Crème caramel, also known as flan, is a delicious custard that is baked in a mold coated with caramel. The custard is then chilled before being inverted onto a plate, releasing a wonderful caramel sauce.
Crème caramel only requires a few basic ingredients and is the perfect make-ahead recipe. It was one of my mum’s go to birthday desserts when I was a kid. She would make it during the cooler months and there was something so comforting about having a bite of custard soaking in caramel sauce.
Is Crème Caramel The Same As Crème Brûlée?
When making crème caramel, the ratio of eggs to liquid is higher than it would be for a crème brûlée. More eggs means more structure, making this dessert easy to invert onto a dish while a crème brûlée is eaten straight out of the mold.
You might also have noticed that a crème brûlée recipe generally calls for egg yolks only. But when making crème caramel, it’s best to include whole eggs. The egg whites provide structure and firmness, making the crème caramel sturdy enough to be inverted onto a plate.
Crème Caramel Ingredients
- Eggs: You’ll need at least 3 eggs/500 ml (17 fl oz.) of liquid. The eggs provide structure to the crème caramel, as well as moisture, flavor and color. Some recipes use a combination of whole eggs and egg yolks, for richness and flavor. I personally haven’t found it necessary and use only whole eggs.
- Milk/Heavy cream: For moisture, richness and flavor. It’s best to use whole milk when making this recipe. We’ll be using heavy cream (35% fat) as well, for even more richness.
- Sugar: We will be using sugar to make caramel but also for the custard. The sugar will add sweetness and also protect the eggs from curdling. The amount of sugar used for the custard shouldn’t be too high, since it will be covered in sweet caramel sauce.
- Flavorings: You can use whatever you’d like such as vanilla extract (or beans), citrus zest (orange, lemon), rum etc.
Making Crème Caramel, Step-by-Step
There are two components to the crème caramel: the custard base and the caramel. We will start by preparing the caramel, which we will pour into the ramekins.
The caramel can be made through two methods: the dry method (no water used) or the wet method. In case you missed it, we discussed in depth how to make caramel when making salted caramel sauce.
Since we will be making a small quantity today, I thought a dry caramel would be more convenient and speedy. But first, let’s prepare the ramekins and water bath.
In case you missed it, I shared some tips on how to bake in a water bath when making crème brûlée (section 3.3).
Prepare the pan for the water bath
A water bath (bain marie) protects the outside of the custard from baking much faster than the inside. The water should never reach a full boil. If it does, the oven temperature is too high and should be reduced.
- Preheat the oven to 170°C (338°F), conventional setting and place the oven grill (or a flat oven tray) in the middle of the oven. Try to use a tray or grill without edges so it’s easier to remove the ramekins from the oven later on.
- Place a kitchen towel in the bottom of a pan. The kitchen towel will protect the custard from the bottom heat. It will also keep the ramekins in place. Try to keep the towel as flat as possible so the custards don’t tilt towards one side. The pan should be big enough to fit two ramekins, leaving a gap between them and the edges of the pan. The edges should also be high, so that you don’t end up spilling boiling water while trying to remove the pan from the oven.
- Place two ramekins in the pan.
Prepare the caramel for the crème caramel
- Pour the sugar into a small pot and place over medium-high heat. I use heat 6 out of 9. Don’t stir the sugar yet.
- When the sugar starts to melt, lower the heat to medium-low (heat 4 out of 9).
- Wait for the sugar to be almost fully melted before stirring (see left picture below).
- If the color starts to change quickly but the sugar hasn’t fully melted yet, lower the heat. Then gently push the undissolved sugar crystals towards the melted sugar with a heatproof spatula.
- When the caramel turns amber and all the sugar has melted, remove from the heat. In the middle picture, the caramel is almost ready. Optional: Add 1 teaspoon (5 g/0.18 oz.) of water to the caramel just before pouring it into the ramekins. The caramel will bubble up so stir quickly (and carefully) to combine fully. If the caramel is lumpy, return to low heat and stir constantly until completely smooth.
Adding a little bit of water to the caramel before pouring it into the ramekins will stop the cooking process. It will also soften the caramel a little, making it easier to release the caramel sauce when unmolding.
- Quickly coat the bottom of the prepared ramekins with caramel. Be careful as the ramekins will heat up. The caramel will set very quickly so pour it into the ramekins as soon as it’s ready. Set aside while you prepare the custard.
Prepare the custard
- Boil water in a kettle and save it. We will be using it once the ramekins are in the oven. We want the water to be hot, not boiling, when we pour it into the pan.
- In a small pot, heat the milk and heavy cream with half of the sugar until warm (not boiling), swirling the pan occasionally. You’ll notice steam appearing. If using a thermometer, it should register about 71°C (160°F). Adding sugar to the milk (and/or cream) before heating it will form a layer at the bottom of the pot and will prevent the milk from sticking to it. This will also make the next step easier since there won’t be as much sugar to mix with the egg.
- In the meantime, gently whisk the egg and remaining sugar in a small bowl just until combined. Try not to whisk too much so you don’t incorporate a lot of air bubbles like I did!
- Temper the egg: Very slowly pour the warm liquids over the egg mixture whilst whisking. Don’t pour too quickly or you will scramble the egg. You want to slowly increase the temperature of the egg.
