Cream cheese and eggs. The first thing you must do is set out your cream cheese to soften! It must be room temperature when you beat it, or you will have lumps. Let it sit on the counter at room temperature for at least an hour or two, or up to 4 hours. You can speed it up by microwaving the cream cheese in increments on power level 1 on a plate (be sure to remove all the foil!) But it still is going to soften unevenly. Waiting is really the best option for cheesecake! Set out 4 eggs to come to room temperature as well. Make the crust. Add a 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter to a small pot and set over medium heat, stirring occasionally. After a couple minutes it will turn white on top, then it will foam up. Once it is foamy, it will start forming brown colored milk solids, or "bits". They will swirl up when you stir. The scent of the butter will change to a "nutty" or toffee like aroma. Once you see brown bits, remove the pan from the heat and be careful not to let it burn!
Let the browned butter cool for at least 30 minutes while you prepare the rest of the crust. Preheat your oven to 325 degrees F.
Add 18 full graham cracker sheets to a food processor and pulse until they have been crushed to fine crumbs. (Or place them in a ziplock and smash them with a rolling pin.) Add 1/4 cup sugar and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt.
Once the browned butter has cooled, add it to the food processor (or you can combine it in a bowl) and mix until all the crumbs are moistened. (Don't bother washing the pot you browned the butter in. We need it later.)
Spray the edges of a 9-inch springform pan with nonstick spray. Press the graham cracker mixture into the bottom of the pan and up the sides using a measuring cup to press it in well. The more tightly packed your crust is, the better your final crust will hold it's shape when you slice your cheesecake later. Make sure you press the crust up on the sides of the pan at least 1 inch.
Bake the crust at 325 degrees F for 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to let cool completely. (If you choose to bake with a water bath, once your pan is cool, triple wrap your pan with heavy duty foil. See notes for water bath details.)
Make the cheesecake. Brown another stick of butter (1/2 cup butter) in the same pot that you used earlier to brown the butter for the crust. See step 2 for all the details. Set the second pot of browned butter aside to cool.
In a large bowl or stand mixer, add 3/4 cup sour cream, 3 large eggs + 1 egg yolk (discard the white), 2 teaspoons vanilla extract, 1 and 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice (about half a lemon), and 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Use the whisk attachment on your stand mixer (or a hand mixer is fine) to beat this mixture very well for at least 2 minutes, scraping the sides as you go. Check to make sure there are none of those weird jiggly egg solids in the mixture (if there are after a few minutes of beating, discard them). See photos.
Once your browned butter has cooled, add it to the sour cream mixture. If it is not quite cool, make sure to add it while the mixer is on, so you don't scramble your eggs. Beat well, scraping the sides. Once the mixture is combined, use a spatula to scrape the whole mixture back into the same pot that you browned the butter in (Unless it is hot. If it's hot, add the mixture to a bowl.)
Don't bother washing your bowl or beaters. Add 4 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese to the bowl. Make sure they are completely softened! Beat using the whisk attachment (if you have one) until the mixture is smooth and creamy, scraping the bottom and sides as you go. Get all the lumps out but don't over beat it. If there are lumps in your cream cheese now, there will be lumps in your cheesecake. But we don't want to beat in too much air. See photos! Use discretion!
Add 2 cups granulated sugar to the cream cheese and beat only just until smooth and combined, then stop!
Add the sour cream mixture to the cream cheese mixture. Beat only until combined, scraping the sides as you go. Again, if there are lumps in this mixture, there will be lumps in your cheesecake. Beat them out!
At this point, if you are REALLY dedicated to no lumps, you can strain the mixture through a sieve as you pour it into the completely cooled crust. I never bother! Pour the batter into the crust and don't worry if the batter goes up over the edge of the crust. Smooth the top.
Pick up the pan about an inch from the counter and drop it a couple times. Shake the pan a little. You are trying to get air bubbles to rise to the surface. Wait about 10 minutes. If you see any bubbles, use a toothpick to poke them to get the air out.
Meanwhile, while the cheesecake rests, heat a large covered pot of water over high heat until it comes to a rolling boil.
To bake the cheesecake with STEAM: (see notes for water bath instructions) Place a metal (not glass!) 9x13 inch pan on the lowest rack in your oven. (The oven should still be heated to 325 degrees.) Position the second rack in the center of the oven. If you have a pizza stone, place it on the bottom rack with the 9x13 pan sitting on top of it. (It's okay if you don't have one.)
Once the water is at a rolling boil, place your cheesecake in the oven in the center of the rack. Pull out the bottom rack and carefully pour the boiling water into the 9x13 inch pan. Make sure the water goes at least halfway up the sides of the pan. Working quickly, carefully push the rack back into the oven and make sure the cheesecake is positioned directly over the pan of water (the crust is going to drip butter into the pan). Shut the oven door as fast as you can to help maintain the oven temperature!
Set a timer for 70 minutes. Do not open the oven door! Not even once!
After 70 minutes, turn the oven off, but DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN DOOR! Your cheesecake will still be wobbly in the middle but you shouldn't even know this because you haven't opened the oven door to check, right? The cheesecake is not quite baked yet. It's going to finish baking in the cooling oven.
Leave the cheesecake in the turned off oven with the door shut for at least 4 hours. I leave it in overnight usually. Your oven must be COMPLETELY back to room temperature before you should even consider taking this cheesecake out! The cheesecake may have turned a light golden on the top and edges after it's time in the oven. (This is all to avoid cracks by the way. If you don't care about cracks, you can take it out after 1 hour and stick it in the fridge.)
After 4 hours of cooling in the turned off oven, remove the cheesecake from the oven and place in the refrigerator for another 4 hours, or 8 hours is even better. You can cover your cheesecake with plastic wrap, but be aware that condensation will form and could get water on the top of your cheesecake. I usually don't cover it for this initial chill.
Once your cheesecake is completely chilled, carefully and slowly release it from the springform pan. Use a sharp chef's knife to cut the cheesecake into even slices, wiping off the knife for each slice.
Serve chilled with topping of your choice! See notes for the Fresh Raspberry Topping I made. I also love this Fresh Strawberry Topping, or Homemade Lemon Curd, or how about the caramel from these Salted Caramel Brownies, the ganache from this Flourless Chocolate Cake, or Easy Dulce de Leche, then top with sea salt? If you're making this for Thanksgiving or Christmas, top it with this incredible Cranberry Sauce! You can take classic cheesecake in any direction you want.
Store leftovers covered in the fridge. Leftovers will last about 2-3 days before the crust gets soggy.
Freezer instructions: If you want to freeze the whole cheesecake, let it cool completely. Then cover well several times with plastic wrap. Then wrap in heavy duty foil a couple times. Freeze for 3-4 months. Let thaw in the fridge. It will take at least 12-24 hours to thaw completely.If you want to freeze individual slices of cheesecake, it's best to flash freeze. Slice completely cooled cheesecake and place each slice on a pan, not touching. Freeze the pan of slices for about 3 hours. (Set a timer so you don't forget!) Then wrap each individual piece in plastic wrap, and then store in a ziplock bag. Let thaw in the fridge.