Say Cheese!

Mastering the Art of Perfect Cheesecakes at Home

By Jennifer Nelsen

There are few words that make people salivate more easily than ''cheesecake.” Even those without a pronounced sweet tooth can muster an appetite when cheesecake -- a dessert that straddles sweet and salty -- is on the menu. Yet dishes that have long been part of human history always speak most forcefully to us.

Small pastries baked with cheese and honey were said to have been served to victors in the first Olympic Games centuries ago. Greek brides and grooms were also known to use cheesecake as a wedding cake.

But cheesecake as we know it is a more recent phenomenon, a legacy of Jews from Germany and, to a lesser extent, Eastern Europe, as they spread throughout the world, taking culinary customs with them.

The popularity of cheesecake is also the story of successful commingling: the Germans provided the recipe, the Americans the cheese. European cheesecakes were generally made with cottage or curd cheese, but what made this dessert so prevalent was the invention of cream cheese by American dairymen in the late 19th century.

Some recipes use cottage cheese and lemon for distinct texture and flavor or add a drizzle of chocolate or strawberry sauce to the basic recipe. New York-style cheesecake relies upon heavy cream or sour cream and is rich with a dense, smooth, and creamy consistency. This is the style of cheesecake Americans have come to love, but many people are daunted by the prospect of making a cheesecake.

Cheesecake is one of those desserts that can have a few pitfalls, but if you follow these simple tips, your cheesecakes should turn out just fine. Note that the following cheesecake tips don't necessarily appear in order of importance. Rather, I've tried to arrange them roughly in order of the actual steps of baking the cheesecake.

Blocks only: Do not use cream cheese that comes in a plastic tubs, only use solid, rectangular blocks of cream cheese. The cream cheese sold in tubs often has air whipped into it and it won't work out the same way. Also, full-fat cream cheese and sour cream work best.

Room Temperature: Make sure all ingredients - the cream cheese, sour cream, eggs and even the sugar - are at room temperature. This will allow the ingredients to blend together better, giving you a smoother cheesecake.

Don't Overbeat: Overbeating can cause the cheesecake to crack when you bake it. So, when you're combining the sugar, cream cheese, eggs and other ingredients, do it on a medium-low speed. The paddle attachment (as opposed to the whip attachment) of a stand mixer is best so that you don't beat too much air into the batter.

Use a Springform Pan: The best pan for baking a cheesecake is a springform pan. Make sure the bottom is greased when you press the graham cracker crumbs into the bottom, and also make sure the sides of the pan are well-greased when you pour in the batter. Melted butter is great for greasing the pan, but you can just rub it with butter or even spray it with cooking spray. They make springform pans with a nonstick coating, but grease it anyway.

Keep it Moist: A dry cheesecake will also crack. To prevent this, bake a cheesecake with a pan of water in the oven. A steamy oven will prevent the cheesecake from drying out. Don't put the springform pan in the water, simply put the roasting pan of water on the lower rack and bake the cheesecake on the upper rack.

No Peeking: Do not open the oven while baking! You do not want to let all that steamy air out. Also, changes in temperature during baking can cause the cheesecake to crack or sink in the middle.

Also, No Poking: Don't poke anything into the center of a cheesecake to see if it's done. You'll just make a hole in it. That goes for instant-read thermometers. All you have to do is give it a jiggle. If it is firm at the edges and still wobbles a little in the center, it's done.



Graham Cracker Crust

  • 1 cup graham cracker crumbs
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Cheesecake Filling

  • 2 1/2 pounds cream cheese, cut into rough 1-inch chunks and left to stand at room temperature for 30 to 45 minutes
  • 1/8 teaspoon table salt
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup room-temperature sour cream
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 large room temperature egg yolks
  • 6 room temperature large eggs


1. For the crust: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Combine graham cracker crumbs and sugar in medium bowl; add 5 tablespoons melted butter and toss with fork until evenly moistened. Brush bottom and sides of 9-inch springform pan with additional melted butter. Empty crumbs into springform pan and press evenly into pan bottom. Bake until fragrant and beginning to brown around edges, about 13 minutes. Cool on wire rack while making filling.

2. For the cheesecake filling: Increase oven temperature to 500 degrees. Place a roasting pan of hot water in the bottom rack of the oven. In a standing mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat cream cheese at medium-low speed to break up and soften slightly, about 1 minute. Scrape beater and bottom and sides of bowl well with rubber spatula; add salt and about half of sugar and beat at medium-low speed until combined, about 1 minute. Scrape bowl; beat in remaining sugar until combined, about 1 minute. Scrape bowl; add sour cream, lemon juice, and vanilla, and beat at low speed until combined, about 1 minute. Scrape bowl; add yolks and beat at medium-low speed until thoroughly combined, about 1 minute. Scrape bowl; add whole eggs two at a time, beating until thoroughly combined, about 1 minute, and scraping bowl between additions.

3. Brush sides of springform pan with melted butter. Set springform pan on rimmed baking sheet (to catch any spills if springform pan leaks). Pour filling into cooled crust and bake 10 minutes; without opening oven door, reduce oven temperature to 200 degrees and continue to bake, about 1 1/2 hours. Transfer cake to wire rack and cool 5 minutes; run paring knife between cake and side of springform pan. Cool until barely warm, 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold, at least 3 hours. (Cake can be refrigerated up to 4 days.)

4. To unmold cheesecake, remove sides of pan. Slide thin metal spatula between crust and pan bottom to loosen, then slide cake onto serving plate. Let cheesecake stand at room temperature about 30 minutes, then cut into wedges and serve.