According to the FDA, you should not leave any perishable products - and this includes cream cheese, and cream cheese derivatives, outside a refrigerator at room temperature for more than two hours, and where the temperature rises to 90°F and above, for more than one hour.
I don't know about you, but I adore cheese. French, Italian, Swiss - soft, blue vein, goat's; you name it, I love it, even down to the slice of Monterey Jack on a cheeseburger. The only problem with cheese is that you have to know how best to store it. Not that it hangs around long in my house anyway. Too many cheese fanatics. But if you want to spin it out, you must take care of how you keep it—even cream cheese.
Generally speaking, cheese is never at its best when it comes straight out of the refrigerator. Bringing it up to room temperature allows the fat to loosen up, improving the flavor of the cheese and its texture.
However, as soon as it comes out of the refrigerator, the clock starts ticking. So what guidelines should you be following?
As far as Adam Brock, the director of food safety at the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin operation is concerned, cream cheese should only be kept at room temperature for a maximum of two hours. Any longer and it runs the risk of nurturing bacterial growth.
Guidelines for other cheeses
The truth of the matter is that some cheeses hold their characteristics better than others outside the refrigerator. It tends to be the ones with higher moisture contents - Mascarpone, Ricotta, etc. - that deteriorate quicker in the open air.
Soft cheeses fare a little better. Brie, Camembert, Queso Fresco, and other similar types can remain at room temperature a little longer.
Generally speaking, the harder the cheese, the longer you can leave it, so things like Cheddar, Parmesan, and Dutch Gouda, perform best.
What about the cheeses you see hanging on display?
The cheeses you often see hanging in delicatessens are always the harder varieties. Because of the way they made, they are less likely to encourage bacterial growth.
If you leave Cheddar out on a cheeseboard for say eight hours, it might start to look dry and crumbly, but there won't be much bacterial growth.
Under the microscope
You can't exactly get your microscope out during the dinner party and start examining the state of the cheeseboard to see if you can spot any bacterial growth.
You'll put the guests off. Trust me, being outside of the refrigerator for 3 to 4 hours, is not going to do any serious damage to the cheese or your tummy.
An easy way to check if cheese is looking a little suspect is to see if it is growing moldy inside the refrigerator.
Even then, if it is a hard cheese, you can still cut the rotten pieces away and eat the remaining mold-free cheese.
You need to be more careful with high moisture cheeses like cream cheese or ricotta. If mold develops on it, chuck it out. It's likely to be spreading throughout the entire cheese.
What the Center for Dairy Research has to say
When it comes to cheese, no one knows more about it than the Center for Dairy Research (CDR) at Wisconsin University. They employ over 30 researchers and scientists who spend their time researching the flavor and physical properties of various cheese products.
They have done some extensive research proving that cheese can stay out of the refrigerator for as long as six hours at a temperature of 70°F or less. Some of the cheeses tested showed low levels of Escherichia, listeria, salmonella, and staphylococcus, but not enough to be life-threatening.
CDR's safety and quality applications coordinator, Marianne Smukowski, explained that the level of water that cheese contains determines the period of time for which it can stay out of the refrigerator.
The harder cheeses, such as Parmesan, for example, can remain out for up to 24 hours without any fear, whereas a younger Cheddar would be more vulnerable.
Can cream cheese be left outside?
When cheese is left out of the refrigerator, after a short while, it will begin oiling off. When it looks as if it's glistening, that is the time to either put it straight back in the fridge or throw it away. It's a matter of common sense.
The quality of cheese deteriorates significantly after it's been in the open air for a few hours. If it doesn't look particularly appetizing, then don't eat it. But if you do, you're not likely to get seriously ill.
Here is a quick checklist you might find useful when serving up cheese.
Hold a cheese fondue party.
Cheese is always a winner at any party, but why not go that little bit further and have a fondue party where cheese is the main event?
It's delicious, but it's a great fun event too, with everybody gathering around the fondue dipping their goodies into the wonderful, hot cheesy goo.
A classic Swiss fondue cheese is typically made with a mixture of traditional, firm, mountain-style cheeses. This recipe uses fontina, gruyere, and gouda. It's lush.
There is no risk with heating cheese o this way, although pregnant women, the elderly, or anyone with a weak immune system should proceed with caution.
How long does unopened cream cheese last after the "sell by" and "best before" dates?
Cream cheese is quite sturdy stuff. When you buy it, there will be a "sell by" of "best before" label on the packaging. You don't have to stick strictly to either.
