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Practicing the basics: creme brulee

While creme brulee, which literally means “burnt cream,” seems like something way beyond the “basics” of cooking, it’s really a pretty straightforward use of some very basic cooking principles and practices that are definitely worth having some experience with.

Creme brulee at its heart is just egg custard, something which appears in various forms in many dessert recipes. It’s easy to make if you remember just a couple of simple rules about cooking eggs and flavoring cream. The fun of egg custard is in “infusing” it with interesting other flavors.

The “brulee” on top is a layer of melted and caramelized sugar, hopefully solid enough to give a good “crack” when you break through it with a spoon. And the fun of that is, of course, in using a culinary torch. You can, of course, eat the custard without the sugar layer — I do, from time to time, and it’s still yummy — but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy torching some creme brulee for family and friends.

Creme brulee is usually made in ramekins: ceramic dishes that are oven-safe (and torch-safe!). They come in a variety of sizes and shapes, they’re pretty inexpensive to buy, and you can use whichever ones you want so that you can control the portion sizes. A common size for making creme brulee is a 6-ounch ramekin, which is 3 1/2 inches in diameter and about an inch and a half tall; that’s pretty much the height limit for creme brulee, since the time it takes to cook through and “set” depends on its thickness, and the longer it cooks the drier the top of the custard becomes. An inch or so of height is a pretty good practical limit.

The trick with custard is to let it cook at a low temperature so that you end up with “custard” and not “scrambled eggs.” We do this by baking the filled ramekins in a “water bath”: a baking dish filled with hot water about halfway up the sides of the ramekins.

Ramekins in a baking pan ready to be filled with custard. Before placing in the oven, we fill the pan with hot water until it reaches about halfway up the sides of the ramekin.

This assures that (with the exception of the top and bottom) the custard stays at about 200 degrees: hot enough for the custard to set, but not hot enough for the egg to cook on its own. It does mean, however, that you need to use ramekins that are all the same height (so that the water level is the same for all of them).

The downside of creme brulee is that you need some equipment: ramekins, a deep baking dish, and a torch. The good news is that none of there are specialty items that you would only use for one dish: they are all generally useful in your kitchen (even the torch). And they are a good investment for allowing creme brulee to be that one special “impress your friends” dessert recipe you break out on special occasions.

Another important “basic” that we can employ here is infusing flavors into cream. Cream is very good at pulling flavors out of other ingredients, such as vanilla and citrus. Creme brulee is perfectly fine unflavored, or lightly flavored with a bit of vanilla extract, but you can make all sorts of interesting flavored variations as well. Check the notes at the end for thoughts and ideas on infusing flavors into the cream.

Makes 5-6 servings. Preparation time: about 1 hour (a bit longer if infusing the cream).

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • Optional: flavoring ingredients
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2-3 cups boiling water
  • Sugar for the top layer

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Position an oven rack at the middle shelf.

If infusing flavors into the cream: pour the cream into a saucepan, add the flavoring ingredients, and heat over low heat, stirring occasionally until steam begins to rise from the cream (about 165-180 degrees). Remove from heat, allow to cool for 10 minutes, then strain out the flavoring ingredients.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and 1/2 cup sugar until well combined. Pour in the cream and vanilla extract and whisk until thoroughly mixed.

Fill the ramekins with the cream-egg-sugar mixture, up to the inner bevel, leaving about 1/4 inch at the top.

Place the filled ramekins in a 8×8 or 13×9 baking dish. Carefully pour the hot water into the baking dish until it reaches approximately halfway up the sides of the ramekins.

Carefully place the dish in the oven and bake until the custard has set, 25-40 minutes. The exact time will depend upon the size and height of your ramekins, the temperature of the cream at the start, and of course the reliability of your oven. Start checking at about 20-25 minutes by gently wiggling the pan to see if the custard is still liquid. It will solidify from the outer edge toward the center. Keep checking every five minutes until it’s done.

Remove the pan from the oven, and move the ramekins to a cooling rack for ten minutes. Then move them to the refrigerator to chill.

Adding the caramelized sugar layer:

Once the ramekins and custard have chilled, and just before serving, remove them from the refrigerator.

Place one ramekin of custard on a heat-proof, fire-proof surface such as a thick plastic cutting board or an upside-down quarter-sheet pan. Sprinkle a thin, even layer of sugar on top of the custard, just enough so the entire top is white and the custard doesn’t show through.

Light the torch, and using a slow circular motion, heat the sugar with the torch flame. Keep the torch moving, and make repeated circles until the sugar just melts. Spiral in toward the center until all of the sugar is melted. Finish it off by making quick circles in the center area until the sugar starts to bubble and brown. The sugar will turn from bubbly and brown to burnt and black very quickly, so don’t hover in one place very long and when it starts to bubble pull the torch back.

Allow the ramekins to cool for a few minutes before serving. Be very careful touching them right after torching the top — the edge of the ramekin can heat up a lot and can burn you. It’s best to let them sit for a minute before you try to pick them up.

Tips and suggestions:

  • Some good flavoring options for infusing the cream: citrus zest (lemon, lime, orange); vanilla bean (cut it open, scoop out the seeds, and place both the seeds and the husk in the cream while it heats); shredded coconut (unsweetened). You can also melt in a bit of chocolate.
  • Right after it’s torched, the caramelized sugar layer is a hard shell that gives a very satisfying crack, but by a few hours later, it will have absorbed some liquid from the custard and will soften. The point: you can make the custard in advance, but if at all possible wait until just before serving to add and torch the sugar on top.
  • If you don’t have a culinary torch (which is understandable), you can use your oven on “broil” setting. The trick is to make sure that you don’t cook the custard any more. You can do this by setting up an “ice bath” similar to the water bath you used to cook the custard: place the ramekins in a baking dish and then pack it with ice cubes, about two-thirds of the way up the sides of the ramekins. Sprinkle the sugar onto the top of the custard, and then place underneath the broiler. Watch it carefully, as the sugar will melt and brown quickly once it reaches a certain temperature.

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