Neufchâtel cheese is a type of French cheese, named after a village in Northeast France where it is commonly produced. For American consumers, the term “Neufchâtel” can be a bit confusing, as American cheese producers use “Neufchâtel” to describe a type of low fat cream cheese which is dramatically different from true French Neufchâtel cheese. French Neufchâtel is often available at fine cheese shops and large markets, and it can sometimes be obtained through specialty importers as well.
Food historians believe that Neufchâtel is one of the oldest French cheeses, with production in the Normandy region dating back to around the sixth century CE. This cheese comes in two forms: an unripened creamy form, and a ripened grainy version. It can be used in a variety of dishes, ranging from cheesecake to salads, and it is very popular in many parts of Europe. Many Americans see Neufchâtel in the fresh form, labeled as “farmer's cheese.”
In unripened form, Neufchâtel cheese is snow-white, soft, and very spreadable, with a hint of crumble. As the cheese ripens, it becomes more pungent, develops a soft rind, and turns more crumbly. The rind resembles that of Brie and other famous French soft cheeses, being soft and dry with a slightly velvety texture, and it is perfectly edible. Classically, Neufchâtel cheese is molded in the shape of a heart, although the cheese also comes in bricks and logs.
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Aging for Neufchâtel generally takes around eight weeks. The aged cheese can be spread on breads, included in various recipes, and set out on cheese platters with other cheeses. The slightly granular texture of the aged cheese is quite distinctive, and for some people it is a bit unexpected, but it can be quite enjoyable. Fresh Neufchâtel can be used in recipes which call for soft cheeses, and it can also be spread on breads, used in desserts, and crumbled over salads.
According to popular legend, American cream cheese was developed by a cheesemaker who was actually trying to make Neufchâtel cheese. The result of the cheesemaking process was a much softer, silkier fresh cheese, and the cheesemaker realized that it could be ideally suited as a soft spreadable cheese. Cream cheese is designed to be consumed fresh, and it is typically not molded and aged in the Neufchâtel style. Cream cheese labeled as “Neufchâtel” is lower in fat than regular cream cheese, with a softer texture and a very high moisture content.