How To Make Crème Brûlée

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Creme brulee - traditional french vanilla cream dessert.
Photo: tbralnina/Getty Images

Sure, crème brûlée sounds fancy and looks fancy, but don't worry – it's not as complicated to make as it may seem. This classic baked custard dessert boasts a signature burnt sugar topping, which makes for a beautiful presentation and a texturally exciting eating experience. While crème brûlée may feel like an indulgence to save for your favorite French restaurant, you can easily make this dessert right in the comfort of your own kitchen, and you don't need any special equipment to do so. Ready to get cracking (pun intended)? Here's how to make this undeniably romantic sweet treat.

Make the Custard

Creme Brulee ingredients
Sara Tane

Preparing a custard might sound intimidating, but it's basically just a cooked mixture of egg and cream – no biggie. If you're making crème brûlée for a dinner party, I would advise making your custard (in individual, oven-safe ramekins) a day in advance so that it can set up overnight, making for one less thing you have to do the day of your event. As far as flavors go, you can keep your custard super simple or you can customize. For six (4-ounce) ramekins, mix together 2 cups of heavy cream and ¼ cup of granulated sugar in a medium-size saucepan over medium heat.

split vanilla bean
Sara Tane

Add any desired flavors at this point. The seeds of one vanilla pod provide a luscious, Tahitian vanilla flavor. I'll admit, I don't use the highest quality vanilla when I'm baking cakes and cookies because in these contexts, the vanilla flavor isn't going to shine through in a manner that warrants breaking out the best stuff. But because there are so few ingredients in crème brûlée, it's well worth it to reach for the pricier vanilla bean pods. Scrape the inside of the pod with the back of your knife to extract all of the seeds.

Creme Brulee custard mixture in pan
Sara Tane

Other fun flavors to try incorporating into your crème brûlée are matcha, chocolate, espresso, pistachio, citrus, cinnamon, or chai. Add these ingredients (matcha powder, cocoa powder, espresso powder, pistachio butter, fresh citrus juice, cinnamon sticks, fresh ginger root, or cardamom pods) into the cream mixture. It's also a good idea to add a pinch of salt. Don't worry about adding whole seeds, pods, or sticks to your cream because you are going to eventually strain the mixture.

Bring the cream mixture to a gentle simmer, then turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let the flavors steep for at least 15 minutes. Give it a try and see how it tastes – you can always adjust the flavors.

eggs and sugar for creme brulee
Sara Tane
tempering egg for creme brulee custard
Sara Tane

Once your cream is sweetened and flavored, you'll separately need to whisk 6 egg yolks and 1 tablespoon of sugar in a medium bowl. Temper the warm cream mixture into the egg yolks by pouring a little bit of the cream into the eggs while quickly whisking; incorporating just a splash at a time will prevent the warm cream from cooking the raw eggs.

Straining custard mixture for creme brulee
Sara Tane

Once the eggs have been tempered, pour the remaining cream mixture into the bowl with the egg mixture and whisk to combine thoroughly. Strain this entire mixture using a fine mesh sieve.

Bake the Custard

custards in paper towel lined pan
Sara Tane

Once you've prepared the custard base, it's time to bake it. Always make sure that your ramekins are oven-safe before you attempt to bake with them. (If you don't have a set of oven-safe ramekins, you can make crème brûlée in a single glass baking dish, though you lose the charm of individual portions that way). Place your ramekins in a glass baking dish lined with paper towels (these are going to help keep the ramekins in place), divide the custard evenly among the ramekins, and preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Side note: If you find yourself making creme brûlée often, you can opt to use a baking set (like this one) that has a built-in interior rack to keep the dishes in place.

Pouring water into creme brulee pan in oven
Sara Tane

Separately, use an electric kettle to boil water. If you don't have an electric kettle, boil water in a saucepan and carefully transfer the hot water to a heat-safe spouted container, like a liquid measuring cup. Place the baking dish on a center rack in your preheated oven, then carefully pour boiling water into the side of the glass baking dish until the water comes about ⅔ of the way up the sides of the ramekins.

Bake until the custard is barely set but still wobbly in the center. This usually takes anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes. Keep a close eye on the custards because you don't want the tops to get any color in the oven.

Cool the Custard

creme brulee custards cooling
Sara Tane

After the custards are finished baking, carefully transfer the ramekins from the hot water bath (using an oven mitt) to a cooling rack. Once they've cooled completely at room temperature, wrap each ramekin individually with plastic wrap and let chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Make the Burnt Sugar Topping

ramekin with granulated sugar top
Sara Tane

Now is the moment we've all been waiting for — that crackly, crispy sugar topping! Remove the custard ramekins from the fridge and remove the plastic wrap. Sprinkle a thin layer of granulated sugar over each of the custards. Traditionally, you would use a culinary torch to brûlée the sugar and create the signature golden-brown coating atop your custard. However, not everyone is applying for the next season of Top Chef, so you might not have a culinary torch in your kitchen drawer.

If that's the case, worry not. Turn your broiler to high and place a rack in the upper third of your oven. Place the ramekins on a baking sheet and set them under the broiler to create the sugar brulee top. It's very important that you keep a close eye on your crème brûlée at this point. Every broiler is different and the sugar can go from caramelized perfection to irreversibly burnt in mere seconds. Not to mention, the longer the ramekins are in the oven, the warmer your custard will become, and you don't want them warming too much. The beauty of crème brûlée is in the contrast between a chilled custard and a warm, crispy sugar topping.

Completed Creme Brulee
Sara Tane

It's not a bad idea to start with just one crème brûlée ramekin as a tester… and then, once you've got a feel for your broiler, finish the rest. The handheld culinary torch is an ideal tool for this task because it gives you more control, but the broiler is an easy work-around if you don't want to invest in one quite yet.

Once the sugar is torched, allow it to cool slightly until the sugar hardens. If you want, you can garnish the completed dessert portions with a little whipped cream, fresh fruit, or fresh mint leaves, but none are necessary.

completed creme brulee with cracked topping
Sara Tane

Finally, grab the largest spoon you can find, break through that crispy sugar shell in the most dramatic way that you know how and enjoy the fruits of your labor. You've earned it.

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