Crème Brûlée Recipe
Why It Works
- Using a mixture of whole milk and heavy cream results in a custard with a rich, luscious texture.
- Steeping the dairy with a scraped vanilla bean infuses the custard with a subtly sweet and floral flavor.
- Baking the custards in a water bath ensures even, gentle cooking that reduces the risk of overcooking your crème brûlée.
- Using a blowtorch to caramelize the raw sugar topping results in an evenly caramelized crust that shatters easily.
I can’t remember the first crème brûlée I’ve ever eaten, but I do remember the worst. After an otherwise spectacular meal at an esteemed Manhattan restaurant several years ago, the dessert arrived at the table with a soggy, melted crust. There was no theatrical moment of smashing my spoon through the dessert’s signature crackling, burnt-sugar crust, just a sad puddle of liquified caramel pooled on top. It was a sign that the crème brûlée was torched too far in advance and had been sitting long enough for the once-crunchy topping to melt. We didn’t finish our dessert, and I haven’t ordered crème brûlée from a restaurant since. Why risk it when you can whip up a better one at home?
What Is Crème Brûlée?
Made well, crème brûlée is a magnificent dessert of silky, vanilla-scented custard—usually made with eggs, milk, and/or cream—beneath a shatteringly crisp topping of caramelized sugar. Made poorly, the dessert is often overcooked, too eggy, or served at the wrong temperature, whether too hot or too cold.
Most pastry chefs prepare crème brûlée by baking the custards in a water bath until just set, then refrigerating them for several hours to allow them to chill and firm up slightly before coating the tops with sugar and brûléeing them. Some, including chef and baking expert Nancy Silverton, skip the water bath entirely, preferring instead to make the custard on the stove before refrigerating it. This method may skip the water bath, but is ultimately fussier than I find necessary. While this process does give you slightly more control over the texture of your custard, it requires standing at or near the stove for almost an hour—turning what would otherwise be a pretty simple and straightforward dessert into a labor-intensive one.
The Origins of Crème Brûlée
Several writers and historians have claimed that crème brûlée has British roots. Both the late authors Dione Lucas, an English chef, and Theodora FitzGibbon, an Irish cookbook author, credited a cook at Cambridge University with making the first crème brûlée sometime in the 19th century, serving it under the name “Cambridge cream.” In his book Beard on Food, James Beard wrote that the earliest recipe for the dessert came from a 17th century English cookbook with a recipe for “grilled cream.” But none of these English-origin explanations are likely, since continental recipes for crème brûlée-like desserts predate them.
The first printed recipe for crème brûlée can be traced to the 1693 French cookbook Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeois by François Massialot, a former cook at Versailles. Still, the combination of custard and caramel goes back even further, and various types of flan—likely the predecessor to crème brûlée and Spanish crema catalana today—can be traced back to ancient Rome.
Despite crème brûlée’s centuries-old history, its widespread popularity today is a recent phenomenon. Recipes for the dessert are “conspicuously absent from the major nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French cookbooks, including [Prosper] Montagné’s Larousse Gastronomique (1938),” Kyri W. Claflin notes in The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, an indication that less than a century ago it had not yet entered the classic French dessert canon. Though crème brûlée recipes do appear in some magazines and cookbooks throughout the 1900s, the custard didn’t become a highly sought-after dessert until Sirio Maccioni served it at his famed New York City restaurant Le Cirque, which opened in 1975.
“After an encounter with crema catalana in Spain in the early ‘80s,” Gabrielle Gershenson wrote for Saveur in 2012, “Maccioni insisted a version be developed for his menu.” Le Cirque’s pastry chef at the time, Dieter Schorner, told Gershenson that crème brûlée exploded in popularity after the legendary French chef Paul Bocuse dined at the restaurant and claimed it was “the best dessert he had eaten that year.” Soon, crème brûlées were gracing restaurant menus and the pages of cookbooks everywhere.
The Key Techniques for the Best Crème Brulée
A successful crème brûlée comes down to perfecting its two parts: the custard and the burnt-sugar topping. Though crème brûlée may be intimidating—the water bath, the blowtorch!—it really is a simple dessert that’s easy to execute once you understand the techniques and science behind it.
One of the main questions for any custard is what the ideal ratio of ingredients is, as well as what kind of dairy to use. I examined multiple recipes from trusted sources to get a sense of which details were shared by most and also how they varied. Some chefs made their custards with just whole milk or heavy cream, while some called for a mixture of both. Schorner, the former Le Cirque pastry chef, swore by using just heavy cream.
