This easy crème brûlée recipe for two will show you that fancy doesn’t have to be complicated! The creamy, smooth custard topped with a sweet, crunchy layer is just impossible to resist!
What Is Crème Brûlée?
Crème brûlée is a baked custard that is coated with a layer of sugar caramelized using a kitchen torch (or the oven broiler). It can’t be unmolded and is eaten straight from the baking dish.
Crème brûlée means “burnt cream” in French. The cream is simply the custard while the burnt part is actually the sugar crust.
Is Crème Brûlée French?
There is some debate as to where this dessert originated from with the main contenders being France, Spain and England.
Legend has it that it started in the French court of Versailles. The King’s younger brother complained the custard he was served was too cold. François Massialot, his cook, tried to heat it up by applying a hot iron over the custard, which caramelized the sugar sprinkled on the surface.
But some theories claim François Massialot could have been inspired by the Spanish crema Catalana during his travels. To make matters more confusing, he sometimes refers to the crème brûlée as English cream in his cookbook.
The English version apparently came to be at Trinity College in Cambridge and became known as Trinity cream or Cambridge burnt cream.
We’ve previously discussed how to make crème Anglaise (English cream). Crème brûlée is actually a variation of the crème Anglaise. The hot liquids (milk/cream) are added to the eggs and sugar. But instead of returning the mixture to the pot and cooking it to 82°C (180°F), you fill ramekins and bake them.
The trickiest part when making crème brûlée is baking it correctly. Two of the most common complaints are that the custard didn’t set properly or that it wasn’t smooth. So let’s discuss how to bake the crème brûlée to make it just perfect!
Baking Crème Brûlée: Oven Temperature
There are two ways to bake crème brûlée: you can either place the ramekins in an oven water bath, or directly on the oven rack.
Whichever method you chose, there is one important element that doesn’t change: the crème brûlée should always be baked at a very low temperature.
Traditional oven baking
Crème brûlée can be baked in dry heat, without the use of a water bath. But this method can be a little tricky as it’s easier to overcook the crème brûlée.
The temperature of the oven when baking crème brûlée should never exceed 100°C (212°F) or you will end up overcooking the cream. It will look yellow and will have a grainy and rubbery texture. It’s best to use an oven thermometer as the actual temperature in the oven might be different than the temperature you have set.
If you wish to bake your crème brûlée directly in the oven, set the temperature to 90-100°C (194-212°F). The baking time will vary according to your oven, the ramekins used etc. If the crème brûlée hasn’t set yet but the color starts turning yellow, cover it with parchment paper and continue baking.
It’s best to know what to look out for to determine if the crème brûlée is ready. We will discuss this in a bit. But first, let’s talk about baking in a water bath, which is my preferred method.
Baking in a water bath
When using a water bath (bain-marie), the ramekins are placed into a pan. Boiling water is added into the pan until it reaches about halfway to two-thirds up the sides of the ramekins. The oven temperature is then set to about 150°C/302°F (as opposed to 100°C/212°F when baking in dry heat).
A water bath protects the outside of the custard from baking much faster than the inside. Even when the oven temperature is higher than 100°C (212°F), the temperature of the water surrounding the custard will rarely exceed 82-88°C (180-190°F).
I know some of you might be a bit intimidated by the water bath. I know I was! But I’ll share a few tips with you and mistakes I made so you’ll know exactly what to do.
Tips for baking in a water bath
Don’t use a huge pan!
This might sound completely obvious but if you’re a newbie like I was, you might not think about it! The first time I made a water bath, I decided to fill my deep oven tray while it was in the oven. I obviously did not think it through because let me tell you: it’s not easy to take ramekins out of a heavy tray full of boiling water!! Not to mention completely unsafe! So please use something just big enough to fit the ramekins without them touching each other.
Use a kitchen towel
Place a kitchen towel in the bottom of the pan before putting the ramekins. The kitchen towel will protect the custard from the bottom heat. It will also keep the ramekins in place. You don’t want them to slide once you’ve filled them. But make sure the towel doesn’t extend up the sides. It should be completely flat. Or else, you’ll see your kitchen towel just drop into your custard as it gets wet! Yep! It did happen to me!
The ramekins shouldn’t touch the edges of the pan
Leave a space of about 1cm (1/2 inch) from the sides of the pan. And don’t stick the ramekins to each other.
Fill the pan with boiling water in the oven
Place the pan with the ramekins on the oven tray and then fill it. This will minimize the risk of spilling water in your custard.
