Top tips for baking the PERFECT, no-cracks, velvety smooth cheesecake.
As far as I’m concerned, any baker should know how to make a decent cheesecake.
Personally, I’ll take a baked cheesecake over the no-bake, fridge-set variety every time. It sets to a dense, velvety smooth consistency, as opposed to the lighter, jelly-like texture of a fridge-set cheesecake. Plus, you don’t have to mess around with sheets of gelatine, a massive bonus, in my opinion. (I hate the guesswork involved in trying to get the amount of gelatine right – more often than not, you end up with a gloopy, un-sliceable mess, and it always takes far longer than expected to set.)
A baked cheesecake is actually super easy. It only requires a few, easy-to-get ingredients, and it’s not very sensitive to external factors (the outside temperature, for example). So if you grasp the basic technique ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ and follow a good recipe, it’ll come out the same every time.
My absolute favourite is New York-style cheesecake – a very simple but velvety and delicious vanilla cheesecake on a plain biscuit base, with some red berry coulis. Here’s my tried-and-tested recipe for the perfect New York baked cheesecake.
Cheesecakes aren’t tricky to bake, but they need a completely different treatment from sponge cakes or cookies.
Here are my top tips for baking the perfect cheesecake.
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1. TEMPERATURE OF THE CHEESECAKE INGREDIENTS
One of the main culprits of grainy cheesecakes is the temperature of the ingredients.
The very first step in a baked cheesecake recipe is normally to cream the butter and the cream cheese – if both are at room temperature, they’ll be a similar consistency, and combine easily to a smooth, homogenous mixture. If the butter or cheese is cold and too firm, you’ll find it almost impossible to combine the ingredients – you’ll end up with a lumpy mix.
It’s also very important for the eggs to be at room temperature – cold egg whites won’t whisk up properly, especially if you’re using a hand whisk, so you won’t be able to incorporate air into the cheesecake. This could result in a cheesecake with a dense, grainy texture.
If you’re working with fridge-cold butter or cream cheese, and haven’t got time to wait for them to warm up to room temperature, cut them up into small cubes and either blast in the microwave for 10 seconds or put on the side for 10-20 minutes, until they’re soft – they should warm up quickly.
2. DON’T OVER-MIX THE CHEESECAKE
Over-mixing is the main reason for cheesecakes to crack in the oven.
You want a smooth, velvety cheesecake, so it’s tempting to over-beat the mixture just to be on the safe side (especially if you started with cold ingredients and find yourself struggling to get rid of lumps – another reason why you should use room temperature butter and cheese!). Don’t do this.
Over-mixing will add too much air into the batter – when it goes in the pre-heated oven, the air bubbles will expand, causing the cheesecake to rise quickly and then collapse and crack when it cools. I also find that it tends to result in a texture that isn’t quite right – too airy and spongy, not the dense, silky consistency that you associate with a baked cheesecake.
If you start with room-temperature ingredients, they should mix easily, so only whisk for as long as you need to to bring the ingredients together. If you’re unsure, stay away from an electric mixer (it’s almost too easy to over-mix using an electric stand mixer – you turn it on, move onto another task only to realise it’s still going half an hour later). Use a hand whisk instead – this will make it much harder to over-mix the cheesecake.
3. OVEN TEMPERATURE FOR A CHEESECAKE
This, in my opinion, is the most important cheesecake tip. In terms of baking technique, a cheesecake is nothing like a sponge cake. Think more along the lines of a crème brulée, custard tart, or quiche – the composition of it has next to no flour, but lots of eggs and dairy. Low and slow.
You want a cool oven – around 160 C, maximum – to slowly cook the eggs and set the batter, without causing the eggs to scramble (which will give you a texture that’s almost like curdled milk). The low temperature will also stop your cheesecake from browning too quickly and getting a burnt top.
4. USE A WATER BATH
If you’re a confident baker, you should try baking your cheesecake in a bain marie, or ‘water bath’. This is where, instead of putting your cheesecake directly on an oven rack, you put it inside a baking tray submerged in 1"/2.5cm of water.
