Crème Brûlée 101
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Crème brûlée with burnt sugar “crust.” Don’t let the fancy name fool you. Learning how to make crème brûlée is surprisingly easy. Impressive with its shiny crackling sugar top shielding the silky custard underneath, crème brûlée is the perfect holiday dessert. It can, and should, be made ahead, saving you precious time.
Before I could teach myself how to make crème brûlée, I had to get past the name. It intimidated me! Crème brûlée was so, well, “French” and my French cooking skills were minimal, at best. I set out to deconstruct the recipe. I was amazed at how four common ingredients (eggs, cream, sugar, and vanilla) came together easily to make this gourmet dessert.
Crème brûlée is a French term for burnt cream. It’s simply a rich egg custard. Think of crème brûlée as a high-class cousin to custard pie, sans the shell. Crème brûlée is baked in a bain marie/hot water bath. This technique ensures the custard is surrounded by gentle heat so the eggs don’t revolt and curdle. The dessert is finished with a caramelized sugar crust. That’s the “brûlée” part. The crust can be caramelized in a number of ways and none of them are difficult.
Are you ready now? Here’s how to make crème brûlée!
Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée
This recipe makes four, six-ounce ramekins. See tips for ramekin sizes.
- 2 cups whipping cream
- 3-inch piece of vanilla bean split lengthwise, or 1-3/4 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 5 large egg yolks, room temperature
- 6 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus extra for brûlée crust
Preheat oven to 325°F.
In a saucepan, combine cream and vanilla bean and cook over low heat until mixture starts to simmer. Don’t let the mixture boil. Let it sit for a couple of minutes, then discard the vanilla bean. (If using vanilla extract, stir it in now).
In a bowl, beat yolks and sugar together until they are light in color and creamy, about two minutes.
Slowly whisk in about a quarter of the cream mixture into the egg mixture. This is called tempering. This technique slowly warms the eggs so that they don’t scramble.
Whisk in remaining cream slowly. A foam will form on top. Pour the mixture through a sieve to remove foam.
Pour into oven-proof ramekins and place ramekins in a baking dish. Fill the dish with boiling water halfway up the sides of the ramekins.
Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until centers are barely set and jiggle a bit. The jiggle in the crème brûlée shouldn’t be a liquid jiggle. When properly cooked, it will be more of a gelatin-like jiggle. Leave in the water bath to cool.
Refrigerate, covered, for several hours, or up to two days before adding caramelized sugar crust.
Creating the Sugar/Brûlée Crust
There are several ways to do this. Sometimes my crust turns out evenly golden brown; other times it’s spotty.
- When ready to serve, top each custard with about a teaspoon of granulated sugar. Shake to distribute sugar evenly.
- Use a kitchen torch and, starting at the outside edges, caramelize the sugar. You’ll know you’re doing it correctly when you see the sugar under the flame start to bubble and brown. It will harden after cooling. This is my preferred method.
- Place ramekins under a broiler two to three inches from the heat source. Turn on the broiler. Cook until the sugar melts and browns, about three to five minutes. Be careful here. You may have to rotate them.
- Use a propane torch. (That’s the torch you’ll probably find in the tool shed and that’s what my chef colleagues use.)
- After caramelizing, you can refrigerate the crème brûlées for up to two hours.
Why only two hours? After that time, the sugar crust starts to soften. But they’re still yummy even after a day or so in the refrigerator.
This recipe doubles easily.
Chai Latte Crème Brûlée
You don’t need a chai tea recipe to make this spice-scented crème brûlée. The aroma as this custard bakes will make your mouth water!
- 2 chai tea bags
- 1/4 teaspoon each cinnamon and cardamom
- 1/8 teaspoon each allspice, nutmeg, and cloves
- Add tea bags to the cream as it heats. Remove bags after the cream is taken off the heat, squeezing bags to release flavor.
- Stir in spices and proceed with recipe.
- Save the bean. Rinse and dry the vanilla bean. Place in a bowl and cover with granulated sugar. Store, covered, in the pantry. Now you’ve just made vanilla sugar!
- Stabilize ramekins: If you’re worried about the ramekins slipping around in the pan after you add water, lay a sturdy paper towel in the bottom of the pan before putting in the ramekins and adding water. This keeps them from moving.
- Does size matter with ramekins or eggs? Just about any size oven-proof ramekins or small bowls will work for crème brûlée. Depending on the size, you may have to adjust the baking time down, or up a little.
Cheers! Serve with a glass of eggnog. Or make my easy limoncello recipe and serve chilled in small liqueur glasses alongside. This is nice for holiday entertaining.
I hope you enjoy learning how to make crème brûlée!