You know that you have to store cream cheese in the refrigerator so that it doesn't grow bacteria and mold that can make you sick, but what if you left cheesecake out overnight to cool after it was baked? Can you still eat the cake safely without worrying about food poisoning?
The answers from food safety experts seem to vary about whether you have to refrigerate cream cheese after you bake it, but the general consensus appears to be: it depends. You should store things with a large volume of cream cheese, like cheesecake, in the refrigerator; but you don't have to refrigerate brownies, cookies or other items made with just a small amount of cream cheese.
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For items with a large amount of cream cheese, like cheesecake, it's best to refrigerate after baking to prevent bacterial overgrowth and food poisoning. Other items, like brownies and cookies, that only have a small amount of cream cheese don't need to be refrigerated, since the flour and sugar absorb excess moisture.
Storing Baked Cream Cheese
Cream cheese is considered a perishable item because it has a high moisture content and some protein that, together, provide the perfect conditions for bacteria to quickly multiply when left out at room temperature. Cream cheese is also high in fat — a single tablespoon contains 5 grams, according to the USDA FoodData Central — which can become rancid if exposed to temperatures that are too warm.
Baking the cream cheese doesn't change these facts, so it's best to store baked items that have a lot of cream cheese in them, like cheesecakes or cheese danish twists, in the refrigerator. On the other hand, items that use only a little bit of cream cheese in the recipe, like cookies or brownies, may not require refrigeration.
According to the Oregon State University Extension, baked items that are made with a small amount of cream cheese are considered low risk if left out at room temperature. While it's possible the fat could still go rancid, the flour and sugar in the baked goods tend to absorb excess moisture, reducing the risk that bacteria can grow and multiply as quickly.
What About Commercially Baked Items?
You may have been browsing through the bakery at a major grocery store and seen pumpkin pies, cheesecakes and other "perishable" items left out on the counter at room temperature, yet they're still safe for consumption, as far as you know. So why can a grocery store keep these items out, while you have to refrigerate them? The answer is preservatives.
The Michigan State University Extension points out that many of these commercially-produced baked goods contain loads of preservatives and artificial ingredients that help prevent bacterial overgrowth so that it doesn't become a health issue. On the other hand, baked goods that you make at home typically only have fresh ingredients and no preservatives. Because of this, they can spoil more quickly.
Keeping your homemade cheesecake or cream cheese-filled pastry in the fridge will help increase its shelf life and keep it safe for your consumption so you can enjoy it for a few extra days (assuming you can hold out that long).