Try not to splash!
Try to pour water into the pan without getting any drops on your custard! I know, it’s easier said than done! But you can do it!
Use boiling water and wear oven mitts
According to Cook’s Illustrated, starting off with hot water (as opposed to cold or room temperature) will facilitate more even baking. You want the top and bottom parts of the custard to be baked at more or less the same temperature. If you use cold water, it will take longer to cook the lower part of the crème brûlée.
Now that we know what crème brûlée is and how to use a water bath, it’s time to make the custard! And you’re going to be so surprised by how easy it actually is!
Why You’ll Love This Recipe
- Minimal ingredients: You only need a handful of ingredients which you probably already have!
- Customizable: The crème brûlée is flavored with vanilla but you can use whatever you like. You can find some suggestions in the flavoring section.
- Small batch: This recipe is for 2 people so you’ll only need 2 ramekins to make it and a small quantity of ingredients.
- Adjustable serving size: If you do decide to serve this to a crowd, you can easily increase the quantities. The baking time might be longer.
- Egg yolks: For flavor, richness and to thicken the custard. Crème brûlée thickens when the egg proteins coagulate in the oven. If you don’t add enough egg, the custard won’t set and will stay runny. But if you add too many eggs, your custard won’t be as creamy as it should be.
Ideal ratio: You should use between 5-8 egg yolks for 500 ml of liquids (milk/cream).
- Cream/milk: I like to use heavy cream (35% fat) for creaminess and flavor and a little bit of milk to lighten the custard. You can replace the milk with heavy cream for a richer and thicker custard if you prefer. And for a lighter crème brûlée, you can use equal amounts of milk and cream.
- Sugar: To sweeten the custard base a little and to give you the irresistible crunchy layer on top.
- Flavorings: Vanilla beans are commonly used as they give the custard a wonderful flavor. But you can infuse the warm liquids with other flavorings or use vanilla extract.
Crème Brûlée Flavorings
Crème brûlée is traditionally flavored with vanilla beans. But if you want to do something different, you can be as creative as you want. Here are some suggestions just to get you started:
- Coffee flavor: You can add instant coffee powder or coffee extract to the hot milk/cream.
- Cinnamon (powder or stick) can be added to the hot liquids.
- Chocolate: Add melted chocolate (about 25 g for 150 ml of liquids) to the hot liquids.
- Fruity flavor: You can add a few berries to the custard or fruit zest. And you can replace a small amount of milk/cream with juice such as passion fruit juice.
How To Make Crème Brûlée
Infusing liquids with flavor
To get the most flavor out of the vanilla bean, we’re going to add it to the liquids (milk and cream). If you have time and remember to do this, the best would be to soak the vanilla in the liquids the night before and refrigerate everything. This is called a cold infusion.
If you forget however, you can add the bean to the liquids. Bring to a boil and then turn off the heat. Let it steep for about 15 minutes, covered, before proceeding with the rest of the recipe. This is what we’ll be doing today.
Okay, let’s get started!
- Pour the milk and heavy cream into a small pot.
- Place the vanilla bean on a flat surface and split it in two (lengthwise) using a knife.
- With the back of the knife, scrape the seeds and add them, along with the vanilla pod to the pot. We won’t be throwing anything away!
- Heat the liquids on medium heat just until small bubbles form.
- Turn off the heat, cover and let it steep for 15 minutes.
Preparing the ramekins
While you are waiting, you can preheat the oven and prepare your ramekins.
- Preheat the oven to 150°C (302°F), conventional setting and place the oven grill (or a flat oven tray) in the bottom third of the oven. Try to use a tray or grill without edges so it’s easier to put the ramekins in the oven.
- Place a kitchen towel in the bottom of a pan. I used a 28 x 17 cm pan (11 x 7 inches). It should be big enough to fit two ramekins, leaving a gap between them and the edges of the pan. Try to keep the towel as flat as possible so the custards don’t tilt towards one side.
- Place two ramekins in the pan.
- Boil water in a kettle and save it. We will be using it once the ramekins are in the oven.
Preparing the custard
Did it take you 15 minutes to find a suitable pan?! It did for me! But now that you found one, it’s time to prepare the custard.
- In a bowl, gently mix the egg yolks and sugar with a wooden spoon until combined. You don’t want to incorporate air bubbles which will ruin the texture of your crème brûlée.
