Tips for Cheesecake Water Baths
What is a water bath?
A water bath is a method for gently baking a cheesecake in its pan inside another pan filled with boiling water in the oven. It’s also called a bain marie. It’s used for a lot of custard preparations, such as flan and crème brulee. Cheesecake is essentially a custard (not a cake!) since it’s so rich with dairy and eggs.
Why is it so important to bake cheesecake in a water bath?
The number one key to perfectly smooth, luscious, and creamy cheesecake that bakes evenly and without cracks? Low and gentle heat!
A water bath is the best way to ensure that kind of baking environment. Even when you set your oven to 325° to bake a cheesecake, the temperature inside the water bath generally won’t exceed 200°F.
This low and gentle heat evens out the baking so that the outside of the cheesecake doesn’t become tough, rubbery, burnt, or curdled before the inside can finish baking.
You can achieve a similar effect by baking for a long time at a really low oven temperature, but who has the time for that? Additionally, older ovens aren’t reliable at maintaining an accurately low temperature.
A water bath is truly the best way to bake a flawless cheesecake. Just take a look below at what a difference a water bath makes.
Cheesecake water bath vs. cheesecake without water bath:
When you need a cheesecake water bath:
Any full-size cheesecake recipe. Especially classic cheesecake, or any recipe when you really don’t want cracks.
When you don’t need a water bath:
You don’t need one for cheesecake bars, mini cheesecakes, and of course no-bake cheesecake recipes. Bars and mini cheesecakes are thinner than a normal cheesecake, so they cook more evenly.
How to bake in a water bath when the recipe doesn’t call for one:
If the recipe doesn’t call for a water bath, you don’t need to use one.
However, if you want all of the amazing benefits listed above, then simply prepare the water bath as directed down below. Since the water bath cooks more gently, you’ll likely need to increase the baking time. Generally you can bake at 325°F for about 1 hour 15 minutes, depending on the volume of cheesecake batter.
What you need for a water bath:
- A high-quality springform pan
Even the best springform pans aren’t truly “leakproof,” no matter what their packaging claims. However, it’s important to have one that’s heavy duty and high quality for durability and to avoid rusting.
- Larger baking pan, cake pan, sauté pan, or roasting pan
This is the water bath pan so it must fit the springform pan inside. You can also place a large disposable foil pan on top of a rimmed sheet pan for the water bath. Ideally you want something that’s just a couple inches larger than the springform pan.
If you don’t have a pan big enough, I’ve listed some alternative options at the bottom of this article. Just note they won’t be quite as good as a true water bath.
- Wide heavy duty aluminum foil
This helps prevent leaks as you’ll see below. I usually buy this from Costco. It’s important for it to be wider than the diameter of the springform pan so water doesn’t seep through the seams and cracks of the foil.
- Heat safe oven bag or slow cooker bag
This is an optional bonus. Wrapping the springform pan in a heat safe oven bag really helps ensure no water seeps in! Much more foolproof than foil. I like to use BOTH to truly seal off the water.
- Boiling water
A kettle with a spout is the best way to quickly boil water and safely pour it into the roasting pan without splashing any in the cheesecake batter.
How to prevent a water bath from leaking?
Using a high quality springform pan, wide heavy duty aluminum foil, and an oven bag is the best way to all but guarantee you won’t have any leaks!
Alternatives for cheesecake water bath:
1. Low heat & slow baking time
Since the effect of the water bath is to cook the cheesecake custard filling slowly and gently, an easy alternative is to bake the cheesecake without the water bath but in a 275°F for 1 hour 45 minutes. This technique can be a bit tricky and not always a guarantee against cracks if your oven is older, as shown in the comparison below:
On the left is my Classic Cheesecake recipe baked with a water bath. No cracks. On the right is my Pumpkin Cheesecake recipe baked low and slow. You can see a crack still formed. What’s interesting is when I use this method in my home oven with my less than 5 year old electric oven, the crack is usually pretty minimal.
However, when I used this method at my photographer’s house with her older oven the crack was more pronounced. So if your oven is old and doesn’t maintain a low temperature consistently and accurately, this may not be the best method for you. However, if you have a newer or more accurate oven then this may be perfect for you!
2. Tray of water on the bottom oven rack (beneath springform pan)
This is perfect for those of you who don’t have a large enough pan to act as the water bath vehicle. OR, if you don’t have heavy duty aluminum foil or oven bags and are worried about water leaking in.
Simply place a tray of boiling hot water on the bottom rack of your oven, beneath the middle rack where your springform pan bakes.
Even though you’re not baking the springform pan directly in water with this method, it’s still a good idea to wrap the pan in foil to help shield it from the oven’s heat. You can even use insulated cake strips to protect it!