Ingredient Intelligence

No Cream Cheese? Try These 10 Substitutions for Baking and Cooking.

published Jul 7, 2022
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Cutting cream cheese on a cutting board.
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Ask almost any bagel aficionado: A schmear of good cream cheese is a necessary component to any fresh bagel. It’s also a key ingredient in many baked goods and sweet treats, like cheesecake or frosting. But what if you ran out of cream cheese? Or forgot to pick up a package during your last grocery run? What if there’s a cream cheese shortage and you can’t find any? 

Happily, there are plenty of great substitutions for a variety of cream cheese-related pursuits. Keep reading to learn which cream cheese swap is best for the recipe you’re working on.

What Can You Substitute for Cream Cheese?

Not all cream cheese substitutions are equal. Some work better as a spread or in a dip, and others perform best in baked goods. Ten tried-and-true cream cheese swaps are thick strained yogurt, sour cream, Neufchâtel cheese, vegan cream cheese, mascarpone, ricotta, cottage cheese, fresh goat cheese, butter, and silken tofu. Keep reading to learn about the ingredients that work when you don’t have cream cheese.

When to substitute strained yogurt for cream cheese

Strained yogurt is thick and creamy — Greek yogurt or Icelandic skyr are examples. These work very well in place of cream cheese in creamy or baked recipes like this casserole. And here’s a crucial tip: Because cream cheese is high in fat, it’s a good idea to buy yogurt made with whole milk, rather than 2% or skim. The texture will be much closer to traditional cream cheese.

When to substitute sour cream for cream cheese

Sour cream has a slightly more sour tang than cream cheese, but it adds a comparable luscious richness. It’s best in dips and sauces, as opposed to baked goods.

When to substitute Neufchâtel cheese for cream cheese

If your grocery store is out of cream cheese, there’s a good chance it’s also low on Neufchâtel. But it doesn’t hurt to check — or stock up when you can. The authentic French version of this cheese has a lightly bloomed rind (think: Brie, but way less fatty). American versions are very similar to cream cheese in taste and texture, but they contain less fat than regular cream cheese. Essentially, it’s the original low-fat cream cheese. You can substitute Neufchâtel one-to-one for cream cheese in many recipes, including dips, spreads, sauces, and desserts.

When to substitute vegan cream cheese for cream cheese

Jennifer Walls, one of the founders of all-diets-welcome bakery The Sweet Praxis in Syracuse, New York, uses plant-based cream cheese for many of the bakery’s treats. “Miyoko’s is very tasty,” she says, adding that she sometimes makes her own vegan cream cheese at home. Store-bought vegan cream cheese will be your safest bet when it comes to baking, as the texture very closely matches the original stuff.

When to substitute mascarpone cheese for cream cheese

This Italian cheese is incredibly thick, creamy, and sweet with a subtle tang. Sound familiar? Mascarpone is very close in texture and taste to cream cheese, making it one of the best all-around substitutes. Try it on a bagel!

When to substitute ricotta cheese for cream cheese

Another Italian winner, ricotta can be swapped in for cream cheese with a little jazzing-up. Because it has curds, you’ll want to blend it or put it in the food processor before baking with it. Of course, if it’s a cheesecake you wanted to make, you could always ditch the New York Style entirely for the Italian version, which relies on ricotta. 

When to substitute cottage cheese for cream cheese

Think: ricotta, but curdier. The curds in cottage cheese are large and pronounced, so definitely don’t skip the blending step before cooking or baking with it.

It doesn’t hurt to drain off the liquid in thin or watery versions before blending, either. You won’t fool anyone into thinking cottage cheese is a traditional bagel topper, but it can get the job done in both savory and sweet casseroles.

When to substitute fresh goat cheese for cream cheese

Goat cheese has a more distinctive flavor than cream cheese (both fans and detractors call it “barnyard-y”), but it can be a decent swap. Fresh goat cheese, or chevre, is crumblier than cream cheese, so it will help to blend it with a little whole milk before using it in recipes. Try it in vegetable dips that call for cream cheese.

When to substitute butter or vegan butter for cream cheese

Walls says that vegan butter is her bakery’s trick for authentic-tasting plant-based frosting. “For cream cheese icing on cakes, we make an American buttercream with Earth Balance instead of butter — we also add lemon juice and vanilla extract to mimic the tang of cream cheese,” she says. It’s the finishing touch on their vegan carrot cake. 

When to substitute silken tofu with lemon for cream cheese

Tofu, made from fermented soybeans, is not a flavor twin to cream cheese. (Adding lemon and a splash of vanilla will help.) But texturally speaking, it performs similarly in baked goods. Try it in a pudding to see for yourself. Be sure to buy silken, not firm or extra-firm, tofu.

How to Make Cream Cheese Substitutions When Baking

Some cream cheese swaps can be made free-form, or by “eye-balling.” As a general rule, recipes that rely on cream cheese to add saucy richness — like casseroles and dip — can be approached with creativity. 

On the other hand, baked goods that require science and exact ingredient ratios — again with the cheesecake — should be approached with precision. Seek recipes that address the different ingredients and are formulated to accommodate their different chemistry. For example, instead of just using vegan cream cheese in place of cream cheese in your favorite NY-style cake, follow a recipe that includes the plant-based stuff in its ingredient list.

Final Thoughts

It’s frustrating to find yourself out of cream cheese in the middle of a recipe. To avoid the headache, stock up on extra tubs or bricks of cream cheese. Unlike another common elusive baking ingredient, buttermilk, cream cheese lasts for a long time in the fridge. You can freeze cream cheese, too; just be sure to wrap it tightly in plastic and store it in a freezer-safe container.