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The Best Cream Cheese

Philadelphia invented cream cheese. Does it still rule the roost?


Published Apr. 1, 2017.

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What You Need To Know

Cream cheese is a staple on the breakfast table and a common dessert ingredient, but who knew that it’s also part of United States history? In the 19th century, Americans were hungry for European cheeses, but the trip across the Atlantic Ocean was expensive and, without refrigeration, the cheeses often spoiled in transit. A New York farmer named William Alfred Lawrence saw an opportunity. Mimicking creamy French Neufchâtel, he developed a smooth, rich block of cheese (the block shape was cheaper to produce) with more cream and salt than the original. He named it “cream cheese” and skirted the time and expense of aging by emphasizing his cheese’s farm-fresh flavor. He branded it “Philadelphia Cream Cheese” after a city then associated with farming and quality dairy. Lawrence’s invention became hugely popular and is still the number-one cream cheese today. But how do its imitators stack up?

To find out, we gathered four nationally available cream cheeses, priced from $0.25 to $0.47 per ounce. We found them in two different kinds of packaging; three are foil-and-cardboard-wrapped bricks, and one comes in a plastic tub. They were all traditional full-fat cream cheese; we saved whipped and low-fat varieties for another day. We asked 21 America’s Test Kitchen staffers to blindly sample each plain, on bagels, and in cream cheese frosting.

Tasters immediately singled out one brick-style cream cheese for its “rich,” “mild,” and “classic” flavor. As one taster said, it was “a little tangy, a little sweet, a little salty”—the definition of balanced. Yet while we liked some tang, one product, made by Cabot, drew criticism for its “sharp,” “borderline sour” flavor. According to Dean Sommer, cheese and food technologist at the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, cream cheese is an acid-set cheese, which means that the lactic acid produced by the cheese cultures coagulates the proteins in the milk (most other cheeses are coagulated with rennet). He suspects that the sour flavor of cream cheese is the result of allowing the cultures to overacidify the milk.

Cabot’s offering also had 25 percent less sodium per serving than our winner (80 milligrams versus 105 milligrams), reminding us of the importance of salt in enhancing and balancing flavors in food.

Another cream cheese, Organic Valley, looked yellowish and tasted superfatty; one taster wondered, “Is this butter?” We noted that the cheeses all had similar fat levels, so we turned to our science editor, who pointed out that certain strains of cheese culture can produce aroma compounds similar to those found in butter. Two other manufacturers added cheese cult...

Everything We Tested

*All products reviewed by America’s Test Kitchen are independently chosen, researched, and reviewed by our editors. We buy products for testing at retail locations and do not accept unsolicited samples for testing. We list suggested sources for recommended products as a convenience to our readers but do not endorse specific retailers. When you choose to purchase our editorial recommendations from the links we provide, we may earn an affiliate commission. Prices are subject to change.

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