Whisk as soon as you add the sugar to the egg yolks or you will “cook” the eggs. The sugar will absorb the water present in the egg yolks. The proteins in the egg yolks will find themselves closer together and will form bonds, leaving you with clumps.
- Remove the vanilla pods with a big spoon and set aside.
- Pour the hot liquids very slowly over the egg mixture whilst gently stirring. You don’t want to cook the eggs so don’t add everything at once.
- Strain into a measuring cup and using a spoon, push down the seeds.
- Set aside for 3-4 minutes. During this time, the air bubbles in the custard will come to the surface. This will make it easier to get rid of them.
Don’t discard the vanilla pod! You can wash it with cold water and let it dry. Then place it into your sugar container to get vanilla flavored sugar.
Removing air bubbles
Air bubbles on the surface of the custard will ruin the texture of your crème brûlée and will make it harder to caramelize the sugar evenly before serving it. So how do you get rid of them?
- Using a spoon: After you’ve let the custard rest for a few minutes, skim the foam with a spoon.
- Strain again: Strain the custard once more into the ramekins.
- Using a paper towel: If you still have air bubbles, gently touch the surface with a paper towel.
Try to fill all the ramekins evenly so they all finish baking at the same time.
Time for the water bath!
- Place the pan with the ramekins in the oven. Fill with boiling water until about halfway (or two-thirds) up the sides of the ramekins.
- Bake for about 20-25 minutes if using shallow ramekins.
How To Tell If Crème Brûlée Is Done?
If you have a digital thermometer, the best thing to do is to check the internal temperature of the crème brûlée a few minutes before the indicated time. It should be somewhere between 76-79°C (170-175°F). Measure the temperature in the center of the cream without touching the bottom of the ramekin.
But if you don’t have a thermometer, gently tap the ramekin. The sides of the custard should have set while the center will be slightly wobbly. Keep in mind that even when you take the custards out of the oven, they will continue to cook slightly before cooling down so you really shouldn’t overbake them.
Overcooked Crème Brûlée
The crème brûlée should never boil and bubble up in the oven. If you see this happening, you overcooked it.
When properly baked, crème brûlée should be very smooth and creamy. It should coat the back of the spoon. If the crème brûlée looks grainy and/or curdled, it is most probably overcooked.
It should also be pale in color. Overcooked crème brûlée will have a yellow tinge.
Removing Ramekins From A Water Bath
Since the ramekins are small and quite shallow, it can be a bit tricky to pick them up using oven mitts. You don’t want to end up dipping your fingers in the boiling water!
I like to use a large offset spatula as shown in the picture above. Just place it under the ramekin and lift it up. Then you can easily grab it with an oven mitt so it doesn’t slip. It works like a charm. Make sure not to hold the wet spatula over your other ramekins so you don’t get drops of water into them.
Cook’s Illustrated recommends using tongs to grab the ramekins. To prevent the ramekins from slipping, you can place rubber bands on the tong pincers.
You baked the crème brûlée, let it cool down to room temperature for about an hour. And then you refrigerated it for a few hours, well covered. Now it’s time to add that wonderful sugary crust! Take the ramekins out of the fridge. If you see any condensation on the surface of the custards, pat it dry with paper towel. On to the sugar!
Best sugar for crème brûlée
Demerara and turbinado sugars (coarse light brown sugars) are good choices according to Cook’s Illustrated. It’s best not to use the sticky kind of sugar (such as dark brown sugar) which has a higher moisture content. You’ll have trouble getting a nice shell that cracks.
You could also use white granulated sugar. Although I personally had a bit of trouble caramelizing it with the kitchen torch. I ended up adding brown sugar.
Layering the sugar
To get that wonderful crust, we’re going to add two layers of sugar! If you add a lot of sugar in one go, you’ll have trouble melting it. You risk burning parts of the sugar and heating the crème brûlée.
- Put a generous amount of sugar on the surface of the custard.
- Tilt the ramekin, making sure you’ve covered all the surface. Pour the excess sugar into another ramekin. You should have a thin layer of sugar all over the crème brûlée.
- Remove any sugar from the edges of the ramekin using your thumb.
- Repeat this until you’ve covered all the filled ramekins.
- Take that kitchen torch out and start caramelizing the sugar! Hold it so that the end of the flame is about 2.5 cm (1 inch) from the custard and move it across all the surface of the custard.
- Once the sugar has melted, add a little more sugar towards the center of the custard (avoid the edges).
If you like the custard to be very cold, chill the crème brûlée, uncovered, for up to 20 minutes and enjoy! I personally can’t wait and eat it straight away!
