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!