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This bake off has been a long time coming. But cheesecake is a finicky, expensive baked good–and not my go-to dessert. So it took a homecoming trip to Houston (where the Philadelphia is $2.50/block versus the $6-$10/block in NYC?!?!), the use of a friend’s commercial fridge, and a burst of energy to bring this bake off to fruition.
And what do you know, after trying 9 cheesecakes, I did find a couple that I quite liked and would make again. So whether you’re a cheesecake lover or not, let’s dive into the results!
METHODOLOGY // RESULTS // FACTORS // ANALYSIS // RECOMMENDATIONS
- 50 total tasters
- All 9 recipes were baked prior to the tasting and frozen until the day before (when they were defrosted in the fridge)
- Most cheescakes were baked in a 9″ springform pan (except Bravetart, which was baked in an 8×4″ pan)
- Tasters ranked each cheesecake on a scale from 0-10 for overall flavor, texture, and as a whole
- Ingredients were measured by weight according to the King Arthur website
- Philadelphia cream cheese
- Gold Medal bleached all-purpose flour
- Daisy sour cream
- BelGioioso mascarpone
- Kirkland goat cheese
- Trader Joe’s unsalted butter
- Bob’s Red Mill baking powder and soda
- Diamond kosher salt
- Imperial granulated sugar
PARTNER NOTE: I’m delighted to be partnering with Imperial Sugar on this bake off as I’ve consistently used their consistent, high-quality pure cane sugar products throughout my bake offs. Imperial Sugar is non-GMO verified, allergen free and gluten-free!
For more sweet inspiration, you can visit Imperial Sugar to find more than 4,000 expert-tested recipes, free downloadable vintage cookbooks, sugar scrubs and bath products at the Sugar Spa, and lots of helpful guides on their blog. You can also check out their Pinterest, You Tube, Instagram for even more recipe inspiration!
As always, please take these results with a grain of salt since I am not a professional cheesecake maker! (Baker’s error can always occur and I try to point out when I know for sure that it did.) I do think all of these recipes are amazing in their own right, so I encourage you to read through each of these recipe descriptions to find the one that’s right for you! (If you’re wondering my favorites, I always list them at the end of the post.)
Thank you! A huge shout out to my former intern, Melody, for collecting the majority of these recipes long before this finally came to fruition. And a huge thank you to Isabel and Britt for letting me take over their kitchen, and to the queen Christina Au for letting me take over her freezers, all the baking mentorship, and to the one and only David for letting me use Fruit Service Co. to throw this bake off. And to all the amazing tasters in Houston who came out to taste and rank 20 pounds of cheesecake!
How did I select these 9 recipes? I always look at the recommendations you send in via Instagram as well as the first few pages of Google for the most popular recipes. I narrow down all the options (in this case, more than 50 recipes) to a handful with different factors–for example, a recipe that uses goat cheese, one that uses a shortbread crust, recipes that use sour cream vs. heavy cream, or cornstarch vs. flour. In the end, I do my best to pick a wide variety of recipes that feels like an overall representation of the recipes available!
- Cheese type: The three types of cheese tested in this bake off were cream cheese (of course), goat cheese, and mascarpone. Mascarpone, with a higher percentage of butterfat, is less tangy and has a looser texture than cream cheese, so it’s a great option to use if you want a custardy, creamy and loose-textured cheesecake that’s more mild-flavored. Meanwhile, goat cheese can obviously have a stronger flavor (I recommend looking for one with less funk when baking!) and Bravetart notes that it helps break up the “sometimes gummy texture” that cream cheese alone can have. Goat cheese is a great option for a less traditional cheesecake with a lighter, less gummy texture.
- Thickener: Any kind of starch in cheesecake helps prevent cracking and provides more structure and firmness. I was very surprised at the difference between Pretty Simple Sweet (which used cornstarch) vs. New York Times (which used flour). While it’s possible baker’s error interfered in PSS’s recipe, the texture was far drier than NYT’s. While of course there are many other factors at play, I would generally opt for flour if you want a firmer-textured cheesecake. Though personally, I would look for a cheesecake without any thickeners as I prefer a creamier texture.
