How to Make Cheesecake—No Recipe Required

Bye, blah cheesecake.

February 17, 2020
Photo by Julia Gartland

At one end of the dessert spectrum is the cleansing, frosty sorbet—sharp and refreshing and crisp. At the other is the cheesecake, which, like a velvet turtleneck, is cushy and luxurious and really only appealing once the temperature drops below 60 degrees.

Cheesecakes are beloved and legendary and I have to be honest: While wooed by my love of dairy products, I tend to find cheesecakes exhausting. Not making them—that part is fun—but eating them. It’s a heavy end to what’s often, come the cooler months, a heavy meal, and the cake itself is regularly too sweet and served in wedges so large they seem to float on the dinner table like cruise ships.

Take charge of your cheesecake! Photo by Julia Gartland

But! I’m looking to the parts of the cheesecake I find wholly loveable: richness, velvety-ness, tanginess. And by making a cheesecake yourself, you can make it all the things you really want it to be (and serve it in tiny slices, should you like).

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There are three major components to a cheesecake, which means there are three big opportunities to noodle around. They are:

1. The Crust

The supporting role, yes, but one that can add a real sense of intrigue to the whole shebang. Graham crackers are classic and for good reason—but you could also use Oreos, gingersnaps, tea biscuits (I love Carr’s whole wheat crackers), Goya Maria cookies, saltines, Ritz crackers, breadcrumbs, speculoos cookies, shortbread… Whatever it is, you’ll need enough to make 2 cups of crumbs (about 7 ounces). You could also use all or part nuts!

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“I lean towards naked cheesecakes. I find toppings distracting except for maybe a somewhat thin layer of sweetened sour cream.”
— HalfPint

You’ll also need 4 tablespoons of liquid fat to bind the crumbs together into a crust: melted butter, melted brown butter (!), melted coconut oil, olive oil—just choose something with good flavor.

If you’re using cookies like Oreos or gingersnaps, I personally find that sweet enough—but if you’re using something more subtle or savory, like tea biscuits or saltines, you might want to add a bit of sugar (white or brown or otherwise). Two tablespoons is a good place to start.

And you can fiddle, too! As you blend, add a pinch of cayenne to a gingersnap crust or orange zest to a speculoos one—or slightly decrease the amount of cookies you’re using and add a handful of coconut or pistachios to a shortbread crust. A tablespoon or so of cocoa powder will make a vanilla crust into a chocolate one.

2. The Filling

It’s what makes cheesecake a cheesecake, and it’s what makes any cheesecake interesting. Here’s a basic formula:

  • 3 (8-ounce) packages of cream cheese at room temperature
  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups additional dairy and liquid at room temperature
  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • A pinch of salt
  • 3 eggs at room temperature

All of this probably seems self-explanatory except for that “dairy or liquid” bit, and it’s here where the sparks can fly, where you really give your cheesecake character. Where to begin?! I’m glad you asked.

The dairy could be sour cream or ricotta, buttermilk or crème fraîche, mascarpone or goat cheese. The “liquid”? Try citrus juice, fruit purée, molasses (decrease the sugar!), canned puréed pumpkin, a few ounces of chocolate melted into heavy cream, espresso powder or matcha blended into heavy cream, tahini, peanut or other nut butters, apple or squash butter, dulce de leche, chestnut cream…the list goes on.

If you don’t want a purely dairy-flavored cheesecake, I’d recommend going part-dairy and part-other thing (for example, 1 cup sour cream and 1/2 cup lemon juice, or 3/4 cup buttermilk and 3/4 cup pumpkin purée). This will help the mixture stay light in texture and keep the “other thing” from being overpowering—especially true for something like goat cheese (try equal parts sour cream and goat cheese) or molasses (1 cup dairy and 1/4 cup molasses—then taste and add more if you want).

And don’t forget about dry seasonings: citrus zest, spices, the scraped seeds of a vanilla bean, etc. Grind them in the food processor with the sugar before adding anything else to infuse the sugar with the scent.

3. The option swirl or topping!

Okay, fancypants, yes, you can swirl—jam (loosened with a splash of water)! A strongly-flavored honey! Pomegranate molasses (especially good with goat cheese)! Ganache! Caramel! Condensed milk (maybe in a coffee cheesecake?)! Before your cheesecake goes into the oven, drizzle whatever you’re going to swirl over the surface, then use a chopstick or the tip of a paring knife to marble it into the cheesecake filling. Messy looks great here, so just go for it.

