With only five simple ingredients, crème brûlée is a dish you don’t need to wait for a celebration to make. The cream, vanilla, salt, eggs and sugar combine to make an exquisitely rich and elegant dessert. The best part about digging into that creamy custard is the crunchy coating of sugar that conceals it.
Crème brûlée translates to burnt cream, but there’s nothing burnt about it other than the torching of the sugar, which creates that beautiful crusted exterior. Crème brûlée is best served cold. Plan on caramelizing the sugar just before serving. The process of caramelizing the sugar warms the cream just a bit producing a cool center.
Most recipes call for using a small blowtorch. You can still make it at home without a torch by placing the cream cups on a cookie sheet, applying the sugar and sliding the cookie sheet into the top oven shelf under the hot broiler. Be sure to watch it closely as it only takes one to three minutes depending on the amount of caramelization you prefer.
What is the Difference between Crème Brûlée and Flan?
While they are both custard-based desserts, crème brûlée and flan result in vastly different end products.
Crème brûlée is a baked custard made with cream, sugar and egg yolks with a thin layer of sugar on top that is caramelized with a kitchen torch to create a hard caramel crust. Flan is also a custard made with cream, milk, sugar and egg yolks, but it’s baked in a caramel-lined ramekin until soft and jiggly. It is served inverted out of the ramekin, so the caramel sauce covers the top and runs down the sides.
A Few Additional Notes on the Crème Brûlée Recipe
- Separate the eggs and whisk the yolks after the cream has finished steeping. If you let it sit, the surface of the yolks will dry and form a film.
- A vanilla bean gives custard the deepest flavor, but vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste may be substituted.
- You can substitute regular granulated sugar for the crust, but only use one scant teaspoon with each ramekin.
- To use up all those egg whites, use them for omelets or try a simple pavlova.
How do you make Crème Brûlée
Start by Preparing your Ramekins
I’ve tested this recipe in 4-ounce, 5-ounce and 6-ounce ramekins. It works great in all of them, but my preference is the 5-ounce ramekins (I like the thickness of the crème brûlées best.)
Set the ramekins in a 9 x 13 metal pan and set aside. I use a large cake pan. Any metal pan with a flat bottom that will fit all the ramekins will do. We’re going to cook the crème brûlées in a water bath, so it’s important to put them in a pan. You do not need to purchase specialty ramekins for these crème brûlées — if you have 4, 5, or 6-ounce ramekins they’ll work. You can also use heatproof glass ramekins.
Make the Custard Filling
The custard filling is made in two parts. First, you’ll beat egg yolks and vanilla bean seeds with superfine sugar. I like to use organic eggs for crème brûlées. Since the yolks are what give color to the crème brûlées, you’ll want really pretty yellow yolks that are characteristic of free-range organic eggs. The other part of the filling is the heavy cream mixture. I add some flaky sea salt and the pod of a vanilla bean to the simmering heavy cream mixture.
This crème brûlée recipe calls for a full vanilla bean and you’ll use both parts of it — the seeds and the pod (which still has plenty of flavor). I definitely prefer using a vanilla bean in this recipe because it adds the pretty black specks and a truly deep vanilla flavor. If you can’t get a vanilla bean, you can use vanilla bean paste or pure vanilla extract, never use imitation.
Bake the Custard Filling
You’ll combine the heavy cream mixture and egg mixture by tempering the eggs. This just means you’ll be adding a small amount of the hot liquid at first while whisking before combining all. The reason for this is that, if you added the hot liquid directly to the egg mixture, you would end up with scrambled eggs.
Once combined, you’re ready to pour this mixture into the ramekins. The pan surrounding the ramekins is filled with boiling water to the halfway point of the ramekins. Baked for 30-35 minutes, or until the centers jiggle slightly.
Chill the Crème Brûlées.
Once baked, you’ll chill the crème brûlées for 3-4 hours. I promise this patience will pay off. Once you have the cream prepared and have been patient enough to let it chill properly, you’ve got the creme part down but now you still have to add the brûlée.
Add some superfine sugar (which caramelizes better) to the tops of your custards and torch with a kitchen torch! You’ll want to eat these pretty quickly after being torched as they don’t sit well with the caramelized tops!
Applying the Sugar
Add the sugar to the top of the creme then shake it around gently to coat the entire surface, then gently dump the excess sugar onto the next creme. Add additional sugar if needed and proceed until all are coated.
Can you Make Crème Brûlée without a Torch?
Yes! While I do prefer crème brûlées to be caramelized with a torch, they will work in the oven! You’ll want to move your oven rack to the top position and heat the oven to a high broil. Once the oven is heated, add the custards topped with superfine sugar to a tray. Place the tray on that top shelf and watch carefully as they broil. It only takes 1-3 minutes depending on your oven, so watch closely to avoid burned crème brûlées.
Easy Crème Brûlée
- 1 full vanilla bean or equivalent vanilla bean paste
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 5 large egg yolks, must be at room temperature
- 3/4 cup superfine white sugar, separated
- Boiled water for the water bath.
- Optional: Add one Tablespoon of Grand Marnier or a Liquor of your liking to add an additional depth of flavor. Top with fresh berries to serve.
- Start by splitting the vanilla bean down the center. Scrape out all the seeds and place into a large bowl or blender. Take the vanilla bean pod and place in a small pot with the sea salt and heavy cream.
- Preheat the oven to 325°F.
- Cook the heavy cream mixture just until the cream is simmering. Do not boil! Remove from the stovetop and set aside to slightly cool. Remove the vanilla bean pod. If using vanilla extract, stir it in now.
- In the bowl or blender with the vanilla bean seeds, add the egg yolks and 1/2 cup superfine sugar. Beat until the mixture is light, about 2-3 minutes.
- Meanwhile, place water in a large pot and heat to boiling point.
- Add about 1/4th of the cream mixture into the egg and sugar mixture. Mix until combined. Then pour the (now tempered) egg + sugar mixture into the remaining heavy cream mixture. Mix just until combined.
- Place the ramekins (6 4-ounce ramekins, 5 5-ounce ramekins, or 4 6-ounce ramekins) in a metal tall sided baking pan.
- Pour the prepared mixture evenly into the ramekins. Fill up the metal baking pan with boiling water halfway up the sides of the ramekins.
- Bake for 30-35 minutes or until centers are barely set (very slight jiggle).
- Cool completely at room temperature and then refrigerate for 3-4 hours before serving (Alternatively these can be refrigerated 4-5 days before using).
- When ready to serve, sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup superfine sugar on top of the custards.
- Use a kitchen torch to torch the tops until the sugar melts and browns (or even slightly blackens) a bit.
- Alternatively, if you want to use your oven: move your oven rack to the top position and heat the oven to a high broil. Once the oven is heated, add the custards topped with superfine sugar to a tray. Place the tray on that top shelf and watch carefully as they broil. It only takes 1-3 minutes so watch closely to avoid burned crème brûlées.
- Top with fresh berries and enjoy immediately.