What is a Schmear?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A schmear in the traditional sense is cream cheese spread on a bagel, with the word being associated particularly with Jewish cuisine, although the bagel is not specifically of Jewish origin. More generally, people use the term to refer to any kind of spread that will be used with bread or other foods, especially if it involves cheese. Commercially packaged products are sometimes sold as “schmears,” and people can also prepare their own at home.

Mayonnaise may be considered a schmear.
Mayonnaise may be considered a schmear.

Plain bagels with schmears are a popular quick snack in some regions of the world, with New York City being particularly famous for its bagel-based offerings. A more hearty meal can be created by making a bagel sandwich with a schmear and toppings such as lox, a type of preserved fish, along with onions, tomatoes, capers, pickles, and other ingredients. Bagel sandwiches are sold at many delis and can be made fresh to order for a customer or picked up in packaged form at delis with self-service options.

Lox, a thin filet of cured, cold smoked salmon, is commonly served with a schmear.
Lox, a thin filet of cured, cold smoked salmon, is commonly served with a schmear.

This word is of Yiddish origins and is believed to be derived from the root for “smear” or “grease.” While the traditional schmear is made from plain cream cheese, it is not uncommon to find cream cheeses blended with ingredients like onions, capers, herbs, pickles, fruit, peppers, and other ingredients to create a flavored schmear. Many bakeries offer customers a choice between several flavored cream cheese options when they order a bagel with a schmear.

Bagels from the deli may be toasted at home and then spread with a schmear of cream cheese.
Bagels from the deli may be toasted at home and then spread with a schmear of cream cheese.

Flavored cream cheeses are very easy to make at home, for people who want to make their own schmears. Plain cream cheese can be blended with the ingredients of choice in a food processor or by hand. Other cheeses, such as mascarpone, can also be used. Making a schmear at home is usually less costly than buying a packaged spread and provides people with more control over the ingredients, which may be important to people with allergies or other dietary concerns.

Butter, mayonnaise, and other types of spreads also may be considered schmears, along with vegan options such as soy cheeses and nut-based spreads. This word has also acquired a slang connotation, in the sense of “the whole deal” or “the whole spread.” People may also use the term to refer to a group of related items that go together, much as schmears go with bagels. Slang variations on this word are more commonly seen in communities with a Jewish influence.

Cream cheese is the most traditional schmear.
Cream cheese is the most traditional schmear.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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