Comparing Cream Cheeses

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By Robert L. Wolke
Wednesday, March 15, 2006

We think you're the man to solve a friendly little husband-wife discussion: What's the difference between a brick of cream cheese, soft cream cheese and whipped cream cheese?

I love to mediate marital "discussions," but you don't say who's betting on what, so I can't bestow the told-you-so rights on either one. You'll have to work that out without me.

There are almost as many types of cream cheese as there are bagels. (But don't get me started on those wimpy, round breads that the chain bagelries sell. I grew up in New York. 'Nuff said.) To quote Kraft Foods, which owns the Philadelphia brand: "Cream cheese originated in the United States in 1872, when a dairyman in Chester, N.Y., developed a 'richer cheese than ever before,' made from cream as well as whole milk. Then in 1880, a New York cheese distributor, A.L. Reynolds, first began distributing cream cheese wrapped in tin-foil wrappers, calling it Philadelphia Brand."

(An aside: Thin metal foil used for food wrapping was originally made of tin, but today it is aluminum. That doesn't prevent many metallically challenged folks from calling aluminum foil "tin foil.") "But why did he call it Philadelphia?" Kraft continues. "The name 'Philadelphia Brand cream cheese' was adopted by Reynolds for the product because at that time, top-quality food products often originated in or were associated with the city, and were often referred to as being 'Philadelphia quality.' "

Today, Kraft makes at least 11 varieties of cream cheese: brick, soft, fat-free brick, fat-free soft, light soft and whipped, chives and onion, garden vegetable, garden vegetable light, cinnamon sugar and strawberry. The last five are classified by the Food and Drug Administration not as cheeses, but as "cheese spreads," because their milk fat content is substantially lower than that of whole cheese. that's not even to mention the many variations that Kraft makes for ethnic palates around the world.

In its standard form, cream cheese is made by pasteurizing and homogenizing a blend of milk and cream and allowing a bacterial culture to work on it for about 18 hours. The curd is then separated from the whey; salt and vegetable gums are added; and the product is chilled and packaged. It is not aged. The gums -- xanthan, carob or guar, or a combination of them, obtained from various plants -- are what give cream cheese its gummy texture.

The mutant cream cheeses on the market -- such as light, soft, low-fat and fat-free -- are made by juggling the relative amounts of various ingredients, such as whole milk, skim milk, milk protein, whey and lactic acid, in the formulas. Whipped cream cheese is made by whipping air into the product.

For years, I have used the whipped version, assuming that I could eat maybe twice as much of it for the same amount of consumed fat. But according to measurements I made while researching this column, the whipped product occupies only about 22 percent more volume (for the same weight) than the brick product. That lowers the fat content from 35 to 29 percent. Not much of a difference.

Should I, then, switch to the "light" version, which contains 14 percent fat, or the fat-free one, which has less than 2 percent fat? After a thoroughly unscientific blind tasting (just me with my eyes closed), I concluded that none of the mutants can match the flavor and texture of the original. The whipped product had good flavor, but it is significantly watered down (aired down?). The "light" product had the consistency of sour cream -- not what one expects for a cream cheese -- and was distractingly salty. The fat-free product was unpleasantly gelatinous, with a sour aftertaste.

So what to do? I'm switching from the whipped version back to the original. There are more things in life to worry about than an extra 2 grams of fat per ounce.

Now about those bagels . . . .

I've been baking for a number of years, and my mother taught me a trick a long time ago for an easy and accurate way of measuring solids such as butter or shortening. For example, if the recipe calls for 1/2 cup of butter, fill a glass measuring cup with water to the 1/2 -cup mark and add butter until the water reaches the 1-cup mark. Just pour off the water and the butter will come out of the cup very easily.

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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