Perhaps you’d prefer a smoother topping—say, lemon curd or a sheen of jam, or a cool, pure ice-skating rink of crème fraîche. Should that be the case, pour it on in the last 10 minutes of the cheesecake’s bake so that it has a chance to firm up and really attach to the cake.

Now, for the bake

Now that you’ve gotten all the hard stuff figured out, you can focus on the process, which is the easy part.

First, make sure the ingredients that will go into your cheesecake’s filling are at room temperature. I really mean it! This isn’t one of those situations where you “cream the butter at room temperature,” but really, it’s so cold outside, you kind of have to mash it with your hands before you can even get your mixer’s beaters into the bowl.

Why room temperature? For two reasons. The first is that cream cheese that isn’t at room temp will have stubborn lumps even when you beat it well. The second reason is that if you’ve made cheesecake before (or eaten a homemade cheesecake before), you probably know that they’re prone to cracking—deep, angry fault lines that appear in its surface either while baking or once removed from the oven, signaling that it’s overbaked. (No one will notice, by the way.) Part of the reason these appear is because of how sensitive cheesecake is to changes in temperature: The steadier and least disturbed its temperature is (which means start with room temperature ingredients, baking the cheesecake at a low temperature or in a water bath or both, accounting for carryover cooking, and cooling the cheesecake slowly), the more likely it is you’ll have an unmarred cheesecake.

Preheat the oven to 350° F. You’ll start by making the crust: Pulse whatever you’re making your crust from in the food processor until finely ground, then pour in the melted fat and the sugar and pulse again until moist and crumbly. Dump these crumbs into a 9- or 10-inch springform pan and use your hands or the base of a measuring cup to pack them in evenly and firmly. Set the springform on a baking sheet (for ease of lifting and moving later, when you add the filling) and bake for 10 minutes, until just turning golden around the edges. Reduce the oven’s heat to 250° F.

Meanwhile, wash out the food processor, then add your room temperature cream cheese and the sugar and pinch of salt. Pulse until the cream cheese is totally smooth and light. Add your 1 1/2 cups of additional “stuff” and blend again, until completely combined. Add the eggs one at a time, blending completely between additions. This mixture should be totally smooth.

Pour this creamy, dreamy mixture into the baked crust—don’t worry if the crust isn’t totally cool yet. If you’re adding a swirl, do so now.

We chose all heavy cream, a gingersnap crust, and blueberry jam swirl. Photo by Julia Gartland

I admire the method of baking in a water bath, and it’s definitely a way to ensure the the cake cooks gently. But I don’t have a roasting pan, or any pan that I can fit my springform pan inside. Therefore, I like this method, slightly adapted from America’s Test Kitchen: Tightly cover the cheesecake with a sheet of aluminum foil and bake the cheesecake for an hour, then remove the foil and bake 20 minutes more. (If you are adding a topping, bake for 10 minutes, then smooth on the topping, then bake another 10 minutes.) The cheesecake should still be set at the edges but very wobbly at its center. If, when you check after 20 minutes and the whole thing seems so wiggly you can’t imagine it ever setting, pop it back in for 10 to 20 minutes, checking periodically.

Remove the cheesecake from the oven and let it cool completely (!) at room temperature. Be forewarned: This could take all afternoon or evening. Patience is key. Speaking of which, once the cheesecake has cooled, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 6 hours but ideally overnight. Patience, patience.

Let it cool (really, let. it. cool.) before you do this. Photo by James Ransom

If your cheesecake comes out of the oven doing its best Grand Canyon imitation—and despite your best intentions, it still might—don’t worry. Cheesecakes seem to have a mind of their own when it comes to this, and in the end, it’s only cheesecake, and it will still taste really, really good.

For some inspiration, check out Our go-to cheesecake recipes...

1. Matcha-Black Sesame Cheesecake

Matcha fans, this one's for you: a subtly earthy, perfectly sweet cheesecake filling made with matcha powder and black sesame powder. Oh, and don't forget about that crumbly hazelnut shortbread crust.

2. Meyer Lemon Cheesecake with Biscoff Crust

It would pretty much be a crime to not make this Meyer lemon cheesecake when the season for this sweet-tart citrus (November through March) is in full swing.

3. Cappuccino Cheesecake

Everything you love about an expertly made cappuccino—froth on top, creamy espresso, and perhaps a dash of cocoa powder—can be found in this cheesecake, which we'd happily eat morning, noon, or night.

4. Amaro Ricotta Cheesecake

Here, classic cheesecake gets a little kick from amaro—an Italian herbal liqueur with a bittersweet flavor—and fresh orange zest, not to mention the gingersnap cookies in the crust.

