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.
Cheesecake is fantastic in all its many forms, for sure, but the fact that there are so many can be a little tricky—just saying “cheesecake” doesn’t tell you exactly what you’re going to 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!
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 summary, 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.
Eastern European Jewish immigrants brought the dessert to America, so it’s no surprise that’s it’s sometimes also known as Jewish cheesecake, and often found in Jewish bakeries and delis.
Lots of cheesecakes that purport to be “New York style” are not really; they’re lighter, fluffier, shorter, sweeter, and often flavored with all manner of different ingredients, from chocolate to fruit, not to mention topped with all sorts of sauces, candies, and other garnishes. Think The Cheesecake Factory and you get the idea.
There’s nothing wrong with these at all, 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 (although a riskier method that yields puffier, more deeply browned edges involves starting in a 500 degree 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 much more homogenous in texture, utterly smooth (as long as you allow your cream cheese to fully soften and properly bend it with the other ingredients, which you should always do, no matter what kind you’re making, 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 difference and 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
Mascarpone in cheesecakes yields a result quite 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-soft 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. 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, you can serve a savory cheesecake instead! 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. The one above is made in an Instant Pot, but you can bake savory cheesecakes in your oven as well.
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 is known for their sponge cake crust (and even offers a brilliant brownie crust). But really, it 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? 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. Any kind of fresh fruit or fruit preserves; chocolate or caramel sauces or syrups; whipped cream; chopped candy bars; 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, just for starters.