- Sour cream vs. heavy cream: As you might imagine, those with sour cream had a much more distinct tang than the recipes with heavy cream, which provides a smoother, looser, creamier texture. For a cheesecake that lives closer to the flan end of the spectrum, look for a recipe with a higher ratio of cream (and no thickeners). For a cheesecake that will taste a bit tangier and with a more classic texture, look for recipes with sour cream.
- Water bath: As annoying as water baths are to get into the oven, I really did find that this was a sure-fire way to prevent cracking. However, I didn’t like the method that most recipes called for–wrapping the bottom of a springform in a ton of foil to try to prevent leakage before placing it directly in the water (which often failed). I thought it would be incredibly difficult to get a cheesecake out of a regular cake pan (no springform, no removable bottom), but I actually found it to be quite easy if the pan is well-greased. So that’s my recommendation–if you need to bake with a water bath, use a high-walled 8″ or 9″ cake pan with no removable bottom so there’s no chance of leakage!
- Baking temp: Another method to prevent cracking? Baking for a looooong time at a low temp a la Cook’s Illustrated. A few recipes called for starting with a high oven temp (to get the cheesecake to puff) before baking at a lower temperature (200-225 F), which generally seemed to work well, especially in conjunction with a water bath. While the general knowledge to prevent your cheesecake from cracking is to simply not overbake it, I found that recipes baked at a moderate temperature with no water bath (like Philadelphia) tended to crack more easily.
- Crust type: While most recipes called for a standard graham crust with graham crackers, butter and sugar, I was surprised at the variation in opinions on the crusts. In retrospect, I think this might have been because water seeping into the pans from the water bath could have made the crust more soggy. Bravetart’s crust was one of my favorites (which was fully protected from the water bath). It actually didn’t use any sugar in the crust and added a pinch of salt (essential, in my opinion)–a great way to balance a sweeter cheesecake filling! Sadly, the shortbread-based NYT crust was not a big crowd favorite, but a really interesting option for those who don’t prefer a graham crust.
Analysis of the Best Cheesecake Recipes
Pretty Simple Sweet: a creamy but slightly firmer cheesecake with a classic crust
Pretty Simple Sweet stood out to me because it’s a rare recipe that doesn’t call for a water bath and Shiran notes that using heavy cream provides an added richness (though she offers the option to swap in sour cream instead). It also calls for grated lemon zest, an additional egg yolk and–what I didn’t realize would be notable until later–2 tablespoons of cornstarch. The crust gets pre-baked before adding the filling, which bakes for a little over an hour before being left to cool completely inside the oven.
I did end up baking the cheesecake 10-20 minutes longer than the called-for time (it looked alarmingly jiggly in the center), so it could be complete baker’s error that mine cracked across the top. Texture-wise, it was firmer than I expected from the description of the silky texture (which could again be due to baker’s error). The cornstarch seemed to lend it a slightly dry, moisture-sucking texture instead of remaining creamy and moist. I really enjoyed what felt like a classic graham crust, but ultimately this filling was a bit too stiff for my preference. I’d be curious to give this one another go because I loved the light lemon flavor!
- Wow, I had been pondering if there was lemon in cheesecake and this one made me say yes! This one was notably more crumbly, not the silky texture I look for. However, if you wish that cheesecake and lemon bars had a baby, this might be it. The texture of the filling was a bit spongey for my taste. The crust was fine, but nothing to write home about.
- Texture was too thick for how plain the cheesecake flavor was. Crust tasted sweeter than the others?
- The crust has great flavor but is slightly too soft. We liked the slight citrus flavor, but both disliked the texture. It was sticky and sort of dry.
- I did not prefer the ricotta-like texture of this cake. The flavor was almost floral. Orange?
