Tell me you're craving cheesecake without telling me you're craving cheesecake.

By Su-Jit Lin
April 27, 2021
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how-to-soften-cream-cheese: cream cheese on toast
Credit: Getty Images

We've all been there. Excited about a new baking project, jazzed to try out this amazing recipe you just saw online, only to find yourself staring at a big hunk of cream cheese, willing it to just soften! Tenacious folks will wait it out, but impatient ones (like me) have given up and made something else for more instantaneous gratification. After all, using cold cream cheese sets your baking up for failure—if it's not soft and smooth, resultant lumps can ruin whatever you're making. Cream cheese has a tendency to stick to itself and clump, and definitely won't emulsify properly in frosting or incorporate smoothly into batter.  

No longer. Why? Because with a couple of easy hacks, you can soften a block of refrigerated cream cheese in as little as 15 minutes, thanks to its high fat content. That's as much time as it takes to set out your mise en place and assemble the rest of your ingredients, meaning your cream cheese will be ready when you are.

This time frame is important, as the period that cream cheese can safely sit out on the counter (or in environments over 40° F) is limited to two hours, max, and less than one hour at 90° F. Leave a cream cheese brick out longer and it's more likely not only to spoil, but to foster bacterial growth like listeria or salmonella (these are sneaky ones that don't offer telltale signs of piggybacking onto your food, as they may not affect taste, smell, or appearance). That same fat content and moisture content that helps you soften cream cheese quickly are also open invitations for bacteria, so it's important to have that correct balance…and to ignore anyone that tells you to leave it out overnight.

Quick FYI: Don't give in to the temptation of using whipped cream cheese for anything but frosting. It may thaw out more quickly from a frozen state than a block, but the lactic acid used to set the airiness of the cream cheese will also make your cake batter and cookie dough grainy. Similarly, frozen and quick-softened low-fat cream cheeses will also become noticeably grainy when used in spreads or dips, and taste is affected as well. If you choose to stock up and freeze your low- or full-fat cream cheese, make sure to give it enough time to thaw it out in the refrigerator before setting it out to soften using the following steps. Once open, cream cheese will last up to 10 days refrigerated in an airtight container.

In this easy how-to guide, we offer our top pick for simple, efficient cream cheese softening, plus three other alternatives so that you may make your decision based on equipment, convenience, supervision, and time. Our first recommendation is the cube method, followed by softening cream cheese using a microwave, a warm water bath, or stand mixer.

How to Soften Cream Cheese Quickly (and Safely)

Cut your block into cubes

Take the cream cheese out of the cardboard outer box and foil wrapper and place on the cutting board. Next, cut the block into approximately 1-inch cubes. The smaller the blocks are, the faster they will soften, but an inch is often the default most people defer to. Cutting up your cream cheese creates more exposed surface area, allowing warm room-temperature air to break down the cold molecules faster. This also will make it easier to distribute your softened cream cheese evenly throughout whatever you’re mixing it into. Make sure to leave space between each chunk of cream cheese to maximize their warm air exposure. Cover the board or plate with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap and set aside.

After 15 minutes, do a poke test. The exact amount of time it takes to bring your cream cheese to room temperature will depend on your specific room’s temperature, but noticeable softening will have occurred by this time. You’ll know your cream cheese is soft enough to work with when it can hold a fingerprint (or spoon print) and feels, well, soft! Preferably soft enough to be spread easily with a knife or stirred smoothly into other ingredients.

For an even speedier route, you can also use a microwave to soften cream cheese

To do it this way, take the cream cheese out of both layers of packaging—box and foil—and set on a microwave-safe plate with rims, as this method may lead to whey seepage. This run-off is fine, though; instead of draining it, reincorporate it into the recipe’s other ingredients by simply mixing it in.

Select a 15-second cook time for an 8-ounce block, adding 10 seconds for each additional half-pound if you’re using more than one. It’s critical not to overheat it as you don’t want to melt it, creating a hot puddle that can’t be used. To check for softness, poke the center of the block, not near the edges. It should be soft but not hot. If it’s not quite soft enough, reheat at 10-second increments until it reaches the desired texture.

For a more hands-off approach, a warm water bath works, too

This way of working takes a little longer and requires a few check-ins, but it saves you from having to dirty a cutting board, knife, and cover. Instead, you'll just need a bowl big enough to accommodate a cream cheese brick, warm water, and maybe a plastic Ziploc bag. Run your tap on hot water only and fill the bowl halfway—you need just enough water to submerge the block. If you’re softening more than one package of cream cheese, set up one bowl for each.

Take the cream cheese brick out of the cardboard exterior package but leave the foil wrapper on. Do not puncture or open this wrapper! If you feel the wrapper has been compromised, put it in that plastic bag and seal it shut. Next, lower the cream cheese into the warm water. Flip it over every five minutes or so for about 20 minutes until it passes the poke test through the wrapper. And again, poke the center to check for give.

Let your mixer do the work

Softening butter by using a stand mixer is a practice that many bakers employ, and the good news is that it works for cream cheese, too. This is ideal for recipes where you have to add additional ingredients to the cream cheese anyway, but note that order matters—you don’t want to use this if you need to fold in the cream cheese rather than vice versa. If you add your other ingredients before your cream cheese is whipped into shape, you’ll get the lumps you were hoping to avoid.

Put on your mixer’s paddle attachment and place the cream cheese in the mixing bowl. Beat for one minute on medium-low, scrape down the sides, and do it again until it reaches the texture you need. Once it does, add your other ingredients at will, bake, and enjoy.