It’s easy to forget when ordering our bagel with a schmear that cream cheese doesn’t really resemble any other cheese out there. It’s sold in a tub or foil-wrapped brick, and has a sweet, tangy flavor that’s about as far away from Cheddar as you can imagine. So what is it, exactly?
The preparation of cream cheese is actually fairly simple, but involves rather complex chemistry. Lactic acid bacteria are added to cream, which causes the pH of the cream to increase, neutralizing the charge from the amino acids in it and driving the fat away from the liquid, causing it to coagulate. During this brief window before the pH gets too low and the cream becomes liquid again, the mixture is heated, stabilizers like guar gum or carrageenan are added, and you’ve got cream cheese.
The earliest recipes for this type of cheese date from the 1700s, and by the mid-1800s many farms in the Philadelphia area were becoming renowned for the product. It wasn’t mass-produced until 1873, when a Chester, NY dairyman named William Lawrence purchased a Neufchatel factory, added cream to the recipe (which originally called for milk), and called his richer creation cream cheese. The business took off, and in 1880 he partnered with a distributor and gave the brand a name to allude to Philadelphia’s reputation as the center of production of cream cheese, which you can probably guess.
The brand’s success only skyrocketed from there, and the rest is bagel-schmeared history.