How to Make the Best No-Bake Cheesecake

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik. Video: Serious Eats Video.]

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I'm all about cheesecake in any form, whether it's Japanese-style and cotton soft or a towering slab like they serve in New York; I'd even take a scoop of cheesecake ice cream, with graham cracker bits mixed right in. So when a friend asked if I looked down on "no-bake" cheesecake, my answer was a resounding, "Hell no!"

Sure, there are times I want a classic cheesecake, but there are also times at the height of summer when you couldn't pay me to fire up the oven. Yet the middle of summer is just when I could really go for a slice of cheesecake, all tangy and cool and loaded with fresh fruit.

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Beyond keeping my oven off and the temperature down, no-bake cheesecake is eggless, which gives it a super clean flavor profile—freed from the custardy yolks, the creamy dairy notes really stand out. That simplicity makes no-bake cheesecake an excellent vehicle for fresh fruit, where it takes on a real berries and cream vibe.

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Most no-bake cheesecake recipes either incorporate gelatin for body, which can quickly veer into a weirdly panna cotta-like territory, or else fall back on what I call the Key lime pie method. As you might expect, this technique relies on a chemical reaction between citrus juice and sweetened condensed milk to thicken the filling. It's a great, cheesecakey twist on Key lime pie, but far too citrusy and acidic to scratch the itch when I'm craving cheesecake.

So when I'm taking a no-bake approach, I prefer a method that puts cream cheese center stage. But before diving into the details, let's talk crust. Obviously, graham crackers are a classic choice, but having just come off a month of recipe testing for homemade Biscoff, I've gotta say: they make a killer crust.

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Especially in no-bake form, where crumb crusts lack the nutty, toasty flavors that develop in the oven, Biscoff cookies (whether store bought or homemade) add a welcome depth of flavor. By comparison, an unbaked graham cracker crust tastes a little blah, though I'm willing to acknowledge that may simply be a personal preference.

Wherever you land on the cookie/cracker divide, making the crust is a straightforward affair: melt some butter, mix in the crumbs, and season to taste with a pinch of salt.

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From there, scatter the moistened crumbs in a 9-inch pie plate or quiche pan, and press into an even layer with a drinking glass, measuring cup, or some type of flat tool. Since there will be no baking to bind the crumbs together, it's important to really compress them to avoid, well, a crummy crust.

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Pop the crust in the fridge (if you like, it can be wrapped in plastic and held for a few days in advance), then start on the filling. Full disclosure: My recipe is embarrassingly simple. I beat up a pound of cream cheese with about five ounces of sugar, a squeeze of lemon juice, a drop of vanilla, and a pinch of kosher salt in a stand mixer. Once everything's nice and creamy, I switch to a whisk attachment and whip in twelve ounces of cream.

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At first, the mixture will look runny and soft, but after a few minutes of aeration it will begin to thicken.

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Transfer the whipped cream cheese into the prepared crust, and spread it out in an even layer. It can be near impossible to scrape it into a perfectly smooth finish, so I embrace a more casual presentation with lots of messy swoops and swirls.

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And really, messy can be very beautiful indeed.

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No-bake cheesecakes may not need an oven, but they do need a refrigerator and several hours to chill before serving. When the filling is still above 50°F, it's soft, loose, and airy, something like a mousse, with a crust that crumbles a bit more readily.

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No-Bake Cheesecake after 2 hours of refrigeration.

But given time to chill all the way down to 40°F, which takes about 6 hours, the filling becomes firm and dense, much more like a "real" cheesecake and far easier to slice. During that time, the filling will lend some of its moisture to the crust, making it considerably less crumbly.

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No-Bake Cheesecake after 6 hours of refrigeration.

So if you're just itching for a bite of something sweet on a lazy afternoon, it's okay to rush things a little, but if you'd like to cut pretty slices for a dinner party you've got to give a no-bake cheesecake plenty of time. And trust me, it's well worth the wait; compared to the airy texture it has early on, I vasty prefer the velvety density that develops only after several hours of refrigeration.

That gives no-bake cheesecake an edge as a make-ahead dessert, since you can whip it up a day or two in advance. I think it's best within the first 36 hours, as its brightness will start to dull over time, but that's admittedly a pastry chef's pickiness talking. I've been assured by my family and co-workers that their test cheesecakes were quite tasty even a week after I dropped them off.

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But don't count on keeping this dessert around for long; it's light, fresh, tangy, and cold, refreshing on a summer day when other desserts can seem too heavy or rich. So when you're ready to kick back and keep cool, remember that cheesecake is beautiful in any form.