- A little too firm and dry with an overpowering egg and citrus flavor
New York Times: a soft and creamy lemon-forward cheesecake with a flaky shortbread crust
New York Times stood out to me mainly for its shortbread (rather than graham cracker) crust–it uses an egg yolk, lemon zest, and a tiny bit of sugar and vanilla. It was also an interesting recipe to test as, similarly to Pretty Simple Sweet, it uses heavy cream but no sour cream. However, NYT uses slightly more cream cheese, less heavy cream, more egg yolks, and flour instead of cornstarch. (Both recipes call for lemon zest.) Happily, this is another recipe that didn’t call for a water bath and starts off with a hot oven before reducing the temp to 200 degrees for about an hour in the oven.
I loved the lemony flavor in combination with the soft, creamy texture here! While the texture was slightly firmer than Thomas Keller, they were quite similar and I could really only discern the difference tasting them side by side. Unfortunately, I found the shortbread crust a bit bland and underwhelming (I’d add a touch of salt next time), but it was quite flaky! The crust seemed to be the main cause of this cheesecake’s lower ranking. Overall, I’d definitely make the filling again but would probably pair this with a graham cracker crust. The reasonable bake time (~1 hour in the oven + 30 min cooling in the oven) is also a plus for me.
- Most unique flavor!! Crust was very interesting. Not my favorite but definitely love the silkiness of the filling
- The texture was perfect and I really likes the crust. However, the taste was too sweet and lemony. It was also missing the characteristic tangy cheescake flavor. The flavor and crust combo reminded me of a lemon bar more than a cheescake
- I prefer a graham cracker crust, it came off as overly sweet to me without it. Cake part was very creamy.
- This one tasted a little sweeter and maybe had some lemon? Shortbread crust was an exciting concept, but I was missing the graham cracker crust.
- The texture is silky and coats your mouth well. The crust is a no for me dog. Is it a crust??
Bravetart: a tangy, creamy, slightly grainy cheesecake with a slight funk from goat cheese
Within my cheesecake spreadsheet, I was internally debating between two goat cheese recipes from acclaimed bakers: Claire Saffitz and Stella Parks. I had chosen Claire’s recipe when it occurred to me to put it up to a poll–and Bravetart won by a wide margin. While they share a key similarity (goat cheese), these are also kind of opposite recipes. Claire has a thinner cheesecake layer and notes that you should “love goat cheese” while Bravetart provides a towering layer of cheesecake where goat cheese simply “improves the flavor and texture of the cream cheese.” Most of you didn’t want an overpowering goat cheese flavor, so I ultimately tested Bravetart’s recipe. She uses a whopping 4 sticks of cream cheese along with 8 oz of goat cheese and 6 oz of heavy cream. This was the only recipe to use an 8×4 pan (for height) and an initial high burst of heat to get the cheesecake to puff before baking the cheesecake at a very low temp to keep the texture creamy. (Note: I did omit the orange flower water as it was difficult to find.)
To start with the basics, Bravetart’s crust is just graham crackers, butter and a pinch of salt, but I LOVED the generous, flavorful crust. And now, to the goat cheese: was it present? It was far less intense than I expected, but you can still taste it. It does lend a tang, but in a slightly earthy and natural way. I found the texture is soft, creamy and a tiny bit grainy (which could be due to my bake job). I actually loved the texture and was pleasantly surprised by this one. This was the only recipe that was baked in a non springform pan and I far preferred this technique (no leaking from the springform cracks!). Even though I prefer a lower cream cheese to crust ratio, I would definitely eat this again. (Making it again is questionable as this is QUITE a labor of love and ingredients.)
- This one is especially tall! The texture is heavenly and the flavor is just a bit more tangy than others without being overpowering. Crust was pretty crumbly, I’d prefer it stay together a bit more and have a smoother buttery flavor. Filling is top notch
- GOAT CHEESE! The tang of the goat cheese made this bake stand out from the rest, even though the goat cheese flavor was subtle. I prefer the goat cheese tang to the sour cream tang present in some of the others. creamy texture. Top 3.
