Cheesecake is pretty straightforward to make as far as most desserts go. Its one main risk: It can crack while baking. And while that happens to even the most seasoned of home cooks, we're here to save your next dinner party with some indispensable tips. Here are seven precautions you can take at each step of baking cheesecake.
Avoid Whipped Cream Cheese
To begin with, don't use whipped cream cheese that comes in one of those plastic tubs. Only use solid, rectangular blocks of cream cheese. The stuff in tubs has air whipped into it and won't give you the right texture. Also, full-fat cream cheese (or full-fat sour cream) works best.
Keep Your Ingredients Room Temperature
Make sure all of the ingredients—the cream cheese, sour cream, eggs, and even the sugar—are at room temperature. This will allow the ingredients to blend better, giving you a smoother cheesecake. If the cream cheese is too cold, it can ultimately lead to a lumpy cheesecake.
You want to mix the batter thoroughly but not too thoroughly. Overbeating can cause the cheesecake to crack when you bake it. When you're combining the sugar, cream cheese, eggs, and other ingredients, do it on 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. These pans have removable sides, so you can release your cake without having to flip the whole pan over. With a delicate cheesecake, flipping the pan can mean disaster. Make sure to grease the bottom and sides of the pan before you press the graham cracker crumbs into the bottom and pour in the batter. Melted butter is great for greasing the pan, but you can rub it with a cold nub of butter or even spray it with cooking spray. Some springform pans have a nonstick coating, but take this extra step just to be safe.
Keep It Moist
A dry cheesecake is prone to cracking. To prevent this, bake your cheesecake with a pan of water in the oven. This will generate steam to help prevent the cheesecake from drying out. This is similar to the way we bake a crème brûlée in a water bath—both crème brûlée and cheesecake are essentially baked custards. You can bake a cheesecake in a water bath, too, but you have to wrap the springform pan with foil to make sure the water doesn't seep in and make it soggy. Play it safe and put the roasting pan of water on the lower rack and bake the cheesecake on the rack above.
We know it's tempting, but don't open the oven while baking. You don't want to let all that steamy air out. Dramatic changes in temperature during baking can cause the cheesecake to crack or sink in the middle.
Don't poke anything into the center of the cheesecake to see if it's done. Since cheesecake can't be tested for doneness like a regular cake, all you'll do is make a hole in it. That also goes for instant-read thermometers. Instead, give it a jiggle. If it's firm at the edges and still wobbles a little in the center, it's done. If it's watery, cook for a few more minutes.
Worst case scenario, even if your cheesecake does crack, it'll probably still taste great. And you can cover the cracks with fruit, sour cream frosting, or pastry garnish. If it's lumpy, promise yourself you'll let your ingredients come to room temperature next time. If you can't get it out of the pan, break out the forks and dig right in.