Helpful Cheesecake Tips   

What does it take to make a great cheesecake? Throughout the years, I have refined my involvement in this art, having come a long way since the 1980's, when I started off with a recipe out of a book from the American Heart Association. I loved cheesecake, but I also had a quest to cut down the fat while still maintaining an enjoyable taste. This has not always been easy. It was because of my experimenting with recipes and making so many adjustments that I more or less came up with the word "prototype" in regard to my cheesecake baking projects.

I am happy to provide helpful information here, which goes into more detail about how my cheesecakes are done. Included are specific methods for some steps of the cheesecake making process, as well as recommended ingredients.

The Big Cheese

Let's start with the primary ingredient for cheesecakes in general. Traditional ones have often used cream cheese, but I wanted to find a suitable alternative that had less fat and furthermore was not compromised with artificial ingredients. Taste, of course, was still important as well. In my earlier days, I started off with lowfat cottage cheese, my being led to this one by the aforementioned American Heart Association cookbook. For a completely smooth texture, however, I would generally use a blender to beat out the curds.

In more recent times, I have been making extensive use of another kind of ingredient hardly found in stores. This ingredient is yogurt cheese (I was led to this one largely by another recipe book, Cooking Without Fat by George Mateljan, founder of Health Valley Foods). Regular yogurt has easily been available in supermarkets, which in more recent times have been carrying a thicker version, often called Greek yogurt. Yogurt cheese seems somewhat like a "close cousin" to it, but there is an important difference. Yogurt cheese is even thicker than Greek yogurt.

If the more common kind of yogurt (i.e., regular) is strained for perhaps an hour or two (but this can also depend on the amount of the yogurt and the size of the strainer), one ends up with, as far as I know, Greek yogurt. But what if the yogurt were to be strained much longer than that? How about—at least—24 hours? The result would be a yogurt with a more solid texture somewhat resembling cream cheese. This result is yogurt cheese.

More specifically, how is all this done? First, you need to start off with a really good yogurt, one well suited for this purpose. Do not use "just any" yogurt. The right kind needs to be chosen. I recommend a plain, nonfat, all-natural yogurt. That's a reasonable start, but some additional characteristics need to be met, and those are dependent upon the ingredients that a given yogurt contains. Let's take a deeper look into this.

There are some yogurts out there that contain thickeners. These need to be avoided, because these thickeners can hinder the straining process. Examples of thickeners include gelatin, pectin, cornstarch, arrowroot, flour and any kind of gum (e.g. locust bean, guar, xanthan). (To avoid some confusion here, I should also mention that it is common for my cheesecakes to include a thickener such as arrowroot, but that is added later in the recipe preparation—well after the yogurt straining process.)

I have not been sure about which yogurt cultures may also interfere with straining. Maybe none do. At least I have not been aware of that. On the other hand, I have felt that a particular five-culture combination works well for straining purposes. These cultures are Lactobacillus Bulgaricus, Streptococcus Thermophilus, Bifidus, Lactobacillus Acidophilus and Lactobacillus Casei. At times you may find at least some of these rather long names abbreviated in ingredient lists on yogurt containers. The private brand of yogurt from Market Basket (aka "DeMoulas"), a Massachusetts-based grocery chain—of "More For Your Dollar" fame—has been my personal favorite, but not everybody has easy access to this particular grocer. I would advise shopping carefully for a decently-straining yogurt that will work well for you. Do remember to steer clear of added thickeners.

A good set of ingredients

Once you have found a decent yogurt to work with, you will need to allow time for it to strain—no less than 24 hours—closer to 48 hours would be a plus. Whey, a yellowish liquid, is what gets strained out from the rest of the yogurt, leaving behind what becomes yogurt cheese. If you strain out too much whey, don't worry. As long as it falls into a clean container, you can always add some of it back to the cheese to get the amount or consistency that you want. The rest of the whey can be used for non-cheesecake purposes (or discarded).

Set up a straining system. For this, a large enough strainer (I like using a metal screen mesh) to hold the yogurt and a container to catch the whey are needed. Also, you will need to place inside the strainer some straining material. The yogurt gets placed on top of this. Cheesecloth and coffee filters (paper ones) are popular for such use. I personally like to use coffee filters—it is strongly recommended that the basket type be used here, not the cone type.

Ideal items for straining (click here for more detailed photo)

Carefully lay out the coffee filters within the strainer. Due to each filter being smaller than the strainer, place the filters in scattered layers such that they cover the entire "bowl" of the strainer.

Scatter the filters to cover the entire strainer

As for the topmost filter, try to get it centered as much as possible.

Center the topmost filter

Next, start spooning in the yogurt. Do not throw it "just anywhere"! Make an effort to drop the yogurt into the middle of the centered, topmost filter.

Drop the yogurt into the middle

By spooning the yogurt this way, it will more evenly push out the sides of the filters, particularly the one on top.

Good results from aiming for the middle

This method of spooning helps to prevent the yogurt from getting in between the filter layers. The ideal goal here is for all of the yogurt to rest above all of the filter papers. If the "peak" of the yogurt "pile" gets too high, use the spoon to gently push the yogurt down in the middle.

Reasonably centered yogurt

The whey should now be dripping slowly through the bottom of the straining setup. I myself have found that the drainage is slow enough and the dripping is confined enough to the bottom of the strainer (due to adequate adhesion of the liquid) that I can confidently transfer the strainer and its contents to the top of the yogurt container that I just fully scraped out.

