Luscious and creamy, with a thick custard and a layer of perfectly brûléed sugar, this Lemon Crème Brûlée is a dessert recipe to impress. Perfect for anniversaries and Valentine’s Day, but easy enough for a special dessert anytime.
A Luscious & Creamy Lemon Dessert
Creme brulee has always been one of my favorite sweet indulgences. From the delicate sugar crust that tastes of roasted marshmallows at the top, all the way through the thick, creamy custard that leaves me scraping the bottom of the dish for more.
As my favorite dessert, I’ve been inspired on more than one occasion to make unique flavors depending on the season or event, including an eggnog version for Christmas dinner and a pumpkin spice one for Thanksgiving. However, it was this lemon creme brulee version that got me started. Originally inspired by our backyard lemon tree, creating this version of creme brulee taught me that a delicious creamy custard should not be limited to basic vanilla.
With the light, luscious lemony flavor, it’s not too rich or too heavy, and perfectly sweet. Easier than expected, this is the ideal dessert for lemon lovers everywhere. Serve it after your next date night, Valentine’s Day, or anniversary dinner.
What You’ll Need
Homemade creme brulee is made with just a handful of simple ingredients, like sugar, egg yolks, and whipping cream.
- Granulated Sugar – White granulated sugar is used in the custard as well as sprinkled on top for the bruleed topping.
- Egg yolks – Only the yolks are needed, the egg whites can be used in another recipe or added to tomorrow morning’s breakfast.
- Lemon – Lemon zest infuses flavor into the custard while lemon slices make for a pretty garnish just prior to serving.
- Vanilla extract – A splash of vanilla brightens the flavor and complements the citrus.
- Heavy whipping cream – Whipping cream gives the custard a thick, creamy texture.
- Whole milk – Many classic creme brulee recipes use all cream and no milk, but I prefer a slightly lighter version, so I swap a portion of the cream for whole milk. Do not use low fat or skimmed milk or your custard will not set.
Recommended Kitchen Tools
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- measuring spoons
- microplane (for zesting the lemon)
- medium saucepan
- balloon whisk
- mesh strainer or fine mesh sieve
- large, 4 cup liquid measuring cup
- baking dish or roasting pan for the water bath (9″ x 9″ is what I use, but adjust based on ramekin size)
- four 6 ounce ramekins or custard cups
How to Make Lemon Creme Brulee
Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing particularly difficult about making creme brulee – you just need to have a little patience and attention to detail.
- Prep your ingredients. Zest lemons and separate egg yolks. Set water to boil for the water bath and preheat the oven.
- Whisk together sugar and egg yolks. Thoroughly whisk egg yolks with the granulated sugar until they turn into a pale yellow color with a thick, creamy texture. It should take about 5 minutes by hand. Add in the lemon zest and vanilla.
- Temper the egg mixture. Heat cream and milk until bubbles start to form. Stir occasionally and do not let it boil. Slowly add 1/4 cup of the hot milk mixture into the egg yolk mixture, stirring constantly. Repeat with another 1/4 cup, then add the custard mixture back into the saucepan. Whisk to combine completely.
- Allow the lemon zest to infuse the cream mixture. Let sit to draw the lemon oil out of the zest and infuse the custard, then strain mixture with a fine mesh sieve to remove lemon zest and any bits of cooked egg.
- Bake. Equally divide the mixture among the ramekins. Create a water bath by pouring the boiling water into the pan, halfway up the side of the ramekins. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the centers are set.
- Cool. Remove from the water bath as soon as possible. Cool to room temperature, then refrigerate for at least 3 hours.
- Brulee the topping. Just prior to serving, cover each custard with a thin layer of granulated white sugar. Brulee with a kitchen torch until the sugar is caramelized. Garnish as desired and serve immediately.
How to Achieve the Perfect Brulee Topping
For a perfectly crisp creme brulee topping, follow these tips.
