Shortages and supply chain issues have become more of a rule than an exception lately, and more recently, at least in the food world, the buzz has been about cream cheese. Especially Philadelphia cream cheese, that staple of bagel and cheesecake shops.
As my Washington Post colleague Marisa Iati reported, “the hypothetical factors contributing to the pungent dairy product’s supply problems remain unclear.” So far, the impact appears to be hitting New York’s bagel shops and their schmears the most, along with at least one large-scale producer, restaurant chain and cheesecake maker Junior’s.
To avoid potential shortages at the consumer level or, uh, use this moment as a marketing tool, Philadelphia-based manufacturer Kraft has announced that it will be offering a limited number of $20 refunds to people who make or buy a dessert without cheesecake during the holiday season.
The multi-step process, hampered at least temporarily by website issues on Friday, involves making a reservation, buying a dessert by Friday, then redeeming your reservation over a one-week period from on December 28 “for a chance to receive a $20 digital reward.” Easier said than done! Reservations disappeared quickly on Friday and probably will also on Saturday.
So far, I’ve yet to come across any bare shelves in the store, but here and there we’ve heard of readers struggling to find cream cheese. Here are some things to keep in mind if you find yourself in this situation.
• What is cream cheese? You’re probably familiar with this staple, which “The New Food Lover’s Companion” by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst describes as sweet, spreadable, and slightly tangy. Cream cheese is made from cow’s milk and is unripened. Often it contains added stabilizers such as carrageenan, guar gum and xanthan gum. The flavor and texture make cream cheese a staple in a variety of sweet and savory dishes, cooked or uncooked.
According to the law, “The New Food Lover’s Companion” states that cream cheese must contain at least 33% milk fat and no more than 55% moisture. This is important because the dairy-focused swaps you may consider in recipes will differ in fat and water content, says cookbook author Rose Levy Beranbaum. For example, she says, cream cheese contains half the fat of butter. Butter, on the other hand, contains much less water, at around 15% to 20%, compared to the half found in cream cheese.
When making substitutions, keep in mind that it’s nearly impossible to replicate the desired result with a 1-for-1 swap, especially without making further adjustments to the recipe. Keep in mind if your desired substitute is drier or moister than cream cheese. Is it softer or more tangent? Saltier? Review the differences before continuing. That being said, consider these scenarios for swaps:
Schmears and spreads: Lots of options here. Mascarpone, ricotta, goat cheese, and your favorite vegan cream cheese will all work in a pinch on your bagel or toast. Prefer to make your own cream cheese spread? You can find recipes there, including one from Smitten Kitchen.
Dishes without cooking: Cream cheese usually appears in dips or no-bake desserts. Sour cream, creme fraiche, mascarpone, and Greek yogurt are all fair game, though all are a bit looser than cream cheese. This is where goat cheese (chevre) can also shine. A combination of several of these ingredients can also bring you closer to the desired result.
Fillings: Muffins, breads, and cookies stuffed with cream cheese are pretty common, and I’d take goat cheese as a great option. You can beat it with a bit of heavy cream to make it a little more spreadable and soft, adding a pinch of sugar if you want to tamp down the spiciness a bit.
Pastry shop: This is by far the hardest place to try to substitute, and you may be better served by switching up the recipe. “If I absolutely had to replace cream cheese in large quantities, I would probably start with half the weight of butter for the fat content, then add dry milk powder or maybe milk concentrate to soften it,” says Beranbaum.
“Milk powder is also useful for creating a creamy texture.” Still, given the stabilizers in cream cheese, it’s “tricky,” she says. In baking, be wary of low-fat or fat-free options that may not taste or perform well, Beranbaum says.
Or just find a different recipe. Don’t feel like you have to jump through any hoops to substitute cream cheese in a recipe, especially if results aren’t guaranteed. Pivoting to a different option is not a sign of defeat; it’s often the smartest move, especially in baking. If you’re looking for a cream cheese pie crust recipe—one of Beranbaum’s specialties—you can always upgrade to an all-butter crust.
Another option suggested by Beranbaum is sweet pastry, which is more like a cookie or shortbread, but no less delicious. And rather than trying to substitute cream cheese in cheesecake, where it’s such an integral part, go ahead and find a recipe that doesn’t call for it at all. In our Washington Post archives, you’ll find options using goat cheese, mascarpone, and mascarpone with crème fraiche. Ricotta cheesecake is another possibility.
Cream cheese frostings can easily be replaced with American-style buttercream. To replace some of the tangy flavor, try incorporating a little buttermilk powder, a trick I took from an America’s Test Kitchen carrot cake recipe (which also has cream cheese) .