I like Trader Joe’s, but this cream cheese is not for me.
Whole Foods’ store brand had the same buttery hallmarks of Organic Valley and Trader Joe’s, but it was so bland it verged on tasteless. 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 this is due to the fact that it contains three separate stabilizers: guar gum, carob bean gum, and xanthan gum. Another attempt.
This Oregon brand is known for its yogurt and super-thick cultured sour cream, but its cream cheese tasted too similar to both for it to be a winner on its own. 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 contains cream, nonfat milk, and four strains of active cultures, but no stabilizers or salt are added. If you’re managing your salt intake, a two-tablespoon portion includes 40 milligrams (compared to 90 milligrams for Gina Marie).