As a rule of thumb, you can keep it for about one month beyond these dates as long as it has been continuously refrigerated.
How long does it last at room temperature?
Having said that, cream cheese is quite sturdy, that was when talking in terms of it being refrigerated. It's much more delicate at room temperature.
At temperatures of 40°F and above, it will quickly show signs of deterioration after about two hours.
Storing for longer shelf life
If your cream cheese is open and is still in its foil wrapping, it can be frozen without further ado. When frozen, however, it won't be as good as it was before freezing, either in terms of its texture or flavor.
It is, therefore, best used for cooking in casseroles, sauces, and soups.
How long does it last in the freezer?
When properly packaged or left in its original foil packaging, cream cheese can be stored for up to 2 months.
Although it will still be edible after that time once defrosted, bearing in mind that as mentioned above, it will have lost some of its original flavor and texture.
This guidance relates to maintaining cream cheese at the best quality. Where the best quality is not so important, it can be kept frozen at 0°F indefinitely.
How long will it last after defrosting?
Once naturally defrosted, cream cheese can be kept in the fridge for up to 3 to 4 days. However, if it is defrosted in a microwave or immersed in cold water, it should be eaten immediately.
How to tell if it is spoiled?
The first thing that will give it away if your cream cheese has been spoiled is its color. It will turn yellow. It will also have an "off" odor. If you were to taste it, it would have a distinctly odd flavor. If you can spot any mold on the cheese, throw it away.
Using softened cream cheese
Many recipes call for softened cream cheese, often to be combined with other ingredients. Typical dishes include things like cheesecake, cheese dips, and frostings. The reason for softening up cheese is to get a smooth, creamy texture without any lumps.
The only difficulty is that it can sometimes take several hours to soften cream cheese at room temperature if you just leave it on the working surface.
Also, it will lose some of its flavors if it's kept out for too long. If you're in a rush and need to soften the cream cheese quickly, here are a few helpful tips.
How to soften cream cheese quickly
Using cold cream cheese straight out of the refrigerator for recipes can lead to lumpy batter or frosting. If you have the time, it's best to let it rest for about an hour at room temperature.
If you're expecting guests or you're on a tight schedule, and you've forgotten to take the cream cheese out of the refrigerator in advance, here are some tips for softening it quickly.
1 Use the microwave
This is undoubtedly the fastest way to soften cream cheese. The best method is to microwave it in 10-second bursts, turning over after each blast for about 30 to 40 seconds until it's soft enough.
2 Giving it a hot bath
The next quickest method for softening cream cheese takes about 10 minutes and involves immersing it in a bowl of hot water until it is satisfactorily soft. Don't forget to make sure it's well sealed before you dunk it into the water!
3 The strip and softening method
The third fastest way (it takes about 15 to 20 minutes) is to cut the frozen cream cheese into long, thin strips. Then space the strips out on a plate and leave on your kitchen working surface.
4 Defrost it overnight inside the fridge
This latter method is good if you have the time because it's an overnight jobbie. Leave the frozen cream cheese in the refrigerator compartment overnight.
When you're ready the next day, you can then just finalize the softening process by giving it a quick whisk with a hand or electric mixer.
Most people tend to be in a rush and therefore choose the microwave method. But if you don't have a microwave, at least you now have a few other ways you can try, which, while not as fast as microwaving, are still reasonably quick.
If you see any liquid seeping out during the softening process, that's quite normal. Just add it to the other recipe ingredients along with the cream cheese itself.
How to tell if it is soft enough?
Telling that your cream cheese is soft enough is not exactly rocket science. The simplest way of doing it is to press the back of a spoon into it. If it gives slightly, the cheese is soft enough to use.
Can you leave it out to soften overnight?
No, not really. If you think back to the advice given by the USDA, cream cheese left at room temperature for more than two hours will encourage bacterial growth.
How long does it take to soften at room temperature?
If you take a typical 8-ounce brick of cream cheese and leave it outside the refrigerator at room temperature, it will take between two and three hours to become spreadable.
Once opened how long it does remain safe to eat reduced-fat cream cheese
We touched on the subject of "sell by" and "best before" dates for cream cheese earlier. It can be somewhat confusing because of the expiration date.
Following advice from Philadelphia Cream Cheese, when kept in a refrigerator at around 40°F continuously, an unopened pack of cream cheese can be consumed four weeks after its "best before" date.
The usual recommendation is to consume it within ten days after opening.
What is cream cheese?
