What’s the difference between cream cheese and quark (farmer’s cheese)?

That’s what reader Gerhard in Vienna wants to know. We here in the States know quark as “farmer’s cheese” or “fresh cheese” and, as in northern Europe, it is often used as a filling or to make cheesecakes. Gerhard writes:

What is the difference between creamcheese (like Philadelphia) and curdcheese (called Topfen over here or Quark in Germany). One difference is surely the huge amount of fat in creamcheese compared to even the fattest variety of curdcheese; another would be that there are several ingredients in creamcheese (like salt or carob gum) while curdcheese is… well, all milk. And there is a taste-difference of course, and an enormous price-difference. I always considered both to be fresh cheese and I wonder when to use one over the other… curd cheese in a cheesecake for instance is much more flavorful and light, and curd cheese also seems to be the much more natural option….?

There’s a lot in there, Gerhard, I’ll do my best. First let’s clarify some terms. Back 150 years or so ago there were “cheeses” in Europe called “cream cheese”. I use the quotation marks because these products generally weren’t actual cheeses but masses of dried cream. As a result they were extremely fatty affairs, much more so that today’s cream cheeses which are about 33% fat and 50% water. Modern quark, the kind sold in tubs in Europe is somewhat leaner, usually around 20% fat, though there are very low fat version that can have as little as 1% fat.

However fat content isn’t the only difference between cream cheese and farmer’s cheese. The production methods are different as well. Cream cheese, as you can guess from the name, starts with cream. That cream is warmed and combined with a starter culture which can be as simple as buttermilk or as elaborate as a store-bought “mesophilic” cheese culture. After about 10 hours the mass of cream gets quite thick and is then strained to reduce it down to a thick and spreadable cheese.

The key thing to remember with this process is that it does not create a “cheese” in a true sense, but rather a “milk gel” composed of semi-coagulated proteins wrapped around blobs of fat and pockets of water. This gel isn’t terribly stable on its own which is why commercial cream cheese is usually stabilized with xanthan gum.

Farmer’s cheese (quark) is a proper cheese. That is, it’s composed of actual curds — clumps of fully coagulated milk protein which likewise contain fat and water within them. As you point out it’s made from milk, not cream. A culture is added — usually a European mesophile that produces more acid than its American cousins — and the mass ferments until enough acid is produced to create the curds. Sometimes rennet is also added to enhance the coagulation and create a firmer cheese. The curds are then strained from the whey and there you go: quark. Quark is usually drier and grainer than cream cheese, but as you say, Gerhard, it’s also lighter. People make the same thing in America, however they usually have to add extra acid to get the curds to form.

Either one makes good cheesecake or filling. We here in States are used to the smoother texture and heavier consistency of cream cheese. Cheesecakes made with farmer’s cheese are coarser, but as you say they have a more distinct taste. And then yes, there’s the price. Since farmer’s cheese is made more like a conventional cheese it costs more.

As for which one I’d use, I really don’t like cream cheese and never have. Not because I’m opposed to it for any reason but because I find it gummy and somewhat rank in flavor. If I’m going to eat cheese I’d rather it tasted like cheese, not some in-between sort of device. So I’m biased in other words. Do as you will!

20 thoughts on “What’s the difference between cream cheese and quark (farmer’s cheese)?”

  1. Our quark in Finland is smooth as cream cheese (it has around 0,2 % fat content), but the taste is more sour. On the other hand in Estonia the queark is grainy and the fat content ranges from 0% to at least 15%. I like to mix quark with some whipped cream and berries, that’s my favorite dessert <3

    1. Hey Yukiko!

      Very interesting. I understand that there is quite a lot of variation where quark is concerned. And yes, that sourness is from the acid that’s needed to make those curds (even if they are tiny, as with mascarpone). Some of those cloud berries of yours probably go extremely well with it!

      – Joe

      1. I haven’t thought about it before, but it really has the same texture as mascarpone (without the fat). My favorite quark is with blueberries or lingonberries, but cloudberries do taste great with it too.

        1. I was going to comment that the quark in Sweden reminds me of a slightly smoother marscapone! 🙂

  2. Quark is farmer’s cheese? Live and learn. I thought it was some sort of trendy-hipster new thing. Now that I know it’s what my mother used to eat, maybe I’ll try it again. It was sold in blocks in the appetizing section of the supermarket, you could buy it by the pound. Very dry and light, your description really hit home. In Budapest several years ago I bought a pastry made with cherries and a very nice curd cheese, I remember it still, it seemed not as dry as the farmer cheese I remember as a kid, probably because of the cherries added to it. It was very delicious, one of the best things I ate there (along with the Dobostorte, which I have yet to make).

    1. Hey Chana!

      Yes those cheese are different everywhere, mostly as a result of the bacteria being a bit different place to place. I remember eating that cheese in blintzes as a kid. There were some great Old World restaurants in Chicago once. The German-Central European influence was a lot stronger in the food back then. I miss those places!

      – Joe

  3. Thank you for this discussion, very educational. What about Mascarpone cheese? Is it more like cream cheese or more like quark?