Let whey drip into emptied container (click here for more detailed photo)

If there is any additional yogurt to be strained, add it on top of that which was spooned from the first yogurt container. Keep aiming for the middle.

Spooning in another container of yogurt (aim for middle)

As a reminder, make sure that you are using a large enough strainer to begin with.

Use a big enough strainer to contain all the yogurt

When all the yogurt is done being added to the strainer, place the entire setup in the refrigerator. If using a yogurt container to catch the whey, allow about an hour of straining time, during which close to 50% of the whey to be strained out should drip into the container below (the yogurt container should be about halfway filled if using two such containers of yogurt to begin with, or close to 3/4 filled if using three). Then carefully remove the straining assembly from the refrigerator (try not to tip it over).

Strained out whey and the resulting thicker yogurt

To prevent overflow problems with the yogurt container, empty out this recently-strained whey. Then return the straining assembly (with the strainer placed back over the container used for catching the whey) to the refrigerator. The straining at this point is now going to be much slower. Allow at least roughly 24 hours at this point. Closer to 48 hours would be even better, particularly for a large amount of yogurt (e.g., 3 quarts before straining). When all this straining is done, the resulting yogurt cheese (at least as I have found) should be close to half the weight of the yogurt that you started with. If the amount falls below your goal due to straining too long, add back to it some of the whey collected in the container at this point. Use the remaining whey for some other purpose (or discard it).

Thickened yogurt after nearly a day of straining

And there you have it! When you are ready to use this yogurt cheese (keep it refrigerated until then), carefully separate it from the coffee filters, which should be easy at this point to peel away.

Yogurt cheese! (click here for more detailed photo)

Take A Better Bath

Do you want your cheesecake to have that more "professional" touch? Then take a bath! A really good cheesecake is baked in a water-filled tub, which causes the cheesecake to bake more gently (some use the term bain marie in reference to this approach).

Useful items for a decent bath

A particular challenge is preventing the water from leaking into the cheesecake's springform pan. A popular way to prevent such leakage is to wrap the cheesecake's pan in foil before placing it into the tub. In many cases, however, some water has still gotten through the crumply foil. How can such a problem be solved?

For starters, do not wrap the foil onto the pan too soon. The pan can be greased and the crust placed inside it without the foil being put on yet. Some may consider wrapping the pan beforehand to get that step over with. But the foil then ends up being greatly disturbed. So hold off that foil until you begin to add the batter to the pan! The foil can wait until then—thus resulting in much less disturbance (and leakage risks) to it.

If you want even better protection, you could use two pieces of foil. Another consideration is using a turkey cooking bag. But I have found a product that works very nicely—pan lining paper, such as Reynolds. It features foil on one side and parchment paper on the other. It can be difficult to keep this paper folded on the springform pan, however. So I add an outer sheet of just foil (heavy duty aluminum), which not only helps to keep the pan lining paper up against the cheesecake pan's sidewall, but this foil also supplements the lining paper as an additional defender against water leaks.

Recommended wrapping materials (click here for more detailed photo)

Prepare a couple of wrapping "disks", one of foil, the other of pan lining paper (if you cannot get this paper, parchment-only paper might work).

2 disks—one foil, the other lining paper

The diameter of these disks should be (at least) large enough to cover the bottom of the springform pan and up its sidewall (or at least high enough that they are above the water line when the tub containing this pan is filled).

Disks cut to a sufficient size for the pan

You can use the cheesecake's springform pan to check the sizes of these disks, but do not wrap them onto the pan yet. First, you must grease this pan and place the crust in it. Pre-bake the crust as needed.

Once you are ready to add the batter to the pan, go ahead and carefully wrap it. Pour a little boiling water into the tub, enough to cover its bottom, but not so much that the pan without the batter is apt to float around inside the tub. Then carefully place the now-wrapped springform pan into it.

Wrapped pan in tub and awaiting batter

Next, add the batter to the pan as needed. Now that the pan has more weight to suppress floating at this point, additional water can be added to the tub as appropriate. Then place the whole tub-and-pan assembly into the oven and start baking!

Measuring Half Of An Egg

There are a number of different ways to measure half of an egg—here is one of them. Simply take a small container and weigh it. Note this container-only weight. Place the contents of one egg into it, both the white and the yolk. Then weigh the container again, this time with the egg contents included. Afterward, from this combined weight, subtract the weight of the container only. The resulting difference is the weight of the egg contents. Divide this weight by 2 (i.e., in half), and spoon this resulting amount—after thoroughly blending the white and yolk together—out of the container (i.e., until the weight left behind is that of the container plus half of the egg contents' weight). At this point, the amount spooned out is half of an egg. The other half is still in the container.

Meet The Ingredients

What specific ingredients have I been using in my cheesecakes? I have strived to go all-natural. Some of these ingredients are even organic. Shown below is a reasonable representation of what I have used.

Large sampling of ingredients used (click here for more detailed photo)

Some of the ingredients shown here might be an extra challenge to get. As long as all-natural is preferred, these can include lemon juice and maple flavoring, but I was able to find both of these at Whole Foods Market (for the lemon juice to be organic was a plus). Another ingredient that may cause concern is arrowroot, because some stores may only carry a small bottle of it (e.g., McCormick) at a high cost. Try looking around instead for Bob's Red Mill, which offers a good-sized bag of arrowroot at a small fraction of the per-ounce cost (I found this brand at Whole Foods and some Market Basket locations).

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