There are plenty of easy, no-bake cheesecake recipes out there for novices to work with, but the no-bake variety aren’t as rich and satisfying as a baked cheesecake. A classic New York-style cheesecake isn’t hard to make: It’s just an especially rich custard cooked on a crumb crust. The only tricky part is knowing when it’s done, which requires a bit of experience.
The Traditional Way to Check
Most recipes will tell you to pull your cheesecake out of the oven “while the center is still a bit jiggly.” That’s true, and it’s as accurate a description as any, but if you haven’t baked many cheesecakes, it doesn’t give you a whole lot of guidance. You won’t really know how large an area should still be jiggly until you’ve baked a few cheesecakes, and if you don’t make them often, it’ll take you a while to develop a good eye for it.
The heat that’s trapped in the cheesecake batter itself means it’ll keep cooking after you take it out of the oven, and that’s why you pull it while the center is still soft. That way, this “carryover cooking” finishes the middle of the cheesecake without it getting over-baked and dry.
If you’re baking your cheesecake in a low-temperature oven or in a water bath, it won’t retain quite as much heat. You can probably let it go until the jiggly part in the center is only an inch or so across, without much risk of it over-baking. If you’re baking at a more conventional 350 degrees Fahrenheit or so, your batter will be hotter, and the unbaked area can be 2 to 2 1/2 inches across.
A More Accurate Test for Doneness
A better way to test a baked cheesecake for doneness is to lean on the same tool you’d use for any other food: a good kitchen thermometer. An instant-read thermometer will tell you in just a few seconds whether your batter has reached its best temperature, which is 150F to 155F. That’s plenty high enough to set the eggs in the batter, which is what gives your cheesecake its texture and structure.
The big advantage of using a thermometer is that it takes the guesswork out of baking a cheesecake. When it’s done, it’s done, and you don’t have to second-guess yourself over the amount or degree of “jiggliness” in your cheesecake. The only downside is that when you test your cheesecake with the thermometer, there’s a risk of it cracking at that spot. Taking out the cheesecake before it’s fully set is meant to help avoid cracks in the surface, so there’s a bit of irony there. Still, it’s the best way to know for sure that your cheesecake is baked properly.
Fixing an Over-Baked Cheesecake
If you forgot about your cheesecake while it was in the oven or found that it was already a bit over-baked when you tested it with the thermometer, there are a few things you can do to help keep it from cracking or at least to hide the evidence. First, try running a clean knife around the inside of the springform pan while the cheesecake is cooling. It’ll shrink as it cools, and if it’s not clinging to the edges of the pan, it’s less likely to crack as part of that shrinking process.
If the cheesecake cracks anyway, you can mask the cracks and crevices with a suitable topping. A layer of chocolate or caramel sauce or a chocolate-and-cream ganache can go a long way toward making cracks disappear. If you’d planned to top the cheesecake with fruit anyway, that’s another useful way to hide the cracks.
If you’d prefer to keep your cheesecake looking simple and classic, spread the top with a simple glaze of sweetened sour cream once it cools. The flavor complements a cheesecake beautifully, and it’s thick enough to fill and hide the cracks.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.