    Claire

  4. Joe, what you call Farmer’s cheese or quark, is called Cottage Cheese in southern Africa. It comes in both the curd format or smooth, similar to cream cheese but far better flavour and much cheaper than cream cheese. If I have to bake a cheese cake, that is what I use! It comes in plain or flavoured (chives, spring onions, shrimp etc.)
    John.

    1. Hey John!

      We have cottage cheese here in the States as well, though even our smallest curd style isn’t as small as you’re describing. It would be more like the grainier quark in Europe. And I like those varieties! Wish we had those here.

      Cheers and thanks for the note,

      – Joe

  5. Thank you, Joe… what an interesting read! I do want to add that farmer’s cheese (aka Topfen) is sold in various versions concerning the fat content: from 0,2% up to 50% and also in “creamy” and “crumb” versions, the latter being a very dry (strained) one.

    Farmers cheese though costs less then cream cheese here… the latter being about four times more expensive and is only available in small 175g packages (e.g. Philadelphia).

    1. Holy cow! That’s way too much to pay, at least to my way of seeing things. Then again the only time I ever eat it is on top of a bagel, so I’d be the last person to pay up for cream cheese. I thought you meant that the farmer’s cheese was more expensive. It’s that way here. Cream cheese is cheap!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

      1. I love the diversity of it all and how one simple thing like cheese is different in various places. Who would have thought that farmers cheese is dirt cheap in Europe while cream cheese is not. Over in the States it seems to be the other way around. Also, one reader posted about cottage cheese… is that farmers cheese too, kind of cut into tiny pieces? I can not imagine making cheesecake with it… it’s sold in salty varieties, sometimes with herbs. One more good thing about farmer’s cheese as well as cottage cheese: Bodybuilders love the low-fat varieties… excellent source of protein.

        1. Hey Tom!

          Cottage cheese is similar, though it’s made using rennet, not just acid and/or heat. So it’s more like a proper cheese. The big difference is that it isn’t pressed, so it retains some of the whey from the curd-making step. If it were pressed and aged it would be not unlike a lot of other more conventional cheeses. Does that make sense?

          – Joe

  6. From the post and beginning of discussion I thought that quark is the product known in Latvia as “biezpiens” (direct translation is “thick-milk”), but, when Yukiko mentioned that it’s similar to mascarpone, I lost it again 🙂 Anyway, I think we are speaking of the same product which can vary in texture by country, ours look like this http://www.solipasolim.lv/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/biezpiens.jpg
    It’s made of milk by curdling it in heat and with acid (I guess that traditional method was to add some older quark to batch of fresh milk). We use it both in savory and sweet applications – savory is mixing it with sour cream and adding salt and sometimes greens (often goes together with boiled potatoes and salted herring, or just on the bread slice), sweet is either in pancakes or in something similar to cheesecake, but baked in sheets and with pat-in-the-pan pie crust or yeast dough on the bottom (like this http://latvianeats.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/biezpienmaize-cottage-cheesecake.jpg, here is actually recipe http://latvianeats.com/archives/117) It differs from cheesecake both in texture and taste, and is considered Latvian national specialty, though I think that its origins may come from Germany.

    1. Hey Antuanete!

      The two are no doubt related. There can be such subtle differences between different cheeses — either in the processing technique or the type of bacteria or acid/rennet. It sounds like the same sort of thing to me!

      Thanks as always for the great info!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

  7. Here in Germany there are many variations, and they’re all a bit different in consistancy as well as flavor. I’ve been trying for a while to find the right farmer’s cheese for my Polish pierogies, which has proven to be a challenge. Here, quark is also creamy like in Finland, and is not the right farmer’s cheese for the Polish-American dishes. I’ve found that the cheeses closer to the farmer’s cheese needed in recipies such as pierogies are either “körniger Frischkäse” (curded cream cheese) or “Topfenkäse” or “Hüttenkäse”, which are also curded, but have slightly different tastes compared to quark. The last two are also somewhat regional, so you sometimes can only find one or the other depending where in you are in the country. Quark is used for German desserts such as the German type of cheese cake or various pastries, but is definately not the right cheese for some recipies that call for farmer’s cheese.

    1. I know that’s true, Laura. Thank you for the comment. The family is back in Chicago for the holidays and I just had some pierogis last night. There are very few Poles in Louisville so I hadn’t eaten one in years…what a treat! And you’re quite right, the cheese inside is a slightly sweetened small curd cheese. Quite a bit drier than the creamy versions. It takes some work to find the right thing.

      Best of luck and thanks for the comment,

      – Joe

  8. In the 1950s, in Ohio, my Czech grandmother would drain cottage cheese in cheesecloth and use it in kolachkes. It was a bit grainy in texture but delicious.
    I have been wondering about this technique for years but now I think it was because she didn’t have access to farmers cheese. Thank you for the very interesting discussion!

    1. Thank you Janet! That’s a very interesting technique you’re describing. I’m going to try that next time I’m making a cheese filling. What a great improvisation.

      Thanks very much for stopping by and taking time to comment,

      Joe

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