When you think “cheesecake,” there’s a good chance you picture some platonic ideal of a creamy, smooth, ivory dessert.
But there are actually several different types of cheesecake, and while some would be content to lump them into New York cheesecake and everything else, we like to get more detailed. (Would you expect any less?)
This dessert is fantastic in all its forms, for sure, but just saying “cheesecake” doesn’t tell you exactly what you’ll get.
A silky-smooth, rich, cream cheese-based dessert is most likely, but even then, the specifics can vary. What kind of crust will it have, if any? What kind of topping? What makes it a New York cheesecake? And what is Japanese-style cheesecake?
Rest assured, we’ve got answers!
Types of cheesecake
Below, a breakdown of the most common cheesecake types in all their glory.
New York-style cheesecake
Since it’s probably the most popular and beloved kind of cheesecake (at least by name), let’s start with New York cheesecake. In general, New York cheesecake is ultra-dense and rich, firm yet creamy, and relies on lots of cream cheese for tang and texture, bolstered by heavy cream, eggs, and sugar.
Some New York cheesecakes use sour cream instead of heavy cream, either incorporated into the filling or added in a distinct (lightly sweetened) layer on top. Recipes with sour cream incorporated into the filling tend to freeze and thaw better than those with heavy cream.
Purists shun any added flavorings, but you’ll often find New York cheesecakes topped with strawberries or other fruit.
As for where the delicious NYC classic came from, Eastern European Jewish immigrants brought the dessert to America. That’s why it’s sometimes also known as Jewish cheesecake, and is often found in Jewish bakeries and delis.
Lots of cheesecakes that purport to be “New York-style” are actually not.
They’re lighter, fluffier, shorter, sweeter, and often flavored with all manner of different ingredients (like chocolate to fruit), not to mention topped with sauces, candies, and other garnishes. Think The Cheesecake Factory and you get the idea.
There’s nothing wrong with these cakes (in fact, they’re delicious!) and they do have a lot in common with New York-style. For instance, they’re both baked in spring-form pans, usually in a water bath.
This method yields puffier, more deeply browned edges and involves starting in a 500°F oven before dropping the temperature dramatically. Because there’s no steam from a water bath and because not all ovens hold heat as long or as evenly as others, you might get cracks and fissures if you go this route.
Both styles most often have a graham cracker or cookie crumb crust, although sometimes there’s a thin sponge cake base instead. But if you call any old cheesecake “New York” cheesecake, you’re playing fast and loose with culinary definitions, and potentially with hearts (and stomachs) too.
As the name implies, this kind of cheesecake doesn’t require any cooking, just mixing and chilling. It’s perfect for summer days when you’re really not feeling the leave-your-oven-on-for-an-hour process of regular cheesecake.
No-bake cheesecake is much more homogenous in texture and is utterly smooth — as long as you allow your cream cheese to fully soften and properly blend it with the other ingredients. Always take the time for these steps, unless you want tiny little cheese lumps in your filling.
By contrast, baked cheesecakes tend to be creamier toward their centers and bottoms with firmer tops, and a drier, slightly puffy, almost grainy texture around the edges.
Another defining feature of no-bake cheesecakes (for obvious reasons) is the lack of eggs.
Their cream cheese filling is often stabilized with gelatin, but there are also versions that use condensed milk instead, or even whipped cream or sour cream, for a far softer and more delicate result. These don’t hold up at room temperature as long as baked cheesecakes, which is good to know if you plan to travel with one.
Ricotta (and other non-cream cheese) cheesecake
“Cheese” is right there in the name — so it’s not surprising there’s plenty of flexibility when it comes to which cheese to use in your cake.
Mascarpone in cheesecakes yields a result similar to cream cheese, but the more distinct Italian take uses ricotta (as did ancient Roman recipes for cheesecake, which also included honey and, often, bay leaves). Ricotta cheesecakes are drier and a bit less creamy, even a little granular.
When it comes to ricotta, there’s no mass-produced analogue to the bricks of Philadelphia cream cheese that are so ideal for “regular” (and New York-style) cheesecakes.
If you use fresh ricotta, the taste and texture of the dessert will be far better than if you use any store-bought brand. Luckily, making homemade ricotta is relatively easy, and you only need to plan a day ahead.
There are numerous other variations on cheesecake that use similar soft, farmer’s style cheese like German quark and even cottage cheese. Portuguese queijadas are individual cupcake-sized tarts with deeply caramelized tops and a filling made of requeijão, a runny ricotta-type cheese.
Japanese “cotton” cheesecake
Japanese cheesecake isn’t called “cotton” for nothing.
It’s incredibly light and airy, like an edible cloud, thanks to lofty whipped egg whites folded into the batter. It has no crust, letting its eggy essence take center stage.
Sometimes known as soufflé cheesecake, “angel food cheesecake” would also be an accurate moniker.
Interestingly, Japanese cheesecake shares some properties with German cheesecake, which also uses whipped egg whites in the batter. It’s much fluffier though, and tastes more like American cheesecake, since it uses our favorite cream cheese.
Vegans and other non-dairy folks can still enjoy a delicious cheesecake-esque dessert as well, usually made from softened, soaked cashews blended with coconut milk.
Sometimes these so-called cheesecakes are made with silken tofu instead, or with store-bought vegan cream cheese substitutes. The addition of citrus can help evoke the tang of regular cheesecakes, but this style also takes well to other flavors, and various styles of crust.
If you want to throw your guests a curveball, try serving a savory cheesecake!
It makes a lovely first course during a sit-down dinner or a great addition to a buffet or appetizer-style party spread (sort of a more refined version of the beloved cheese ball). It works at brunch, too. Our recipe is made in an Instant Pot, but you can bake savory cheesecakes in your oven as well.
Other ways to use cheesecake
Now that we’ve covered overarching styles of cheesecake, let’s look at a few other ways cheesecakes can be changed up.
Most cheesecakes do have a crust, most often an easy press-in mixture of ground graham cracker or cookie crumbs (like Nilla Wafers or Oreos).
New York style cheesecakes sometimes have a more distinct shortbread-esque crust, and Junior’s (possibly the most famous cheesecake joint in NYC) is known for their sponge cake crust. They even offer a brilliant brownie crust!
Really, though, a crust can be made of almost anything, from crushed biscotti to finely ground nuts, with a bit of butter or other fat to hold it together during a brief pre-bake. Or you can skip it entirely.
Should cheesecake have toppings? That’s a matter of some debate.
If it’s New York style, then maybe a layer of sweetened sour cream or red fruit (like strawberry, cherry, or raspberry preserves), but if you’re a non-traditionalist, then just as with the crust, you can go pretty crazy with what’s on top.
Try any kind of fresh fruit or fruit preserves, caramel or chocolate sauces or syrups, whipped cream, chopped candy bars, or even canned pie filling… all have found their place atop many a cheesecake. They’re also handy for disguising cracks!
Unless you want to start a fight, don’t call any flavored cheesecake New York-style. Those should taste mostly of the main ingredient (cream cheese). But once you start dabbling in other styles of cheesecake, you can go wild with mix-ins like fruit, chocolate chips, canned pumpkin, spices, liqueurs, and flavored extracts.
We wouldn’t leave you hanging without some starter recipes! Try any of these dreamy cheesecakes for your next dessert adventure.