Even the best cheesecake recipes don’t always tell you everything you need to know. We’re filling in the blanks with tips and techniques to help you avoid lumps, leaks, cracks, and sunken middles so you can take your cheesecakes from OK to awesome.
For a Sturdier Crust
The springform pans used for cheesecakes are notorious for leaking. Over time, bends and dings in the metal where the band meets the base can weaken the seal. One way to guard against batter leaking out? An evenly thick, pre-baked crust that covers the pan seam.
Here’s how to get a perfect seam-covering pre-baked crust:
Crush graham crackers (or cookies or whatever your recipe uses) in a food processor so they’re finely and uniformly ground. Next, mix the crumbs with butter, following recipe directions.
Pat the crust mixture into the bottom of a greased springform pan, covering the pan seam and extending up the sides 1 to 2 inches. Use a straight-sided glass or measuring cup to tamp the crust evenly against the pan. Make it about 1/4 inch thick.
Bake the empty crust until it’s fragrant and a shade darker, about 10 minutes at 375°F, or according to your recipe. Baking the crust sets it and keeps it from getting soggy or shifting when the cheesecake batter is added. Let the crust cool completely.
Before adding batter, brush the top inside of the pan (above the crust line) with butter to help keep any batter that rises above the crust from sticking to the pan.
Putting the Cheese in Cheesecake
Whether you’re making an Italian-style cheesecake with ricotta cheese or a classic New York cheesecake with cream cheese, don’t skimp on the fat content. Reduced fat and nonfat cream cheeses contain fillers that might prevent the cheesecake from setting properly. Never substitute whipped cream cheese for the solid block.
The cream cheese should be at room temperature before you begin mixing, or you’ll end up with lumps. Using cold cream cheese can also lead to overbeating — whipping too much air into the batter — which forms unattractive air bubbles on the cake’s surface.
Eggs are another issue. Handled correctly, eggs give cheesecake its structure and silken texture. Their curled-up proteins unfurl and link together when gently heated, transforming from liquid to solid. Gently stirring eggs into other ingredients sets the unfurling process in motion. Beating, however, traps air in them, which makes batter puff up like a soufflé during baking — and fall and crack afterward. For cheesecake, the trick is to create a lump-free batter without whipping the eggs too much.
Here’s one way to do it:
Let batter ingredients stand at room temperature for 30 minutes to soften the cream cheese, warm the eggs, and help them combine more easily.
Beat cream cheese with an electric stand mixer or hand mixer until it’s smooth and fluffy. Unless the recipe instructions specifically note otherwise, you should beat the cream cheese by itself until it’s smooth and light, before adding any other ingredients.
Next add sugar and beat until well combined, followed by any remaining dry ingredients.
Add eggs last, one at a time, and gently mix them in until just combined.
Fold in candies, chocolate pieces, or fruit with a spatula or wooden spoon before pouring the mixture into the prepared pan.
The texture of the finished batter should be smooth and glossy. If you end up with lumps in your batter, run the mixture through a sieve or give it a quick spin in the food processor and you’ll have silky smooth results.
Eating cheesecake is a sensory experience: Texture is everything. Some recipes contain a small amount of starch, such as flour or cornstarch. These cheesecakes have a more cake-like texture. Cheesecake recipes that do not contain flour are luxuriously smooth and dense.
Pour the batter into the cooled crust.
Here’s how make a marbleized pattern in the batter before baking. Pour a fruit or chocolate sauce in a spiral pattern over the cheesecake filling. Use the tip of a paring knife or a wooden skewer to pull lines out from the center like spokes on a wheel, or create a free-form swirl pattern.
Bake in a Water Bath
Cheesecake batter is a custard. It’s delicate, so you want to bake it slowly and evenly without browning the top. The most effective way to do this is to bake it in a water bath. This water bath method bakes the cake very gently, so it won’t darken, curdle, or crack.
Though there are other ways to moderate the heat, we like to bake cheesecake in a water bath because it insulates the outer ring (the part most likely to bake too fast) and keeps the oven moist. Since water evaporates at the boiling point, the water bath will never get hotter than 212 degrees F (100 degrees C), no matter what the oven temperature. This means that the outer edge of your cheesecake won’t bake faster than the center, which can cause it to puff up, sink, and crack. The batter will set without curdling.
Here’s how to bake cheesecake in a water bath:
Wrap outside of pan in a double layer of foil, covering the underside and extending all the way to the top. Although a good crust keeps filling from leaking out, foil helps protect against water leaking in.
Set wrapped pan in a large roasting pan, and pour hot water into roasting pan—to a depth of 2 inches or about halfway up the sides of cheesecake pan.
Carefully transfer to a preheated oven and bake according to your recipe, until center jiggles when you bump the pan from the side. The outer 2 to 3 inches should not move, and the middle should wobble ever so slightly, like Jell-O.
It’s common to overbake cheesecakes because, while they might look underdone, they are actually done when the center is still wobbly. At this stage, residual heat will “carry over” and the center will continue to cook.
Remove cheesecake from the oven to cool on a rack, or simply leave the door of the oven closed, turn off the heat and let the cheesecake cool for at least an hour. This helps prevent the cheesecake from sinking in the center.
Chilling and Unbuckling the Cheesecake
Cheesecake needs to chill thoroughly — preferably overnight. After chilling, the once-wiggly center should firm up just fine. The cake will have pulled away from the edges of the pan.
Carefully run a small knife around the edge of the pan to loosen any bits that might stick to the pan.
Unbuckle pan and remove band when cheesecake is still very cold.
Run a long, thin spatula between the crust and the pan bottom, and transfer cheesecake to a serving dish. You can serve it straight from the base of the springform, too, but it’s easier to cut (and won’t damage your knife and pan) if the base is out of the way.
For a seamless look, you can smooth the sides of the cheesecake with a hot, wet knife. Any toppings or garnishes can be added at this point.
Their soft, melt-in-your-mouth texture and crumbly buttery crust can make cheesecakes tricky to cut and serve. For a better slice:
Dip a long, thin knife in hot water to warm it, wipe dry with a towel, then slice.
Repeat the dip-and-dry method with each cut. A heated knife cuts through a cold cheesecake with less friction. Though slicing and transferring are easiest when cheesecake is very cold, for the best flavor and texture, you may want to let slices stand at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes before serving.
A Tip for Freezing Cheesecakes: To avoid damaging delicate cheesecakes when you wrap them up for the freezer, pop them in the freezer briefly, unwrapped, just to firm them up a bit. Then double-wrap them and stick them back in the freezer.
How To Make Specialty Cheesecakes
You can do a lot with cheesecake, including making fun mash-ups with other desserts. We’re looking at you, Red Velvet Cheesecake and Sopapilla Cheesecake. If you’re one of those people who loves cookie dough straight from the batter bowl, there’s even a cheesecake for you — Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Cheesecake. And don’t forget Cheesecake Swirl Brownies.