Crème brûlée is not only elegant but nearly as simple as a dessert can be. And the secret to getting it right is to gently cook it to the right temperature, and not a degree higher. Sous vide cooking makes this delicate custard foolproof, and we have all the thermal tips you need.
The protein in eggs begins to firm up in the temperature range of 140–150°F (60–66°C). But egg mixtures—custards—set around 160–180°F (71–82°C). The more diluted the egg mixture, the higher the doneness temperature will be. The target doneness temperature for crème brûlée is 176°F (80°C).
Cooking Temperature Determines the Final Texture of Custards
Custards like crème brûlée, cheesecake, and pumpkin pie are sensitive to high temperatures. The cooking temperature is what determines the final texture.
In our post, How to Bake the Perfect Cheesecake, we explored two different baking methods. One with a high starting temperature and low finishing temperature. Another one baked in a water bath at a low temperature. Even though the filling was exactly the same, the textures were dramatically different. That’s because egg protein cooked at high temperatures becomes firm very quickly. But when egg protein is cooked slowly and gently at lower temperatures its texture is smooth and creamy.
Cook it Gently
Crème brûlée is a very soft-set custard and needs to be cooked gently to get its delicate texture just right. The traditional method of cooking creme brulee is to bake it in a low-temperature oven in a water bath for even heating (see our post, Thermal Secrets for Crème Brûlée). Even with this gentle method, it’s still possible to over bake the custards, resulting in curdled texture. When it comes to crème brûlée, accuracy and precision with temperature control matter.
Sous Vide Cooking: Precise Temperature Control
Sous vide is a cooking method where food is submerged in a temperature-controlled water bath held at the food’s desired doneness temperature. Because of the carefully controlled cooking environment, the food’s internal temperature cannot exceed its target temperature. Brilliant! This method allows the custard to cook very gently, and it’s the foolproof secret to never overcooking crème brûlée.
Most foods are cooked in plastic bags when cooked sous vide, but our crème brûlée are cooked in their own serving vessels, simple canning jars. The jars and lids are made to withstand being submerged in water at high temperatures, so they work perfectly for our sustained low-temperature underwater cook.
For this project, we used ChefSteps’ new sous vide circulator, Joule. It’s super easy to use and maintains a very accurate, stable water temperature throughout the duration of the cook.
Sous Vide Crème Brûlée
Crème Brûlée recipe from ChefSteps, yields 5–6 servings
- 5.6 oz egg yolk (about 11 yolks)
- 3.2 oz granulated sugar, plus more for dusting
- 0.11 oz salt
- 1 lb 5.2 oz heavy cream
- 1 vanilla bean (optional)
- Sous vide setup with Joule
- Fine mesh strainer
- Canning jars
- Thermapen Mk4
Prepare Water Bath
- Preheat sous vide water bath to 176°F (80°C) with Joule. We used a large Lexan container for our water bath. Any large pot or heat-tempered container will work.
Make the Custard Base
- Heat cream to 158°F (70°C) over low heat. Cream can scorch easily, so heat gently, and spot-check the cream with a Thermapen Mk4 to verify its temperature.
- Scrape the vanilla bean (if using) and incorporate it into the sugar by rubbing between your hands.
- Whisk the egg yolks and salt into the vanilla sugar.
- While whisking, slowly pour the heated cream into the egg and sugar mixture. Strain the custard base through a fine mesh sieve. Cover, and set aside for about 20 minutes to allow all the bubbles to rise to the surface. After the 20 minutes, skim off any foam on the surface of the custard.
➤ Pro Tip: When whisking the hot cream into the egg mixture you’ll want the bowl to stay put on the counter. Use a Silicone Trivet! It’s grippy and won’t let the bowl slide around while you’re whisking.
Pour into Jars and Let Joule do the Work
- Pour the custard into the jars up to about 1/2″ from the top of the jar. If there are any bubbles on the surface, torch the top of the custard quickly to pop them. Secure the lids on the jars and place into the water bath using tongs.
- Cook the crème brûlée for 1 hour in the circulated water.
Cool and Chill
- After the timer has sounded, remove one creme brulee and verify its internal temperature with a Thermapen Mk4 to be sure it has reached 176°F (80°C).
- Once verified, remove all custards from the water bath and allow them to cool at room temperature for one hour.
- Once cooled to room temperature, you can place the jars in an ice bath to chill the custard quickly or transfer them to the refrigerator. The jarred desserts will last up to a week in the refrigerator.
Burning the Sugar
This is the finishing touch right before serving. If you caramelize the surface too far in advance before serving, the burned sugar will absorb moisture from the custard and it’ll be soft rather than a glassy sheet of sugar you get to crack with your spoon.
- After chilling, open the lids and blot away any collected condensation with a paper towel.
- Evenly sprinkle granulated sugar on the tops of the custards, and it’s time to brûler!
- Using a torch with a low flame, wave the flame over the sugar (without directly aiming the flame on the glass to avoid possibly cracking the glass) and burn until all of the sugar is caramelized. You can burn more than one layer of sugar if a thicker layer is desired. Serve and enjoy!
Cooking crème brûlée sous vide-style is an excellent way to go! Not only is it easy, but the end results are nothing short of perfect. No overcooked, curdled custard, just edge-to-edge creamy crème brûlée perfection. If you haven’t given sous vide cooking a try before, this is a great beginning project with impressive results. And ChefSteps’ Joule is the easiest, most accurate sous vide tool we have found.