The Best Cream Cheese Substitutions for Your Holiday Recipes

The Best Cream Cheese Substitutions for Your Holiday Recipes
Photo: Nemer-T, Shutterstock

We’ve all dealt with our fair share of hurdles in 2021, but it’s gotten to the point that even your holiday menu requires some ingredient-gymnastics. If you haven’t heard: We’re experiencing a national cream cheese shortage. Prices have gone up, and in some places it’s hard (or impossible) to find. Even if you have gotten your hands on a few precious silver bricks, they come with an extra fee: cream cheese guilt. Making your famous New York Cheesecake shouldn’t require an exorbitant price tag, running out to five grocery stores, or looking over your shoulder. (Plus, Kraft will pay you not to make it.)

The holidays aren’t the time for “just OK” substitutions but, lucky for you, we’ve got a whole bunch of sweet and savoury holiday menu swaps that will help you forget all about that bagel topping. As we often say in my house: Let’s start with dessert.

The other cheesecake

Ricotta cheesecake might just replace your beloved American standard. Also called “Italian cheesecake,” you’ll find that it looks quite similar to its cream-cheesy cousin — off-white in colour, lightly browned top, and available crustless or with a crumb crust. Ricotta has a lighter, more crumbly texture, so you might have room to fit a few more slices on your plate. Pro-tip: Preview the recipe ingredient list before you fall in love with the pictures to ensure it uses all ricotta cheese, like this classic one from the Food Network or this orange ricotta version from Vintage Kitchen (which has a more basque-style browned crust).

The combo cheesecake

For those bakers who simply must make their traditional cheesecake, there are ways we can make this work. You can mix and match soft cheeses with an equal amount to cream cheese. Mascarpone, Neufchâtel (a French cream cheese), or ricotta can join the team, lighten the load, and raise the bar. If you use ricotta, be sure to plan ahead and drain it through a cheesecloth for a couple hours, or in the fridge overnight, to remove excess moisture. Mascarpone does not need to be drained but when blended with another cheese, you’ll notice a creamier texture, especially in the centre. Yes, you might still have to use a package of cream cheese, but it will be far less, and your guests will appreciate the familiar tang combined with the silky texture that mascarpone provides, or the cloud-like quality provided by ricotta.

The vegan cheesecake

Hear me out: Even if you’re not a person with dietary restrictions or have chosen to commit to a vegan diet, you can enjoy vegan desserts. You actually might really enjoy them. Vegan cream cheeses have come a long way, from bland and boring to creamy, tart, and delicious. Plus, with vegan recipes increasingly in demand, more talented chefs have started writing recipes for our collective benefit. Look for recipes that use a blend vegan cream cheese and rich, saturated fats like coconut oil and — even better — soaked cashews. (I like this Vegan Cheesecake from Delish or this raspberry vegan cheesecake with two different filling options.) Soaking cashews allows them to become soft and easily blended, transforming them completely into luxurious, creamy sauces or, in this case, your holiday cheesecake batter.

The cheesecake brownie alternative

Maybe yours is the household that doesn’t make a full cheesecake (who needs a water bath anyway?), but you love your pan of brownies with a decadent cream cheese swirl. Many of the replacements above apply here. The swirl usually requires a few ounces of cream cheese, so you’ll be most successful substituting mascarpone with a squeeze of lemon, or using a vegan cream cheese. You can also abandon cheese altogether and use this shortage as an excuse to try something new. Why not try peanut butter (or any nut butter), Nutella, cookie butter, or sprinkle in some crushed candy canes?

OK — now that you have some options for dessert, we can think about savoury solutions.

The cheeseball

Although many cheeseball recipes default to cream cheese, you don’t have to. Since you’re simply looking for a soft, spreadable cheese replacement, you can sub in an equal amount of a different soft cheese without any trouble. Try using goat cheese to anchor your cheeseboard centrepiece this year. Opt for the one with a creamy texture instead the drier, chalkier variety for ultimate spreadability.

Another delicious option is a soft, tangy Gournay cheese. You might already know it as garlic and herb Boursin, and it’s a perfect cheese for lazy cheeseballs (because it’s already seasoned). Runners up for alternatives include vegan cream cheese, ricotta cheese, or Greek yogurt. In the case of the last two, you must drain them and add other stabilizing ingredients, like shredded cheeses — both ricotta and Greek yogurt have a fair amount of moisture that could prevent you from achieving the necessary ball shape. Drain through a cheesecloth overnight with a weight on top to remove moisture before combining with your other ingredients.

Creamy dips

Nothing says New Year’s Eve like dips. It’s the best friend of all finger foods and the only reason I’ll ever eat raw broccoli. When it comes to replacing cream cheese in dips, you can rely on a few stalwart ingredients: sour cream, plain yogurt, and mayonnaise. Sour cream and yogurt will be more tangy, and mayo will be a little salty and rich. Use a mixture of one tangy ingredient plus mayo to achieve a well-balanced flavour, then add your other dip ingredients. Be aware that all of these substitutes have a higher water content than cream cheese, but you can cut down on the liquid in other areas of the recipe, or strain your sour cream or Greek yogurt.

Cream cheese-stuffed snacks

Party snacks like crab rangoon, jalapeño poppers, or cream-cheese-stuffed mushrooms are basically little vessels to carry hot, melty cheese to your mouth, and you shouldn’t have to live without it. These snacks usually feature a delicate housing (a thin layer of bread crumbs, a soft vegetable, or thin pastry) and high heat, so it’s important to note that the filling will melt or explode out of your snack if it’s too loose. If you’re using Greek yogurt or sour cream, you should mix in something to stabilise and bind the mixture so it doesn’t completely ooze out. Add shredded cheddar, goat cheese, or feta, and mix well with an egg yolk for a cheesy bite so satisfying, you might forget all about The Great Cream Cheese Shortage of 2021.

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