- Immediately I knew this had goat cheese, which I am a fan of. I think it’s not too aggressive but it can be a hard no for some people. Visually, this was a nice tall cheesecake but I would prefer a little less custard to crust ratio, especially since the crust had a nice flavor. The salt in this was perfectly balanced, something a lot of other recipes needed. This was a very soft and fluffy cheesecake.
- This is what I think of as cheesecake. I don’t have the desire for Cheesecake Factory vibes
- Felt like this was the hospital version of cheesecake. So overly soft, left a weird aftertaste, kind of all mushed together. So much cream cheese flavor I didn’t like it.
- It has kind of a stinky taste, like goat cheese and texture was a little too sticky
Thomas Keller: a light and silky cheesecake with a subtle lemon flavor
Thomas Keller’s recipe stood out for its use of mascarpone–it uses a 2:1 ratio of cream cheese to mascarpone. It also calls for a small amount of heavy cream, egg yolks in addition to whole eggs and both fresh lemon juice and zest. The recipe is quite straightforward, but it does call for the dreaded water bath (and a one hour bake at 325 until golden brown, then a full cooling in the water bath).
While I mentally grumbled about using mascarpone in a cheesecake recipe, this recipe was notably creamier and softer than many others–almost custard-like. The zing of lemon provided a nice complexity of flavor (though my lemon haters did NOT enjoy this). I also loved the short ratio of cheesecake to crust AND the water bath kept this cheesecake from cracking! Despite the priciness of the mascarpone, because this recipe calls for what feels like a reasonable amount of dairy (16 oz of cream cheese + 8 oz of mascarpone), this is the recipe I’m most likely to revisit. (And also because the flavor and texture was tops for me.) This is a relatively delicate cheesecake that is for soft cheesecake lovers!
- One of the favs for sure. Could eat a lot of this cheesecake, not super heavy in taste and super wonderful balance between crust and cheesecake. Beautiful!!!!
- Tasted like a frosting and the texture was light – kind of reminded me of whipped cream with mascarpone. Enjoyed it and the crust had this super great buttery flavory.
- Definitely the most citrus flavor so far. Texture is creamy but very thick. Crust was pretty soft, not my favorite. Highly rated on flavor but a little too thick for me
- This cheesecake seemed to be slightly more yellow compared to others. I liked the lighter texture it brought and the crust had a good flavor. The lemon is too noticeable for my preferences and a little more salt would keep the richness at bay.
- I did not like the lemon forward taste. While the texture was not completely firm/cake-like, it was definitely missing the creaminess I’d expect
Sally’s Baking Addiction: a classic, tangy cheesecake with a very smooth and creamy texture
Sally’s recipe is one I categorized as “traditional” with a simple ingredient list of just cream cheese, sour cream, sugar, eggs, vanilla and lemon juice. It’s very similar to My Recipes, but with more sour cream and fewer eggs, so I was curious to see the differences. This recipe does call for a water bath, and doesn’t call for any funky temperature changes–just a set bake at 350 for a little over an hour before cooling the cheesecake in the water bath for an hour.
This recipe kept its promise with an extremely smooth, creamy texture and a solid, classic graham cracker crust. The texture hit right in the middle–firmer and slightly denser than NYT and Thomas Keller, but softer than Pretty Simple Sweet. Personally, I found this cheesecake a little too tangy but many others enjoyed the tang. This feels like the ultimate classic cheesecake and I can see why it’s so popular!
- My clear standout! Just a well-balanced cheesecake with an ideal texture
- This has a more tart flavor, which I feel is more my cheesecake style but I prefer the more custardy/eggy flavor of [Philadelphia]
- Had a pronounced rich, slightly tart flavor and creamy texture that reminds me of a Japanese cheesecake. Good crust with just enough crunch.
- The filling was more dense and less sweet than the others. Much more pronounced cream cheese tang but the crust was sweet and delicious which really made it taste amazing.
- Flavor is wonderful and creamy; texture could be a little firmer
- Very strong cream cheese flavor, very tangy. Probably too much like straight cream cheese for my preference. Texture is fluffy and smooth. Kind of tastes like cream cheese frosting, actually.
