A few years ago, I figured out how to make cream cheese and didn’t quite know what to do with this information. What kind of crazy person makes their own cream cheese, no matter how delicious it is? Then again, you could use that reasoning to reject almost anything here (looking in particular at you, marshmallows) and you’re still here. But I suspected this would be a bridge too far. Even food blogging grandmothers have to stay relevant and who has looked around [gestures to all of these things in this world right now] and said “What really keeps me up at night is the stabilizers in store-bought cream cheese”?
And then the pandemic happened, many of us had more free time than we knew what to do with, the grocery stores didn’t always have what they used to, and when they did, the prices were whack (whoops, so much for “relevance”) and I made it again and what I forgot to tell you, what I should have led with, is that it’s unbelievably easy. I made this in 25 minutes. The only hands-on portion was scraping the cream cheese out of the food processor, and in the case of veggie cream cheese, mincing some vegetables. It requires no fancy ingredients, just regular whole milk, heavy cream, salt, and white vinegar. And it tastes fantastic. Each time I’ve made it, we’ve been kind of shocked at what a match it is for store-bought cream cheese; I’m not sure I could tell them apart with my eyes closed. And in the case of the flavored cream cheeses, so much better. Come on; you should try it at least once.
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Homemade Cream Cheese
- 4 cups (945 ml) whole milk
- 1/4 cup (60 ml) heavy cream
- 2 teaspoons (11 grams) fine sea salt
- 3 tablespoons (45 ml) white vinegar
- Line a fine-mesh or other tiny-holed strainer with a layer or two of cheesecloth and set it over a large bowl with enough clearance that the bottom of the strainer won’t touch the bowl once it has 4 cups of liquid in it, or the cheese won’t drain. In a heavy medium-large saucepan, heat the milk, cream, and salt over medium-high heat until just below a simmer — it will look like it’s foaming and register about 200 to 205 degrees F. Remove from heat. Stir in vinegar and wait 4 minutes, then pour it through the cheesecloth. Drain for 10 to 20 minutes; it will still look pretty wet but will barely be dripping from the strainer. The amount of time it takes to drain has to do with the size of your cheesecloth holes. Don’t worry if it drains too much, however; you can always add back some whey if it’s not the right consistency. Transfer the contents of the cheesecloth to a food processor or blender and blend until very smooth, a few minutes, scraping down as needed. That’s it — you made cream cheese!
- To make vegetable cream cheese: Add 2 tablespoons minced carrot, 2 tablespoons minced scallion, white and green parts, 2 tablespoons minced red pepper, blotted with a paper towel to remove excess liquid, 1/2 teaspoon onion powder, and a couple grinds of black pepper per 1 cup of plain cream cheese.
- To make scallion-chive cream cheese: Add 4 tablespoons finely chopped scallions and/or chives per 1 cup plain cream cheese.
- To make lox cream cheese: Add 4 tablespoons finely chopped lox, 1 tablespoon minced chives, and minced fresh dill, to taste, to 1 cup plain cream cheese.
- To make strawberry cream cheese, my favorite non-canon flavor of cream cheese because it tastes like cheesecake and I don’t care how much it makes Real New Yorkers that are not me clutch their pearls: Add 2 tablespoons strawberry jam, drained off a little if it’s a looser jam, per 1 cup plain cream cheese.
The cream cheese will still be warm, so the texture should remind you of cream cheese that’s been softened on a toasted bagel. If it seems stiffer, you can add some whey back, 1 teaspoon at a time, blending it in. As the cream cheese cools, it will firm up, but you can use it right away. Save the whey for other good things, like a soup stock or as the water in a bread recipe.
Do ahead: This fresh cream cheese, as per generally accepted food safety advice, should keep for 1 week in the fridge, but I can also tell you that my plain cream cheese was perfectly fine at the 2-week mark. I would plan to keep the lox cream cheese for only a few days, however.
Ingredient notes: You can use any milk you like to drink but you want to use a full-fat milk. A lower-fat milk will not have the same yield. For the cream, pasteurized is fine but ultra-pasteurized often has gellan gum in it for stability and I would avoid this. [I used Organic Valley for both my milk and heavy cream because they’re pretty accessible, not because this is sponsored.] This is my go-to fine sea salt brand. White vinegar is usually sold as plain vinegar in the UK. I’ve just started using this machine-washable brand of cheesecloth.
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