Many people love cream cheese without ever really understanding where it comes from and why it's so creamy. Should it even be considered a cheese?
The first thing you will be pleased to hear is that cream cheese is indeed a type of cheese. It complies with the FDA's definition of cheese in as much as it contains at least 33% fat and has a moisture content of no more than 55%.
Cream cheese first came on the scene back in the 1800s and was produced mostly in - wait for it - why Philadelphia, of course. Today it is enjoyed all over the world.
In terms of texture and flavor, cream cheese is comparable to mascarpone. Here's a delicious recipe that uses both.
How is it made?
The basic recipe for cream cheese is pretty simple. Bacteria from lactic acid are added to a cream or a combination of milk and cream.
This lowers the pH of the cream, making it coagulate or thicken, and separating the curds from the whey. The whey is then drained off, and the curds are heated. Finally, stabilizers are added, and in due course, hey presto, you get cream cheese.
Making cream cheese at home
It's a slow process, but yes, you can make your own cream cheese at home. Some recipes suggest you only need to use cream, milk, and an acid such as lemon juice or vinegar, plus a little salt.
Other recipes insist on using a starter culture. Both methodologies work, so choose the one you prefer, or experiment with both.
The acid's job is to make the dairy products curdle. The next stage is to strain off the whey and process the curds in the food processor until they become lovely and creamy. As you can see, it's pretty easy to do, and if you want to add things like herbs, fruit, and spices, please feel free to do so.
Once you've completed your home-made cream cheese, you can keep it in a refrigerator for up to 2 weeks, which is slightly better than consuming within 10 days of opening recommendation from the CDR and FDA.
Beyond bagels and cheesecake
The two most popular uses for cream cheese are probably when it is spread on bagels and used to make cheesecakes. But why not think outside of the box?
You can use cream cheese to make a variety of delicious savory dips and spreads, and you can even make cheese balls, which children love. You can also use it to smooth out and thicken casseroles and sauces.
Whether you use shop-bought cream cheese or are brave enough to try making your own, it's always good to keep some handy.
It's addictive, and any time you get a craving for that lovely smooth, tangy, creaminess to spread on a piece of toast, a biscuit, or whatever, all you have to do is to reach into the fridge.
Can cream cheese go bad?
As with most dairy products, cream cheese will go off if stored incorrectly or for too long. There are various tell-tale signs for which to keep an eye open.
1 The appearance of mold
With hard cheeses like Cheddar, if a little mold appears on the outer surface, you can easily cut it out and consume any untainted cheese. Unfortunately, you cannot do this with cream cheese.
It is easy for mold to migrate through a pack of cream cheese because of its soft and relatively loose texture.
It means that you should throw the whole pack away once you see a brown or green spot growing on your cheese. It's unsafe to eat.
2 The appearance of cracks
When it's fresh, the texture of cream cheese is smooth and nicely even. However, as it begins to dry out, sections of the cheese may start to crack on separate.
You may also spot liquid appearing on the surface of the cheese in between the cracks. It's a clear sign that the cheese is deteriorating and that it should be thrown away.
3 Yellowing and waxing
When cream cheese begins to dry out, it starts to discolor, becoming a pale or medium yellow. It may also start to look waxy.
As long as mold has not yet appeared, you can still consume cream cheese that is cracked in appearance. However, it will have lost its fresh tangy taste, so it's probably best thrown away.
4 If it's smelly - bin it.
If your cream cheese has been hanging around for a while and starts to give off a sour and rancid smell, you know it's gone bad. Like all dairy products, as it deteriorates, it will become moldy. As soon as this happens, throw it in the refuse bin.
If you'd like to do some further reading on the subject of cream cheese going bad, please click here.
How long does cream cheese last?
To keep your cream cheese as fresh as possible and to get the best out of it as soon as you get it home, put the unopened pack into the refrigerator.
To get a little techie, it's best to find a spot for it not too close to the refrigerator door, to stop it from being affected by constant temperature changes each time you open and close the refrigerator. I am getting a little bit nit-picky here.
How to store it?
Once you open your pack of cream cheese, it's good advice to transfer it into an airtight container. This will help to forestall and slow down any bacterial growth.
By all means, keep the foil intact. But I would still recommend putting into an airtight container as well.
If you intend to keep your cream cheese for a long time, as explained earlier, keep it in the freezer for up to 2 months. Just ensure it's wrapped in an airtight container or a zip-lock type bag as this will help to slow down any oxidization.