The water bath will:
1. Create steam, stopping the cheesecake from browning too quickly or cracking.
2. Keep the temperature consistent and stop the cheesecake from getting too hot and the eggs from going grainy, resulting in a perfectly smooth texture.
The main risk here is that, if you’re using a springform tin or loose-based cake tin to bake your cheesecake, water could enter the tin and give you a soggy crust. Make sure you properly seal the springform tin by wrapping it in XL clingfilm and/or tin foil (you can’t be too cautious here – I often use multiple layers of clingfilm PLUS a layer of tin foil) before you place it in the water bath.
If you’re nervous of trying a water bath, just place a tray with water at the bottom of the oven, below the rack where you’ve put your cheesecake – it will create steam, achieving some of the same results, without the risk of making your crust soggy.
5. BAKING & COOLING TIME
If you overcook your cheesecake, or cool it down too quickly, it will crack. There’s no doubt about it. So follow the recipe, and switch off the oven as soon as the time is up.
Don’t worry if the cheesecake is still wobbly in the middle, it should be – like a quiche or a custard tart, a cheesecake shouldn’t be cooked until it’s firm all the way through. It will cheesecake will retain heat for some time after you switch off the oven, allowing the eggs and cream to finish cooking to a perfect velvety-smooth texture. If you wait for it to be fully set before switching the oven off, the remaining heat will overcook your eggs, giving the cheesecake a grainy texture.
Let it cool down slowly. This is major. If you take it out of a hot oven and put it out on the side, the temperature shock could cause it to crack. I try to bake cheesecakes in the evening, switch the oven off when the time is up, and leave the cheesecake in the oven until the morning, to finish setting and cool down gently.
6. THE CHEESECAKE BISCUIT BASE
A good biscuit base is definitely my favourite bit, and the first element I notice.
Buttery, crumbly (but not too crumbly) and at least a centimetre thick – it can make or break the cheesecake.
To make a simple cheesecake base that will hold its shape when slices, I use a plain biscuit (more on this in the next paragraph) and mix with half the amount of melted butter - so for a regular 9" cheesecake, blitz (or bash!) 300g of biscuits to a fine crumb, and mix with 150g of melted butter, before pressing into the tin.
I have experimented with a range of biscuits for the base. In the UK, Rich Tea biscuits or Digestives are the biscuits of choice – I find that Rich Tea biscuits blitz to a finer texture, and soak up more of the butter, resulting in a more solid, less crumbly cheesecake base that is easier to slice. Digestives, on the other hand, seem to have more fat in them already, and require less added butter – they also make a coarser, more crumbly crust, which is great for texture but makes it more difficult to get a neat slice.
Biscoff is one of my very favourite biscuits (and fillings, our Biscoff Brownies are probably our most popular brownie flavour - take a look here!).
The caramelised biscuit flavour is a great match for a huge array of cheesecake fillings - I love it with caramel-based cheesecakes, chocolaty cheesecakes, or simple vanilla cheesecakes.
To make a Biscoff cheesecake base, blitz up Biscoff biscuits and mix with half the amount of melted butter - so for a regular 9" cheesecake, blitz (or bash!) 300g of Biscoff biscuits to a fine crumb, and mix with 150g of melted butter, before pressing into the tin.
A CHOCOLATE BASE
If you want a chocolate base, then either Oreos or Chocolate Bourbons are great alternatives to the plainer biscuits. Oreos have a very distinct flavour (who knows what they put in there!), so you’ll be able to tell the cheesecake has an Oreo crust. Bourbons are plain chocolaty, and perhaps better suited if you want to throw other flavours into the filling. Bear in mind that both Oreos and Bourbons have a squidgy filling, which will result in a softer crust – either do a little bit of experimenting to get the consistency right, or scrape the filling off before blitzing the biscuits.
For our classic New York Vanilla Cheesecake recipe, click HERE!