My Recipes: a balanced, creamy, classic cheesecake with a light lemon flavor and a soft, cinnamon-spiked crust
As the winner of The Kitchn’s cheesecake bake off, this Cheesecake Factory copycat recipe is a surprisingly basic recipe. Like Sally’s Baking Addiction, this recipe was also categorized in the “traditional” category as it barely riffs off Philadelphia’s core recipe by adding sour cream, a little more sugar, egg and vanilla. This does use a water bath and a high-to-low bake temp method. Interestingly, it calls for simply freezing the crust while you make the filling mixture (rather than par-baking the crust as most others call for). (Note: I omitted the sour cream topping for consistency with the other cheesecakes.)
With less sour cream than Sally’s Baking Addiction, this recipe definitely had less noticeable tang but somehow tasted more like straight cream cheese to me. It had a similar texture to Sally’s Baking Addiction (i.e. firmer than Thomas Keller) with smooth and creamy filling with an ever-so-slight graininess and sticky texture that coated my mouth. The crust did feel minorly soggy in parts, but wasn’t nearly as off-putting as I expected for a non par-baked crust. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the cinnamon notes in the crust, but I was in the minority in that opinion. Overall, many commented that this felt like a classic cheesecake that provided a good balance of tang, salt and creaminess.
- I loved the hints of cinnamon in the crust and the filling was super creamy. Initially the tang was a liiiittle strong but kind of perfect when eaten with the crust?? Texture was amazing though.
- I think this one had a little more salt and it really brought out the flavor in a nice way. Crust was balanced and sturdy. Texture is creamy and smooth. Really nice one.
- Slightly tart and sweetness level was good. Crust is good but wish there was a bit more. This tasted like a classic cheesecake that I would expect when wanting cheesecake
- This was the perfect texture for the cake part, I like the taste too. It reminded me of a store-bought NY cheesecake. Crust was tasty but also a little too moist
- This one tastes the most like a store bought cheesecake I think because it’s drier than the others and more tangy?
Philadelphia: a thick, dense, slightly grainy and not-too-sweet cheesecake with a delicately crunchy crust
I almost nixed this recipe from the bake off based on Jesse’s review (certainly not bad, but not worth making again), but ultimately decided to include it as the control. With just 4 ingredients (cream cheese, sugar, eggs and vanilla), no water bath, and a one hour bake time at 325, this is an absolute breeze to throw together.
No one was more surprised than me that I actually loved this cheesecake! (Which perhaps tells you something about my palate for cheesecake.) The thicker, slightly denser texture is once again firmer than NYT and Thomas Keller–smooth, but a little grainier and drier in a way that I strangely liked. There was a distinct lack of tang in this cheesecake, which I also liked–the flavor was perhaps slightly eggier and not overly sweet. With a solid, buttery graham crust, this one felt very classic to me–one that I could eat a lot of!
- This is a quintessential cheesecake. Classic flavor and super smooth. The crust is nice and toasty which is a nice touch!
- Flavor is so great. Slightly grainy but I don’t even care
- Nice density and creaminess. Middle of the road tang, decent crust flavor and texture but this cheesecake was fine. Not great, not bad but could be better.
- Eggy, crumbly, drier, less sweet. I liked the flavor, but the texture was meh because I’m partial to smooth
- This flavor is mildly tangy but the texture is not as smooth as I’d prefer. Crust is buttery and tasty.
- Crust had a nice delicate crunch. Flavor was a little muted and texture was more dry than creamy. Solid but not outstanding
Cooking Classy: balanced tang and creaminess on top of a buttery crust
Jacqueline’s recipe won the lemon poppy seed muffin bake off, and with these credentials, I was curious to try her highly recommended cheesecake. This was the only recipe to use both sour cream and heavy cream in addition to cream cheese. It’s similar to Pretty Simple Sweet with the addition of sour cream (and no thickener) and also similar to my Recipes but with additional heavy cream and less egg. With just a 6-ingredient filling, this recipe called for a water bath and cooling in the oven for one hour.