5. Crème Fraîche Cheesecake with Apple Cardamom Compote

Give your cheesecake an extra bit of creamy tang by bringing crème fraîche and goat cheese into the mix; the combination of apples and cardamom on top add balancing spice and sweetness.

6. Butternut Squash & Spice Cheesecake

This cheesecake has all the flavors you want to enjoy during the chillier months, making it an A+ option for a holiday party dessert or cozy weekend baking project.

7. Instant Pot Peanut Butter Cheesecake With Chocolate Crust

Love cheesecake? Have an Instant Pot? If you answered yes to both of those questions then you have no excuse to ignore this chocolatey peanut butter confection.

8. No-Bake Lime Cheesecake

Once the weather warms up a bit, add this no-bake cheesecake with punchy hits of lime juice and zest to your dessert rotation.

9. Oreo Cheesecake

Who could say no to Oreo cheesecake? Certainly not us.

How would you crust, top, and fill your cheesecake? Let us know in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Josie Sabella
    Josie Sabella
  • Ginny S
    Ginny S
  • alexiak
  • Inysa
  • Lori
Writing and cooking in Brooklyn.


Josie S. November 25, 2019
Last cheesecake I made when I flipped it over to a plate some of it stuck to the pan bottom. I had it refrigerated overnight. What could have caused this? Never happened before!
Ginny S. August 20, 2019
I loved reading this article. I make cheesecakes regularly for a small restaurant. I do use a standard base recipe that has never failed me, so I hesitate to deviate from that too much. However, I love all your suggestions for ways to 'change it up' and can't wait to try some of them. My arsenal of around 10 cheesecakes just got a boost, especially looking forward to half goat cheese and half sour cream. Thus far, I've only subbed out some of the cream cheese for goat cheese in my base recipe and am excited to see how the extra tang plays with the other flavors. Thanks!
alexiak July 16, 2019
Love this article! I made a shortbread and pistachio crust, and infused the filling with fresh vanilla bean, orange zest, and Grand Marnier! I also used heavy cream instead of sour cream, which made it a little more runny at first, but I just baked it for an additional 15 minutes after the first hour and 20 minutes. Additionally, the foil worked! No cracks or canyons! Thanks for the help!!
Inysa January 6, 2019
Thank you thank you,thank you! This is the first time I have read the simplest advice on how to prevent your cheesecake from cracking! I just made one for Christmas that did not crack when generally this is the norm for me.I used a lower temperature a water bath and made sure my ingredients were room temperature. I am in a new home and not quite used to the oven here but it was probably the best cheesecake I ever made(using my mother in laws recipe ofcourse). I hope to have the same results in the future from here on out!
Lori August 8, 2018
One year I made a pecan pie pumpkin cheesecake for Thanksgiving! I made a shortbread unsweetened crust, then pecans(toasted) and filling
I cooked this for 20 mins, and then the pumpkin cheesecake, and baked it for a total of about another 45 mins. My husband gave all the neighbors some, and I started to receive orders for various flavors of cheesecake! It's always my go to dessert, and the #1 request to be brought to get together!! I love learning about other flavors and combos!
Jr0717 February 15, 2018
Can yogurt be used as one of the dairy sources - especially if I strain it (not quite to labneh stage, but maybe halfway there)?
BerryBaby January 29, 2018
This looks delicious but curious how is this ‘not’ a recipe? There are measurements and steps involved. When I don’t use a recipe, I don’t measure, nothing is written down or followed. I add random ingredients and guess by looking at it if I’ve used enough.
When I don’t use a recipe
Caroline L. January 29, 2018
Hi BerryBaby! It's true—there are measurements and steps. When I go recipeless, I like to get a food like cheesecake's necessary processes and ratios down to the most essential points and see how that sets me free to go crazy flavor-wise. Have you done any no-recipe cheesecake baking? I'd love to know what you made if so!
Kaitlyn January 28, 2018
Ginger snap and pecan crust, goat cheese in the filling, orange zest in the sugar and I haven’t figured out a swirl yet. But this is definitely happening.
Caroline L. January 29, 2018
Julie January 26, 2018
Matcha cookie crumb crust, strawberry swirled cheesecake, and a white chocolate drizzle... (I'm still dreaming of that Sakura Frappucino I had during cherry blossom season in Korea. The flavors were so good.)
Kaitlin B. January 26, 2018
Dang! I really, really want to make cheesecake now. Love your words, Caro!
Caroline L. January 26, 2018
HalfPint January 26, 2018
I lean towards naked cheesecakes. I find toppings distracting except for maybe a somewhat thin layer of sweetened sour cream.