How To Make Crème Brûlée Without A Torch
If you don’t have a kitchen torch, you can use the oven broiler. Place the ramekins with the cold custard on an oven grill, as close as possible to the broiler and turn it on (the oven should be cold initially).
Heat until the sugar bubbles and caramelizes. This should only take a few minutes. Just make sure that the container (ramekin etc.) you are using can withstand so much heat.
Crème brûlée is the perfect make-ahead dessert. It can be made up to 2-3 days in advance. It needs to chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours anyway.
The only thing you can’t do in advance is caramelize the sugar as the nice crusty layer will soften. It’s best to add the sugar and torch it just before serving (or up to 20 minutes ahead).
How To Store Crème Brûlée
To store the custard, you have two options:
- Unbaked custard can be refrigerated, well covered, for up to a day. Fill the ramekins just before baking.
- Baked custard (without the caramelized layer) will keep in the refrigerator, well covered in plastic wrap, for up to 2 days.
Crème brûlée does not freeze well but it’s so easy to make (and eat!) that you won’t need to anyway.
Hopefully, by following the tips and step-by-step pictures, you’ll get an amazing crème brûlée on your first attempt. But let’s quickly talk about the most common issues you might encounter.
Troubleshooting Crème Brûlée
Crème brûlée not set
- Bake longer: Runny crème brûlée is probably undercooked. Use an oven thermometer to make sure your oven is probably calibrated. The actual temperature in the oven might be different than the temperature set on the dial. But if you’ve been baking the crème brûlée for a while and the custard won’t set, then read on.
- Add more egg yolks: The egg yolks thicken the custard. If you don’t add enough, the custard will be runny. If you wish to use the same recipe next time, try adding more egg yolks.
- Use heavy cream: If you used milk, try replacing it with heavy cream (35% fat).
- Use a scale: If you don’t already, weigh your ingredients to make sure you are adding the correct amount of liquid per egg yolk.
- Chill longer: The custard will set and firm up as it cools down. Don’t be tempted to take it out of the fridge too soon.
- Use shallow ramekins: For an even bake, it’s best not to use deep containers.
- Don’t use cold water for the water bath: You should pour hot water (as opposed to cold or room temperature) in the water bath so that the top and bottom parts of the custard finish baking at the same time.
Curdled crème brûlée
You most probably cooked the crème brûlée for too long or at a high temperature. Solution: If baking without a water bath, use an oven thermometer to make sure the temperature never exceeds 100°C (212°F). Although I would recommend using a water bath if at all possible. And if you did use one and still ended up with curdled custard, try baking for less next time.
What to look out for: Tap the ramekins gently. The sides of the custard should have set while the middle is still jiggly. A digital thermometer inserted into the center of the custard (not touching the bottom) should register 76-79°C (170-175°F).
Another possible reason is that you added the hot liquids too quickly to the egg mixture. If you do so, you’ll end up with scrambled eggs! Solution: Temper the eggs by gradually adding the hot liquids to the egg mixture whilst whisking constantly.
Grainy crème brûlée
This could happen if you left the sugar sitting on the egg yolks without mixing them immediately. The eggs yolks became clumpy. Solution: Whisk the egg yolks as soon as you add the sugar next time. You could try straining the custard to make it smoother. But if a large portion of the egg yolks stay on the strainer, your custard might not set properly once baked.
Grainy texture could also happen if you overcook the custard. See tips above (curdled crème brûlée).
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Crème brûlée should ideally be served when the custard base is cold and the caramelized layer is still warm and cracks under the spoon.
You can refrigerate it for up to 20 minutes. The sugar crust will start to soften if chilled for too long.
Crème brûlée is generally served in individual, ceramic ramekins with a large surface area. The ramekins are usually shallow, about 2 cm (3/4 inch) high.
Yes! Crème brûlée contains cream/milk, sugar, egg yolks and flavorings. The custard is thickened with eggs and does not contain any flour.
And that’s it! I really hope you’ll try the recipe because it’s easy to make and incredibly tasty!
You Might Also Like
Cook’s Illustrated (2013). The Cook’s illustrated baking book: baking demystified: 450 recipes from America’s most trusted food magazine. America’s Test Kitchen.
Figoni, P. (2011). How Baking Works (3rd ed.). Wiley.
Gilles, C. (2009). La Cuisine Expliquée. Editions BPI.
Gisslen, W. (2005). Professional Baking (4th ed.). Wiley.