Even though this recipe had almost as much sour cream as Sally’s recipe, I found this flavor quite mild compared to the sharp tang of Sally’s. I think the added richness from the heavy cream helps balance the tang with the creaminess from the rest of the cheesecake. Flavored only with vanilla, I think this one was a more general crowdpleaser as it didn’t have any divisive lemon in it. It did have a slight stick-to-your-mouth quality that I didn’t love but the crust was AMAZING.
- Flavor is immaculate, crumb was a little too crumby for my taste
- This. This is rich but smooth, my kind of sweet talking cheesecake lover. The crust was still too soft for my personal liking, but the flavor of the graham cracker came out as it was a much thicker base so I’ll give it a pass. Loved it!
- Super similar to [Sally’s Baking Addiction]…maybe more vanilla-y and less tang though. Super rich and creamy without being too dense and fatty
- More mild flavor than [Sally’s Baking Addiction], but sort of sour. much better flavor and texture
- I really enjoyed this one. The texture still had the richness of a typical cheesecake but definitely had a lighter mouthfeel. I liked the level of tanginess. I loved the crust flavor but wanted a little more texture from it, was a little too soft.
- Very classic cheesecake, super creamy and smooth. Texture is a bit thick and coats the mouth
Cook’s Illustrated: a light, slightly eggy, creamy-textured cheesecake
Cook’s Illustrated’s recipe stood out principally for its baking technique. They reverse the traditional New York cheesecake method by baking the cheesecake for 3 hours at a low temperature before finishing it at a high temperature to get a distinctive browned top. They also use a hybrid graham cracker/shortbread crust for both a classic flavor and additional structure. The filling is made up of mostly cream cheese, some sour cream, and some egg yolks in addition to whole eggs.
While I was not a fan of the overall bake time (who wants to sit around for 3 hours waiting for this to bake??), it did yield a very good, creamy texture that did not crack at all on top! The texture felt very “clean” with a slightly looser, eggier texture. It felt much lighter than Philadelphia’s with more of a softer, melt-in-your-mouth texture. Texturally, it felt similar to NYT without sticking to your mouth as much. With a caramelized, flavorful crust, this was one of my favorites and a clear crowd favorite!
- This was our overall favorite. There was a caramel or flan-like flavor in the cheesecake that we loved. The crust was the perfect consistency, and was a great buttery and slightly salty counterbalance to the sweet cheesecake.
- I was into the lightness of this texture and the slight tang of the cheesecake. Crust was the best part of this one for me!
- This tastes like flan! So good. The crust is a bit dark in flavor. The texture is creamy. Overall, saved the best for last
- I admit that I like the flavor of an eggy cheesecake, so this flavor was nice. I think this was one of the best crusts. A delicious quiche
- I love the caramelized top and buttery crust. While the crust was on the sweeter side, it worked well with the rest of the cheesecake. The flavor and texture of the cake was perfect
- I knew the crust on this one would be incredible before I took a bite. The filling reminded me of an egg bite – too fluffy, and not the texture I want in a standard cheesecake. If I was on board with that, this would be a knock out. I am going to go dream about how to combine this crust with a different filling (from [Cooking Classy]!!!)
Best Cheesecake Recommendations
Erika’s picks: Thomas Keller, New York Times
Best classic cheesecake: Cooking Classy, Philadelphia, Sally’s Baking Addiction, My Recipes
Best creamy cheesecake: Thomas Keller, New York Times, Cook’s Illustrated
Best unorthodox cheesecake: Bravetart
Best easy cheesecake: Philadelphia
I am perpetually afraid of leakage so I bake my cheesecakes low and slow, directly OVER a hot water bath rather than submerged and I promise you, I never get cracks.
I agree that the aluminum foil wrap often leads to a leak and soggy crust. A few years ago I started using crockpot liner bags instead around the spring form pan and they work like a charm at preventing leaks!