- Pour the custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a measuring cup. If you notice a lot of bubbles in the custard, let it sit for 5 to 10 minutes then skim the foam off with a spoon. You can also gently pat the surface with a paper towel. I used orange zest to flavor one of my trials, which is what you can see in the fine-mesh sieve (picture below).
- Divide the custard between the two ramekins, filling them almost to the top. You can strain the custard again if you’d like while pouring into the ramekins.
Keep in mind that you should be able to fill the mold with custard almost to the top. If the mold is too high, you risk smashing your custard while attempting to invert it onto the platter.
Bake the crème caramel
- Wear oven mitts then place the pan in the oven. Carefully fill the pan with the boiled water until it reaches about halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Loosely cover with parchment paper (or aluminum foil).
Why should you loosely cover the crème caramel when baking? To prevent the custard from browning and a skin from forming on the surface. If you cover the pan too tightly however, the water won’t evaporate properly. If evaporative cooling doesn’t occur, the water in the bain marie (water bath) might reach a full boil and overcook your custard.
- Bake for about 20-25 minutes until the custard is set but still jiggly. A digital thermometer inserted into the center of the custard (without touching the bottom of the ramekin) will register about 76-79°C (170-175°F). The baking time will depend on your oven, the ramekins used, how hot the liquids were when added to the egg mixture etc. Keep a close eye on the crème caramel the first time you make it.
- Transfer the crème caramel to a wire rack and cool down to room temperature for about an hour. Refrigerate for at least 12 hours, well covered in cling film.
Why should you refrigerate the crème caramel 12 hours before inverting it? 1) The crème caramel will be quite fragile when taken out of the oven and might fall apart when inverted. 2) Sugar is hygroscopic and tends to absorb liquids nearby. As you chill the crème caramel, the hard caramel layer will start to turn into a sauce. If you don’t chill it long enough, you’ll find that most of the caramel is still stuck to the ramekin.
To unmold the crème caramel, slide a thin knife around the edge of the ramekin, being careful not to damage the surface of the custard. Place a plate onto the ramekin and carefully invert it.
Troubleshooting Crème Caramel
The crème caramel isn’t smooth and has a lot of bubbles on the surface
- Foamy mixture: The custard base was whisked too vigorously. Whisk the egg and sugar very gently. If you incorporate a lot of air bubbles, you’ll have to skim the foam off the custard before baking it. If you don’t already, heat part of the sugar with the liquids (milk/cream). It will make it much easier to gently stir the egg with the remaining sugar.
- The custard was exposed to high temperatures or was heated for too long and started boiling. Heat the crème caramel very gently, preferably in an oven water bath. Check for doneness before the recommended baking time as it might differ depending on your oven, the ramekins used etc.
These two custards were from the same batch.
- Mistake #1: I tried to mix all the custard ingredients together without first heating the liquids. I ended up overmixing the custard because the sugar wouldn’t dissolve and both baked custards had bubbles in them. That’s not to say you always need to heat the liquids first. I know people who skip this step and still get good results. You’ll just have to be a bit more careful and use room temperature ingredients.
- Mistake #2: I poured tap water in the water bath for the custard on the left (baked for 39 minutes at 180°C/356°F) and boiling water for the custard on the right (baked for 15 minutes,180°C/356°F). Despite the much shorter baking time, you can clearly see that the surface of the custard on the right is full of bubbles. It was exposed to too much heat suddenly. Since I did not temper the egg first (by pouring hot liquids on it) and just used a cold egg, the boiling water caused the eggs to curdle.
The crème caramel falls apart when inverted
- Underbaked: Make sure the custard is properly baked before you take it out of the oven. It should be just set and still a bit jiggly (not runny).
- The crème caramel wasn’t chilled: The crème caramel will be quite fragile when taken out of the oven. Let it cool down at room temperature. Then chill it for at least 12 hours before inverting it onto a plate.
- Not enough eggs: Make sure you are using enough eggs in your recipe for structure. You’ll need at least 3 eggs/500 ml (17 fl oz.) of liquid. Another thing to note is that if you’d like to use egg yolks, use them in combination with whole eggs. You need the egg whites for a firm custard.
- The crème caramel wasn’t unmolded properly: As tempting as it might be when the custard just won’t release, don’t shake the ramekin up and down! Try dipping the ramekin in hot water or sliding the knife around the edge once more. You can also gently tap the sides of the ramekin to release the custard before inverting it onto a plate.
The crème caramel tastes eggy and/or is rubbery
You probably overcooked the crème caramel if you detect an eggy taste or if the texture isn’t smooth. Another reason for a rubbery texture could be that you are using too many eggs (or egg whites) in your recipe. Solution: Try baking the crème caramel at a lower temperature or reduce the baking time.
And that’s it! An easy make-ahead dessert! The hardest part is probably unmolding the crème caramel! I accidentally banged my fingers on the kitchen counter while swinging the ramekin up and down! That’s when I realized I got a bit too carried away!
If this happens to you, stop shaking the ramekin! Take a deep breath and dip the ramekin in boiling water for a few seconds. Then try sliding the knife around the edge of the ramekin one more time! Hopefully, you’ll be all set!
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.
McGee, H. (2004). On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Scribner.
Zuckerman, K. (2006). The Sweet Life: Desserts from Chanterelle. Bulfinch Press.