- Use the right amount of sugar. Lemon creme brulee requires the use of real sugar to get the topping just right. The topping should be thick enough to shatter like glass when hit with the back of a spoon, but not be so thick that it cuts your mouth or gets caught in your teeth. There isn’t anything romantic about picking candy out of your teeth after a meal. For a narrow six ounce ramekin it takes about a teaspoon and a half of sugar. If you are using a wide, flat ramekins they will need more sugar, so adjust accordingly.
- Spread the sugar evenly. You can’t just heap on the sugar and expect it to melt into place. If the sugar is too thin, you can burn the custard itself. If the sugar is too thick, it can take too long to melt, causing blackened spots that taste burnt instead of toasted. To prevent this, use the back of the spoon to smooth out the sugar and ensure even coverage across the entire top of the custard.
- Keep the torch moving to prevent burning. Keep the torch moving the entire time it is in contact with the dessert. The entire topping will melt and then burn together to create the finish. If it smells like roasted marshmallows you are doing it right.
- Use caution with the kitchen torch. If using the constant on function of the torch, be sure to turn it off when you put it down. It’s a flame. It will catch things on fire if it comes into contact with them. I always make sure that my fire extinguisher is ready and working whenever I play with fire in the kitchen. (No, I didn’t have to learn this the hard way, and I don’t want you to either.) For more check out my Kitchen Safety Tips.
Tips for Success
If this is your first time making lemon creme brulee or any other creme brulee recipe, here are a few things that you may find helpful.
- Heavy whipping cream is essential. I’ve lightened this lemon creme brulee recipe slightly, by using whole milk for part of the cream. If you omit too much of the cream, there isn’t enough fat to create the thick creamy custard texture.
- Slowly combine the egg yolk and hot cream mixtures. After you have heated the cream make sure temper the eggs before completely combining the two together. To do this: pour part of the hot cream mixture into the egg mixture very slowly, while whisking constantly. This allows the cream to heat the eggs gradually without cooking them, leaving you with a smooth creamy texture. Once you get about half of the warm cream into the egg yolk, the mixture should be tempered enough to speed up, but don’t just dump it all in.
- Prevent the bowl from slipping. If your bowl won’t sit still while you whisk with one hand and pour with the other, take a wet a paper towel or washcloth and place it under your bowl. It should hold it in place right where it needs to be. (This also works for cutting boards that like to slip around.)
- Don’t skip straining the cream mixture. Straining is important in a citrus based creme brulee for removing the bits of zest, but it’s important in all creme brulees for removing any bits of scrambled egg that may have formed by improper tempering.
- How to tell when creme brulee is finished baking. To check if they are done, gently shake the oven rack. If the center of the custard looks like liquid continue to cook them. If the center looks set, but jiggles like gelatin then they should be done.
- Don’t skip the water bath. The water bath is an essential part of achieving the perfect texture in your custard, as it prevents it from drying out. Use boiling hot water for the water bath. Unless you are using an electric kettle that boils instantly, start heating the water when I begin the recipe. For the pan use anything that holds the ramekins and will allow water to come halfway up the sides of them. A roasting pan, baking pan, cake pan, or even a deep pie pan can work well. Anything too short can be dangerous to handle once filled with boiling hot water.
One of my favorite things about making creme brulee is that it is so easy to tailor the flavors to match your meal or your personal preferences. You can check out all of my creme brulee recipes to get ideas, then try some flavor profiles of your own.
A word of caution: you cannot just blend whatever you want into the custard and expect it to set up correctly. The easiest ways to flavor creme brulee are to use spice blends, citrus zest, extracts, and fruit preserves. Since this version uses citrus zest and extracts, these are some of my favorite variations that aren’t published yet.
- Coconut Lime – Trade out the lemon zest and vanilla extract for equal parts lime zest and coconut extract.
- Orange and Almond – Swap out the lemon zest for an equal part orange zest, and trade the vanilla for 1/2 as much almond extract. Almond extract tends to be more potent and you don’t need as much.
- Cherry Lime – Trade the lemon zest for lime and in addition to the vanilla extract had a couple drops of your favorite cherry bitters – or – trade half of the vanilla for cherry extract.
