Cream cheese is a very soft, mildly tangy cheese made with milk and cream. Variations on soft, fresh cheeses have been around as long as cheese itself has, but cream cheese evolved into the tangy, high-fat version we know today on the East Coast in the 1800s—in New York, and, yes, of course, Philadelphia.
Now it shows up frequently in our breakfasts and desserts, and for good reason—cream cheese is a great spread on its own, a versatile ingredient in sweet and savory recipes, and absolutely delicious.
How Long Can Cream Cheese Sit Out at Room Temperature?
According to most home cooks and most food safety experts, cream cheese shouldn’t be unrefrigerated or left out for more than two hours; that’s the point at which bacteria will begin to grow. If your tub or package of cream cheese is already open, be even more cautious, and don’t leave it for more than an hour. And if you lose power, although your fridge may lose coolness slowly, you should throw cream cheese out after four hours.
The softer and less processed a dairy product is, the faster it will be to spoil when it gets warm. So milk will curdle much more easily than cheese, and the softer and fresher a cheese it, the more prone it will be to go bad. Cream cheese always needs to be stored in the refrigerator.
Some recipes call for cream cheese to be “softened,” though, which means letting it warm up just before using it.
Because cream cheese is so soft, it doesn’t take it long to come to room temperature. This will depend on the temperature of your home, but you probably don’t need more than around 30 minutes.
Of course, none of us can time everything quite so precisely but it’s definitely wise to know how long can cream cheese be left out at room temperature for.
Can Cream Cheese Sit Out Overnight To Soften and is it Safe?
No—this isn’t safe. Cream cheese that has been warm for more than two hours should be thrown away. Bacteria like e. Coli and salmonella can begin to grow at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, which really isn’t all that warm.
How To Know If Your Cream Cheese Has Gone Bad
Mold can cause cream cheese to spoil. Visually, this will usually mean that cream cheese looks rotten, mottled or fuzzy. Cream cheese taking on an atypical color, like yellow or green, has also gone bad.
Like milk, cream cheese will start to smell bad when it spoils; a strong, rotten, or overly sour smell will tell you that something is wrong.
If cream cheese is in a wrapped block (rather than a tub) you can sometimes tell without opening it—the top of the cream cheese might be unusually soft, and that means it has expired.
Always take a tiny taste before using or serving cream cheese; if it has spoiled, the flavor will be affected even before the appearance changes.
Does Cream Cheese Need To Be Refrigerated?
Yes. Cream cheese should always be stored in the fridge. And in the fridge, it won’t keep forever. Cream cheese can be kept cold for about a month, or two weeks past the sell-by date. (Remember, “sell by” isn’t the same as “eat by,” but it’s still important to pay attention to it). Once it’s opened, you should use it within about a week.
To keep cream cheese as fresh as possible, make sure that you’re doing the following:
- Keep it cold. If you aren’t using a whole package, put the leftovers back in the fridge as quickly as you can.
- Make sure to use only clean utensils. Any knife or spoon you use to spread cream cheese should be used for the cream cheese alone, and not come into contact with peoples’ hands or any other food—especially meat.
- Keep it sealed. Cream cheese in a wrapped package should be kept in the package should be wrapped in aluminum foil or plastic wrap—once the seal is broken, that package is not airtight. Cream cheese in a tub can be kept fresh by smoothing down the remaining cream cheese and laying a bit of plastic wrap right on top, pressing down directly onto the surface before replacing the lid.
- You can freeze cream cheese, but it will change the texture—depending on what you’re using it for, it might be best to make your recipe and freeze the final product.
Cream cheese is tasty, whether it’s eating it spread on a bagel or letting it star in a cheesecake. It’s a great secret ingredient to add an easy boost of creaminess to dips or frostings. But food safety is more important than convenience! That’s why you need to know details about how long can you leave cream cheese out for.
If you need to soften cream cheese on the counter, aim for about 30 minutes—that’s all you need—and don’t exceed two hours.
Don’t swap regular cream cheese in a recipe for “whipped” cream cheese—it may be softer, but ultimately you’ll just be adding air.
If you’re cooking with cream cheese, it also isn’t hard to speed up the softening process, to avoid the need for careful planning or impatient waiting.
· If you’re watchful, it’s perfectly fine to use the microwave—just be cautious or you’ll end up with melted cream cheese, not softened. Put the cream cheese in a microwave-safe dish (don’t use its original wrapper or plastic container!) Microwave for ten seconds, then check, and repeat until you have a nice, soft texture.
· Use warm water—this will warm the cream cheese more gently and doesn’t risk simply melting it. Simply place the cream cheese in a small bowl, and that into a larger bowl filled with warm water. Check every few minutes until your cream cheese is soft.
· Just stir! Divide the cream cheese right out the fridge into small chunks or dollops, and give it some elbow grease (or a minute in the mixer). They’ll soften up quickly, and you can continue with your recipe.
Treat cream cheese the way you treat milk—make sure it stays cold and check it carefully for freshness before you use it.