Cream cheese is just great, isn’t it? Whether you want something to spread on your breakfast muffin or use it to make buttercream frosting, it’s got you covered. It also has some health benefits to boot!
However, for it to be easily spreadable or mixed, you may need to soften it. This can depend on the brand and the content of the cream cheese. If it’s too hard you’ll probably need to soften it before it can be used.
But how long can cream cheese sit out to soften? You’re no doubt aware that it can be a fine balancing act between softening up and risking the cheese going bad. You may even have considered using heat to control the process (don’t do this, please!)
Well, I’ve spent time researching and experimenting to understand the safest and optimal length of time to leave it out. In this article I’ll explain how long cream cheese should be left out to soften. I’ll also show you how to tell if it’s gone bad and needs to be thrown out.
When Do You Need to Soften Cream Cheese?
If you buy cream cheese specifically marketed as a spread then it’s less likely that you’ll need to soften it. But I’ve found that if you buy cream cheese in the ‘brick’ form then it’s almost always necessary to soften it. This is because it’s too hard to spread and definitely too hard to be mixed. But of course, this depends on the brand and type of cream cheese. Some of the most useful times to soften cream cheese are:
- When you want to make it easier to spread and work with
- To prevent lumps when mixing it
- To make it easier to mix
In my experience, softening cream cheese makes the biggest difference in recipes that call for it to be mixed well with other ingredients. For example, cheesecakes and pumpkin pies.
When cream cheese is not softened it doesn’t spread well at all. Softening it also makes mixing by hand a much, much easier task (your forearms will thank me later!)
How Long Can Cream Cheese Sit Out to Soften?
Since there are various sorts of cheese out there, over 1,800 actually, how exactly they should be kept is a tricky thing to keep track of. A couple of the distinguishing factors impacting how cheese should be stored are whether it is soft or its age.
Hard, aged cheeses like swiss, cheddar, or parmesan can be left out for longer before covering and returning to a cold space. However, unripened and soft cheeses need to be treated more carefully. You should follow the same rules for perishable foods as stated by foodsafety.gov.
So how long can cream cheese sit out to soften? It should be left out for no more than 2 hours at temperatures above 40 °F. It should be discarded if it’s been left out longer than this.
To be on the safe side whilst allowing your cream cheese to reach the best state for mixing or spreading, I recommend leaving it to soften for around 90 minutes.
Can you Leave Cream Cheese to Soften Overnight?
As we just found, according to the US food safety guidelines, soft cheese (which includes cream cheese) should not be left out overnight if the room temperature is above 40 °F. Doing that would mean it will have been sitting out for over 2 hours.
What Happens if Cream Cheese is Left Out for Too Long?
Like other perishable foods, if it is left out for too long it will go bad. But “going bad” when it comes to cheese can mean multiple things.
One of the key concerns should be the presence of mold. Mold spores can find their way onto the cheese and then propagate themselves. This leaves the surface of the cheese covered in mold.
Cream cheese can also go off as a result of the fats being exposed to oxygen. This causes it to go rancid.
Bacteria can thrive in cheese when it’s been left in warmer conditions, making it easier for them to spread. Whilst you may not be able to see them, bacteria can cause nasty food poisoning.
So to be safe, avoid eating cream cheese if it has been left out for too long. Even if it doesn’t look bad, it could still be unsafe to eat.
How to Tell if Cream Cheese Has Gone Bad
Of course, as previously mentioned, the presence of mold is an easy way to tell if cream cheese has gone bad. Mold is a sure sign that it should be thrown out immediately. So keep an eye out for yellow, green, or black discoloration of the cheese.
Another way you can tell if the cream cheese has gone bad is if it smells rancid. The smell test, like with other foods, is a great way to see if it has started to go bad. If it smells sour then it has gone bad.
However, you can’t always tell if cream cheese has gone bad using your senses. Harmful bacteria like E. Coli can grow on dairy products that have sat out too long.
So whilst eyeballing and smelling cheese is a great way to see if it’s gone bad, it’s safer to avoid eating cream cheese if it has been left out over 2 hours.
Can you Put Softened Cream Cheese Back in the Fridge?
Yes! Just because it has been softened does not mean that it should be discarded afterward. However, there are some factors that you need to consider.
If it’s been sitting out longer than 2 hours then it should not be returned to the fridge. You should abide by the 2-hour rule for perishable food and discard it. But if it’s been out for less than that, if you put it back in the fridge promptly in a closed container then it should be fine.
How to Properly Store Cream Cheese
When you store cream cheese it’s important to make sure you store it the right way. First, whether it’s opened or unopened it needs to be stored in your fridge, below 40 °F.
If unopened, cream cheese can stay good for about 1 month. However, if it’s been opened then it can stay good for up to 10 days. If it’s been opened and you want to save it, make sure that it has been out for less than 2 hours and that you store it in an air-tight container.
To make sure that you are aware of the 10-day mark it could be a good idea to make a note on the container stating what day it was first opened. Cream cheese is a seriously tasty food, just make sure to eat it safely!