Like Schorner, Julia Child and James Beard’s crème brûlée recipes skip the milk and opt entirely for heavy cream instead. Pierre Hermé uses 3 3/4 cups whole milk with 2/3 cup heavy cream, pastry chef Claudia Fleming calls for 1 cup whole milk with 2 cups heavy cream, while Jacques Pépin prefers equal parts (1 cup each) of whole milk and heavy cream.
Depending on which type (or combination) of dairy you choose, you’ll get significantly different custard textures—a direct result of shifting fat levels in the formula. Not only that, but the less fat in a custard, the harder it is to cook successfully. “Lean custards are more tricky to cook than rich ones,” the authors of The Joy of Cooking wrote. “Custards thicken because the egg proteins, excited by heat, move about, collide, and stick to one another… In a very rich custard like crème brûlée, there are so many fat molecules present that the egg proteins have trouble finding one another and bonding.”
Beyond fat, sugar also plays a role in determining the texture of custard. In On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee notes that whisking eggs together with dairy and sugar dilutes the egg proteins and raises the temperature at which they coagulate, resulting in a more tender custard. While egg proteins begin to coagulate at 160ºF (70ºC) on their own, a custard of eggs, sugar, milk and/or cream thickens within the range of 175 to 180ºF (78 to 80ºC). Custards containing adequate amounts of sugar and fat (like those made with heavy cream or whole milk) are less likely to curdle, while lean custards without enough of either to slow down the process of coagulation tend to overcook easily.
Curious to see for myself what kind of dairy would work best, I experimented with the following variations:
- Only heavy cream: This was the most luxurious tasting crème brûlée. While delicious at first, the custard’s richness became cloying after several bites and I found it difficult to finish an entire serving by myself.
- Only whole milk: This custard was much more firmly set than the one made with just heavy cream, and I found myself wanting something slightly richer.
- 2 parts heavy cream to 1 part whole milk: Getting closer! This had more body than the version made with 100% milk and was perhaps just a touch too rich.
- 2 parts whole milk to 1 part heavy cream: Slightly richer than the custard made only with whole milk but not as heavy as the one with only cream, this was a close runner-up to the winning combination below.
- 1 part heavy cream to 1 part whole milk: This (Pépin’s ratio) felt like the magic combination. The mixture was balanced and just rich enough to set into a velvety custard.
As for eggs, I tested with egg yolks and a combination of whole eggs with yolks. In theory, a lean, milk-only custard might be improved with only yolks, while a rich, cream-based custard might be improved with whole eggs. There are a dizzying number of permutations and possibilities that could work, but given that I preferred the 1:1 ratio, I found that using just egg yolks for this ratio (as opposed to whole eggs or whole eggs and yolks) lent the custards a vivid yellow hue and resulted in the silkiest crème brûlée with a much richer flavor.
Is a Water Bath Necessary?
If a silky smooth crème brûlée is what you’re after, then a water bath (also referred to as a bain-marie) is absolutely necessary. Water baths—whether used for cheesecake or custards—ensure that your desserts bake evenly and gently. The custards I tested without a water bath bubbled away aggressively and resulted in a curdled mess. In comparison, the crème brûlées I set in a water bath filled with just-boiled water baked beautifully until just set.
As Cindy Mushet, the author of The Art and Soul of Baking, noted, oven temperatures can fluctuate. Using a water bath, she notes, “moderates these fluctuations in temperature by absorbing the heat, then transferring it gently to the cups, keeping them at a constant, low temperature.” Your oven may be set to 325ºF (160ºC) for these custards, but water baths will never exceed water’s boiling point of 212ºF (100ºC). For tender custards, it’s worth taking the time to use just-boiled (but not boiling) water that’s around 190º to 200ºF (88º to 93ºC).
How to Determine Custard Doneness
All the details of dairy type, eggs, water baths, and more are useless if you over- or undercook a custard, and given that a custard doesn’t dramatically change its appearance as it cooks, this can be tricky for inexperienced custard cooks to judge. If you have to go by sight, what you should be looking for are custards that seem barely set and jiggle ever so slightly when gently shaken. But that may seem maddeningly vague, which…it is. For better certainty, use your thermometer; the custards are done when they are between 170ºF (77ºC) and 180ºF (82ºC) in the center; just be sure your thermometer probe isn’t accidentally touching the ramekin itself, which will be hotter, as it’s conducting heat from the surrounding water bath.
Once the custards are cooked, carefully remove the water bath from the oven and, using tongs or gloved hands, transfer them to a wire rack to cool to room temperature before refrigerating until set. It is crucial to chill your custards: this allows them to firm up ever so slightly and ensures that they’ll be set enough to withstand the heat of your blowtorch or broiler when it’s time to caramelize the sugar topping. I Iike to take my crème brûlées out of the refrigerator and let them stand for 20 minutes at room temperature before serving so they are cool but not cold. I find this temperature much more pleasant for a custard than a refrigerator’s chill: spooning into a cool custard that’s been slightly warmed by a blowtorch is much less jarring than digging into a custard that’s still completely cold underneath but has a warm top. (Your friends with sensitive teeth will thank you.)
