And it all starts with cold ingredients.

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The holidays call for an especially decadent dessert, and cheesecake is at the top of our list. We often make this rich, creamy treat for very special occasions—Thanksgiving and Christmas among our favorites. Since this dessert is made ahead of time and chills in the fridge, it frees up valuable oven space for the rest of your holiday meal.

Over the years, we've come up with countless flavor spins on this classic dessert, from our Dreamy Lemon Cheesecake to Butter Pecan Cheesecake. Whether you stick to the tried-and-true or try something out of the box (like this Gingerbread Cheesecake with Lemon-Ginger Glaze), we have a few tips to ensure that your cheesecake turns out picture-perfect every time. Because the last thing you want is to spend hours making a cheesecake only for it to crack on top.

With its long bake time and notoriously finicky water bath, cheesecake can be difficult to master. Avoid these few common mistakes that will ruin your holiday cheesecake.

Raspberry-Lemon Cheesecake
Credit: Photographer: Jennifer Causey Food Stylist: Melissa Gray Prop Stylist: Heather Chadduck Hillegas

Using Unsoftened Cream Cheese

When you're baking cookies, you set butter out to soften. It's just what you do. Similarly, when you're making a cheesecake, allow plenty of time for your cream cheese to soften. Using cream cheese that has not had time to fully soften will result in clumps of cream cheese suspended in the batter.

Using Cold Eggs

When preparing to bake a cheesecake, most bakers know to set the cream cheese out to soften—but when it comes to cheesecake, setting your eggs out to come to room temperature is just as important. You'll want all of your ingredients to be at room temperature—cream cheese, sour cream, milk, eggs, you name it. "This not only ensures that a chilled ingredient will not "shock" a warmer ingredient, but that all ingredients will blend into a velvety smooth, clump-free batter," writes Southern Living Food Editor Patricia York.

Under-Mixing the Cream Cheese

When learning about making cheesecake, one of the first pieces of advice you might hear is not to over-mix the cheesecake. And while that is partly true (more on this below), it's more accurate to think about mixing your cheesecake batter in two stages: Beating the cream cheese base, then adding the additional ingredients (flour, sugar, eggs, and any flavor mix-ins).

During the first stage, you're often simply beating the cream cheese until it's nice and smooth. At this point, there is little danger of over-mixing—beating the cream cheese well results in a smooth, silky batter. If you under-mix during this stage, you might have chunks of cream cheese suspended throughout your cheesecake. Beat the cream cheese in a large bowl on medium-high speed until it's smooth, light, and fluffy, around 4 to 5 minutes; be sure to stop to scrape down sides of bowl as needed. 

Over-Mixing After Adding Flour and Eggs

Once your cream cheese is nice and smooth, it's time to add the remaining ingredients—typically sugar, flour, and eggs. At this stage, you'll want to keep the mixing to a minimum. Over-mixing here may result in the cheesecake rising, then falling in the oven, causing a cracked surface. Mix until all the ingredients are just combined.

Not Using a Water Bath

Baking your cheesecake in a water bath helps the cheesecake cook through slowly and evenly. This technique involves placing the cheesecake pan on a larger roasting pan, then pouring boiling water in the larger pan to surround the cheesecake. Rather than exposing the cheesecake directly to the harsh heat of the oven, a water bath provides a barrier that helps to evenly distribute the heat. "The water bath protects the cheesecake from uneven oven heat while it bakes so that the filling can set up slowly and evenly with little risk of rubbery edges, dark top, or sunken center," writes Sheri Castle for Southern Living. Using a water bath may seem like extra trouble, but it's worth it for a moist, soft, and well-set cheesecake. Learn how to make a water bath here.