Lemon creme brulee makes the perfect decadent dessert for any occasion – but take it up a level by adding some strawberries or lemon slices and a glass of champagne for a special anniversary, birthday, or Valentine’s Day dessert.
The most important thing to remember is that you should only carmelize the topping just before serving – otherwise it will be soggy instead of crunchy.
How to Store
Since these custard desserts have to chill for several hours anyway, I like to make them at least a day in advance. It takes all of the stress out of making them before dinner so they have time to chill and hopefully you’ll have a moment to relax.
To store your creme brulee, place them in a covered airtight container and store in the fridge. Again, do not caramelize the sugar topping in advance. Add the sugar layer and brulee it just before serving.
Can I Freeze Crème Brûlée?
Yes, absolutely! Freezing creme brulee is one of my favorite tricks to ensure I always have a special dessert on hand when needed. Since this recipe makes 4 custard desserts, I almost always freeze two.
To freeze, cool in the fridge as instructed. Then wrap in aluminum foil and place in an airtight, freezer-safe container. Freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw in the fridge and brûlée the topping just prior to serving.
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- 1/4 cup white sugar
- 4 egg yolks
- 2 teaspoons lemon zest*
- 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 5 tablespoons white sugar - divided
- lemon slices or strawberries for garnish
- Heat oven to 300ºF. Boil water for the water bath, preferably in a tea kettle for easy pouring. Place four 6-oz custard cups or ramekins into a 8x8 or 9x9 square pan.
- Zest lemons and separate egg yolks from the whites, reserving the whites for another recipe.
- Whisk together sugar and egg yolks in a medium sized bowl until it lightens in color and takes on a thick, creamy texture. Add the lemon zest and vanilla, whisk to combine.
- Heat cream and milk over medium heat until bubbles start to form at the edge and the cream gets hot. Stir occasionally and do not let it boil. About 5 minutes.
- Temper the egg yolks by slowly adding about 1/4 cup of the hot milk and cream into the egg yolk mixture, while whisking constantly. Once incorporated repeat with another 1/4 cup of the milk and cream. Then add the custard mixture back into the saucepan with the remaining milk and cream. Whisk to combine completely. Adding the hot cream too quickly to the egg yolks will result in scrambled eggs.
- Allow to sit for 5 minutes to draw the lemon oil out of the zest, then strain mixture, preferably into a large measuring cup with a pour spout. Squeeze as much of liquid as possible from the lemon zest with the back of the spoon.
- Divide the custard mixture equally into the ramekins. Then, create the water bath by pouring the boiling water into the pan until it's half way up the side of the custard cups. Careful not to pour water into the custard.
- Bake in the water bath for 30 - 35 minutes or until centers are set. To test lightly jiggle the pan. The centers should jiggle like jello.
- Remove from the water bath as soon as you can safely handle them, to stop the cooking process. Cool to room temperature then refrigerate for a minimum of three hours.
- Cover each custard with 1 1/2 teaspoons of white sugar, adjusting for ramekin width if needed. Brulee the tops with a kitchen torch until the sugar is caramelized. Top with a lemon garnish or fresh sliced strawberries and serve immediately.
*About 2 medium lemons of zest
Nutrition Information:Yield: 4 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 497Total Fat: 40gSaturated Fat: 24gTrans Fat: 1gUnsaturated Fat: 13gCholesterol: 296mgSodium: 87mgCarbohydrates: 30gFiber: 1gSugar: 29gProtein: 6g
Nutrition information is automatically calculated by Nutritionix and is for general information purposes only. For the most accurate information, calculate using your select brands and exact measurements.
For the step by step version of this recipe, check out the How to Make Lemon Creme Brulee.
More Lemon Dessert Recipes:
- Easy Lemon Bars with Shortbread Crust
- Meyer Lemon Curd
- Wild Blackberry Muffins with Lemon Glaze
- Lemon Sugar Cookies
- Spiked Lemonade Popsicles