The good news and the bad news: It’s certainly possible to make cheesecake without a water bath. But it’s less possible to bake an excellent cheesecake without one.
Big, showstopper cheesecakes baked without a water bath are more likely to overbake, which will give them a curdled texture, cracks in the surface, and lopsided tops. Unless you prefer your cheesecake that way, why let a water bath be the one thing between you and perfection?
On the other hand, smaller or shallow cheesecakes are not quite as finicky as large and deep ones, because they’re not baked as long.
The rule of thumb: the more filling in the pan, the more useful a water bath is. Cheesecakes less than 6 inches in diameter, or with a depth under 2 inches, should be okay.
WHY BOTHER WITH A WATER BATH AT ALL?
Technically, cheesecake is not cake. It’s a custard on a graham cracker crust. Custards do best when you cook them low and slow, which a water bath helps to achieve. A water bath goes a long way in preserving the rich and smooth texture of a baked custard.
WHAT IS A WATER BATH, ANYWAY?
A water bath is a pan of heated water that surrounds the pan with your cheesecake. It acts as a buffer for heat so your custard bakes gently and evenly. If you want to be cheffy about it you can call a water bath a bain-marie.
The pan you use for your water bath needs to be bigger than the springform pan for your cheesecake. Ideally, you want a space of 1 inch to 1-1/2 inches between the two pans—snug but not tight. It also needs to hold enough water to come halfway up the side of the springform pan.
BUT WATER BATHS ARE A PAIN!
I know! Think of it this way: A cheesecake is a lot of work. So why skip one step that will ensure the best result?
WHAT’S THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN?
There was only one way to find out. I baked two pans of this seriously-totally-amazing Perfect Cheesecake recipe side-by-side: one in a water bath, one not. It’s a very substantial recipe, calling for two pounds of cream cheese per cheesecake.
As you can see in the photo above, the cheesecake baked in the water bath (left) had a level surface, and some light but attractive browning around the outer edge. The cheesecake baked with no water bath (right) puffed up, almost like a souffle, and then collapsed, making the outer edges higher than the center. It also browned more.
Both cheesecakes were delicious, but the cheesecake that had a water bath looked more professional and had a silkier texture.
Also, the water-bath-free cheesecake baked faster. This makes sense, because the water bath’s purpose is to ensure gentle, evenly distributed heat.
WANT WATER BATH HACKS? WE HAVE THEM!
- Make sure the water is boiling when you add it to the pan. Even very hot tap water will take a while to heat up, thereby prolonging your baking time and potentially causing uneven baking.
- Boil the water in a kettle, if you have one. It’s a lot easier to pour the boiling water into the pan without spilling it if you are pouring from a kettle.
- For the water bath, use a 12” or 14” round cake pan that’s at least 2” tall, or a rectangular roasting pan.
- If you don’t own a large round cake pan, or a rectangular roasting pan you might need to improvise. An 8” or 9” round springform pan (the most common size) won’t fit in a 9” x 13” pan. You can buy a large foil pan to use as a water bath just make sure to set it on a rigid baking sheet to support all that weight.
DO YOU HAVE TO WRAP YOUR PAN IN FOIL?
Springform pans aren’t water-tight, and if water from your water bath penetrates your cheesecake, it’ll be soggy and waterlogged. Bummer! That’s why so many cheesecake recipes (including our own) call for wrapping the bottom of the springform pan in multiple layers of foil.
But here’s a tip: If you happen to have oven bags or slow cooker bags, you can use one of those instead of foil. It’s a little easier to wrangle. Put the pan (without its filling) in the bag, then roll or fold over the excess plastic and tie it in a snug knot on the side of the pan (almost like you’d knot a t-shirt on the side to make it more form-fitting). Then add the filling, settle the cheesecake into the water bath, and bake.
STILL NOT SOLD? SKIP THE WATER BATH!
Not everyone is a water bath person. We still got your back!
Simply Recipes contributor Cindy Rahe has actually forgone water baths entirely, which she talks about in this recipe for Lemon Cheesecake. Instead, she places a 9×13-inch baking dish full of boiling water on a rack below the cheesecake while it bakes.
While this method doesn’t have quite the 100% guarantee as a traditional water bath method, it’s a good compromise and worth trying if you are water-bath-adverse. Do still wrap the pan in a layer of foil to prevent it from browning too much, and also keep a close watch on the cheesecake while it’s in the oven to make sure it doesn’t over-bake.
Also, check for doneness early. A fully baked cheesecake will pull away a bit from the sides of the pan. When you nudge the pan gently, the cheesecake filling might jiggle in a springy fashion like a Jell-O mold, but it won’t slosh around all wavy-like. And if you insert a table knife in the center of the filling, it should offer resistance and come out with some chunky streaks, but no runny liquid.
These Cheesecakes Don’t Need a Water bath:
- No-bake cheesecake isn’t even baked. Not only is there no water bath—there’s no oven.
- Pressure cooker cheesecake is steamed, not baked. Since steam is wet heat, the pressure cooker itself is the water bath. Easy-peasy!
- Sous vide cheesecake removes all the guesswork. Sous vide cooking, by nature, always happens in a water bath, and its temperature is precisely controlled by the sous vide machine. It’s truly set-it-and-forget-it. Plus you make it in mason jars, which everyone loves.
- Buy a good-quality cheesecake and make a homemade sauce to go with it. Your sanity trumps perfect cheesecake every time.
- You could also try oven steaming this gorgeous Lemon Cheesecake.