I found, at the origin of this comparative study, what original Neufchâtel actually is: a French cheese dating back to the 6th century, named after a town of the same name, in Normandy. Some argue that Neufchâtel is the oldest known cheese in France, and its make process remains quite similar to the original methods of production. French Neufchâtel is an AOC — that is, name protected — unripened cheese, made with cow milk, and if left to ripen, it will develop a soft, bloomy rind, like brie or camembert. It's often found in the shape of a heart. Aw.
Cheese lore tells of a cheesemaker who, in an effort to replicate the cheese in America, ended up with a result more similar to cream cheese than to Neufchâtel. While the French version uses only milk, the American one uses milk and cream. It is this American incarnation that I've always wondered about at the store, in that 8-ounce, rectangular block, and it indeed tastes much more like cream cheese than the French cheese that inspired its creation. Another point to note: Neufchâtel in France is made with raw milk, while Neufchâtel in America gets pasteurized.
On paper, the main distinction between the two cheeses is their fat content: While cream cheese by law must contain at least 33% milk fat and not more than 55% moisture, American Neufchâtel weighs in with about 23% milk fat and slightly higher moisture content.*
Flavor-wise, Neufchâtel isn't too different from cream cheese. If I hadn't taken on the ever-thrilling exercise of blind tasting the two side-by-side, I'd never have known it to be any different. Both are dense, milky, slightly tangy, and spreadable. We all know the flavor of cream cheese quite well; Neufchâtel is just ever-so-slightly less rich tasting, and I may have detected a slight granularity to the texture, as well. Verdict on both: undeniably tasty. (What's not to like, really?)
Mystery solved. Now time for some baking.
* Source: The New Food Lover's Companion.
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and for some time she was a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently an Assistant TV Chef on The Martha Stewart Show.
Related: Super Simple Cream Cheese Cookies