Can’t Find Cream Cheese? Try These Substitutes

Don’t let a shortage stop you from whipping up holiday desserts or enjoying your morning bagel.

December 17, 2021
Bagel filled with cream cheese and milk for breakfast.


Bagel filled with cream cheese and milk for breakfast.

Photo by: Feng Zhao/Getty

Feng Zhao/Getty

The Great Cream Shortage of 2021 has New York City bagel shops, local restaurants and home cooks scrambling to get their hands on cream cheese. It’s what makes a bagel complete with a generous schmear on top in the morning and the star ingredient for the homemade cheesecake that everyone counts on for the holidays.

So, where’s the cream cheese? It depends on who you talk to about the condiment conundrum and whether they are referring to their bagel-on-the-go or a reliable kitchen staple for turning out baked goods and desserts.

According to a report in The New York Times, bagel shops are feeling the effects and are in a scramble to try and locate as much cream cheese as they can to keep customers happy when it comes to their favorite combination of their beloved bagels and cream cheese.

Some cream cheese aficionados may speculate that the amount of cream cheese typically spread on New York bagels may be part of the problem – and that using a little less could help stretch the current supply. How much cream cheese should top a bagel and is there such a thing as too much?

Roger Clark, a reporter for Spectrum NY1 News, remembers being in charge of the family weekend bagel run as a kid and his order now includes picking up the breakfast supplies for his wife Jenny and ten-year-old son Jack. “My wife always tells me to specify ‘not too much’ - they tend to put too much cream cheese. I’m guessing maybe the problem could be solved by going a little lighter on the cream cheese.”

If you ask Adam Roberts, the author of Secrets of the Best Chefs, Give My Swiss Chards to Broadway and the host of the podcast Lunch Therapy, he thinks maybe the elusive cream cheese has simply left town.

Since the NYT said the best bagels are now in L.A., my guess is that the cream cheese followed.”

Jokes aside, New Yorkers are hooked on bagels and cream cheese, and know where to get their favorite items. But if they suddenly find their corner breakfast shop is running low on the coveted spread, or worse yet, have run out of it, what can they do to satisfy a craving?

There are other options for your bagel according to New York Times food writer Melissa Clark. “Try a very mild goat cheese, either as is, or thinned down with heavy cream. Also, butter underneath your lox on a bagel is actually really good.”

A New York Cheesecake with cherries sits on a wood table. The cake is served on a single antique plate.


A New York Cheesecake with cherries sits on a wood table. The cake is served on a single antique plate.

Photo by: Robert Lowdon/Getty

Robert Lowdon/Getty

Dessert outlets are also feeling the pinch. Junior’s, a beloved NYC cheesecake institution, has put a halt to their production of their product as of this week according to CNN.

But bakers everywhere can celebrate a little good news from Kraft, the manufacturer of the well-known brand of Philadelphia Cream Cheese, for a few days this holiday season. A limited number of customers will be able to spend $20 on an alternative dessert and have Kraft cover the cost. The idea is to offer a different baked good to the home cooks who discover an empty shelf where they usually pick up their cream cheese at the local market.

Shoppers can visit a website set up by Kraft on December 17 and 18 to be reimbursed for the purchase of a dessert that will replace their usual homemade cream cheese item on their holiday table.

Customers can submit receipts to the company and the offer is available to the first 18,000 people to take advantage of the offer.

What does the hunt for cream cheese mean for the holiday bakers this season?

Curt Covington, Senior Director of Institutional Credit at AgAmerica explains that the familiar plastic tub of cream cheese or brick wrapped in foil will register a higher price tag as a kitchen ingredient.

“The dairy shortage we are seeing on the consumer end is more about supply chain issues rather than lack of milk. I see this shortage lasting through the holidays and short of something miraculous, I see the supply chain issue lasting well into 2022. Covid exposed these pre-existing supply chain issues, and it is going to take an infrastructure overhaul and time before they are fixed.”

“The holidays may look expensive again and costs may remain high well into spring. The supply chain issue isn’t going to fix itself for some time.”

If you can’t find the ingredient to make your favorite cookie dough recipe or the drizzle on your cinnamon buns there are other options to get creative.

Amanda Neal, a recipe developer and tester in the Food Network kitchen, offers some guidance if you aren’t able to locate cream cheese for your favorite family recipe.

Her suggestions start with mascarpone cheese which is a go-to creamy cheese for home cooks that can be found at markets.

“Mascarpone is a soft, Italian cheese made from cream, cultures and acid. It is slightly softer than cream cheese (similar to a thick sour cream), but has a bright, acid flavor that is nearly identical to cream cheese. Mascarpone achieves the best results when used as a 1:1 substitute for cream cheese.”

Neal also recommends looking for Greek yogurt or vegan cream cheese for your baking needs.

“Greek yogurt is yogurt that’s been strained to remove the liquid whey, resulting in a thicker, creamier texture that's similar to cream cheese. It’s also rich and tangy, providing a similar taste to cream cheese. You can substitute Greek yogurt and cream cheese 1:1 in baking recipes.”

“There are many wonderful plant-based, vegan cream “cheese” products on the market. Some are made from nuts, like cashews and almonds, as well as starches to thicken. There are also some made from tofu, providing a creamy texture and flavor matching cream cheese. I personally love Kite Hill's variety of dairy-free cream cheese products.”

Melissa Clark thinks cream cheese is the ingredient that makes desserts irresistible but there are respectable substitutions.

“There’s nothing quite like cream cheese. But a decent substitute for baking can be made from farmer or cottage cheese that’s been whirled in the blender until smooth. Not perfect, but not bad.”

Cream cheese can also play a role in no-bake desserts. Becky Krystal, a food reporter for Voraciously at The Washington Post shares that bakers can try other cheese options as well as dairy products like sour cream and agrees mascarpone is a great swap for cream cheese.

“The substitution would depend somewhat on the recipe. I think for a lot of no-bake desserts or even spreads, mascarpone would be a great swap. In cooked scenarios, you might be able to get away with ricotta – try draining it first – or sour cream. With these wetter ingredients, you may want to slightly cut back the liquid called for in the recipe.”

Try any of these ideas for a morning bagel or holiday dessert.

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