Getting the Caramel Topping Right
Perfecting the caramelized sugar topping of your crème brûlée can be challenging. Ideally, the crust should be an even golden brown, shatter crisply, and be a happy medium between being too thick or too thin. Using too much sugar will result in a dense, thick topping that’s not only unpleasant to eat, but will also take longer to caramelize—which risks curdling or burning your carefully prepared custard. On the other hand, skimping on the sugar will produce a thin crust that’ll leave you wanting more.
Avoid torching your crème brûlées in advance; sugar is hygroscopic and loves to absorb moisture. Over the course of 20 to 30 minutes, the caramelized sugar topping will melt into a puddle in the middle of your custard—no satisfying crust to be had there! For best results, you should torch your sugar right before serving. (More on that below.)
Ultimately, how much sugar you use and how dark you want your crème brûlee to be is really personal preference—but knowing the different factors that can affect the color and thickness of your crust will help you achieve the best results for you.
Broiler vs. Blowtorch: Choosing the Right Tool for the Job
To make a crème brûlée’s signature crackling caramel crust, you start by sprinkling sugar on top of the finished custards. You then have at least a few options for transforming those granules of sugar into a glassy sheet of hardened sugar. The original method—the very one instructed in that first-known 1691 recipe—is to use a branding iron, or, as that recipe calls it, a “pêle du feu” (fire spade? I don’t know, that’s some very old French). Heated in a live fire until glowing red, the branding iron is pressed down on the sugar coating, rapidly creating the caramel we’re seeking. I didn’t test this, because a branding iron is a unitasker of extremely limited utility that probably doesn’t deserve any real estate in your utensils drawer.
That leaves two more practical methods: a broiler and a blowtorch. I’ll admit, I love my blowtorch more than the average home cook, using it for everything from putting a little extra char on roasted vegetables and meats, to warming the side of my stand mixer when I’m trying to temper buttercream, and toasting meringues (and yes, brûléeing custards). But I’ll also admit that just about everyone at home has a broiler, while not everyone has a blowtorch and may not be convinced they need one. So, it needed to be tested.
First, I tried my blowtorch, which did exactly what I expected: It gave me total control over the caramelization process. Gently passing the flame back and forth over the sugar, I was able to develop a perfect caramel crust quickly and evenly on each custard. Compare that to the broiler, where I watched as the sugar slowly melted, unevenly, during a lengthy 7 minutes. The sugar did melt into a crust, but it wasn’t quite as crisp as the crème brûlées I’d prepared with a blowtorch, and the extra time spent under the broiler meant the custards had also warmed a worrying amount; a minute or two longer, and I’d be concerned that they would have curdled. A broiler is an acceptable alternative if you don’t have a blowtorch, but it’s a higher risk one, with less even results. It’s worth purchasing a blowtorch if you’d like to achieve a caramelized sugar crust that shatters easily (and guess what: we have a review just for you, if you’re in the market).
The Best Sugar for Topping Crème Brûlée
Crème brûlée recipes often instruct you to top your custards with an even layer of regular old granulated sugar for caramelizing, and it’s not difficult to see why: granulated sugar is finer than raw sugar, but not as fine as confectioners’, making it an easy sugar to melt. When comparing different sugars for topping crème brûlée, though, I found that while granulated sugar made a perfectly fine topping, using raw sugar resulted in a much more satisfying crust. Confectioners’ sugar and brown sugar performed terribly: both melted into clumps and never fully solidified.
The one downside to using raw sugar is that it can take longer to fully melt. Because raw sugar crystals are slightly larger than those of granulated sugar, you’ll have to torch your crème brûlées very carefully and be mindful of how strong your flame is so they don’t get too dark and the top of the custard doesn’t curdle. While I prefer using raw sugar to create the crisp topping for my crème brûlées, you can use granulated sugar as a substitute if you don’t feel like watching your custards like a hawk as you brulée them.
I’ve found that moving the torch in a circular motion as the sugar melts is the easiest way to get it fully and evenly caramelized. After 2 to 3 minutes, the sugar should harden and you should be able to tap the bottom of your spoon against it and hear a clear “clink.”
All these techniques will help you make the perfect crème brûlée—just make sure you don’t leave your torched custards sitting like that restaurant I went to did. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a sad, soggy crème brûlée and all your hard work will be for naught!