So there you are at the grocery store. Your recipe is in hand as you dutifully check off a list. Your recipe calls for cream cheese or neufchatel. The store has both and you don't know the difference. Neufchatel cheese manufactured in the U.S. is very similar to the cream cheese you spread on bagels, but there are key distinctions and a little education will help you make a the best choice.
French neufchatel is a name-protected cheese with a creamy taste and a rind developed by ripened mold. This rind is similar to the crust you might find on Brie. Like French wine, its name is derived from the area where it is made. It is made with unpasteurized and pasteurized milk, though an unpasteurized version is very difficult to find in the U.S.
American neufchatel tastes similar to cream cheese, but it has a lower milkfat content. According to Vivienne Marquis and Patricia Haskell, authors of "The Cheese Book," American neufchatel has higher moisture content than cream cheeses, and it spreads easier. It is richer than its French counterpart of the same name. American neufchatel was inspired by the French, but the American version may be made from a mixture of milk and cream. The French cheese is made from milk.
Cream cheese is a good value in the supermarket, and a treat on bagels. It is usually served in 8 oz. portions, usually wrapped in foil. It is possible to buy fresh cream cheeses in the U.S., but it can be rare. One tip many cheesemongers offer when buying cream cheese is read the ingredient label. Many large cheese producers add gum arabic and other stabilizers to prevent deterioration and harden the finish product.
Choosing Between Them
If you have a cheesecake recipe that calls for neufchatel, it is highly unlikely that they want you to use the French version. That said, if you have to choose between an American neufchatel and a cream cheese, look to the moisture content of the entire recipe and the desired finished product. When in doubt, choose a cheese without the added gums.