collage of different kinds of custards

Custards 101-What’s The Difference between them?

collage of different kinds of custards

Custards play a huge role in baking and pastry and there are many to choose from when creating something magical. Here I explain the basics, including uses and for each one and the differences between them.


Just hearing the word “custards” brings to mind something yummy, doesn’t it? What exactly are they? The long and short of it is this, its a liquid that is thickened with eggs. The role of eggs here is they act as a coagulation mechanism by thickening the liquid. Coagulation is simply when proteins that are in the eggs (albumin), stick together and cause the liquid mixture to become thick.

Bear with me as I put on my food science hat for a minute. First, when proteins in the eggs are first heated, it causes them to denature, or unravel so to speak. Proteins are usually found in a rolled up tight structure. Heating causes the bonds that hold these together to be broken. Second, once those bonds are broken it will allow these proteins to stick together and take up the liquid. As a result, you get a thickened mixture. Pretty cool, huh? Love science!

Eggs are used in cooking as thickeners in many things. They are a great natural thickener. Think of hollandaise sauce.

There is one exception here for a custard that is not thickened primarily by eggs and that is pastry cream and panna cotta. More on that later.

Categories of Custards

Generally, there are two types of custard categories

  • Stove-Top
  • Baked

Stove Top Custards

Typically, these are cooked in a saucepan or double boiler that are stirred to achieve thickening capabilities. Lets explore a few stove top custards and the difference between them.

Creme Anglaise

This is a great “Go-To” sauce and used as a utility sauce because it has so many uses. Its absolutely fantastic and I could eat a gallon of it. Just kidding, no maybe I wasn’t….

Here is a basic recipe here.

  • Vanilla custard sauce
  • Contains egg yolks, sugar, and milk, vanilla flavoring
  • Made on the stove top
  • Requires constant stirring so not to cook the eggs
  • Finished sauce is creamy and coats the back of the spoon (Nappe)
nappe test coating the back of the spoon, testing in custards

Uses: Ice cream base, served over fruit, drizzled over cakes, used as sauces for desserts.

Pastry Cream

Pastry Cream is a vanilla custard that is thickened with cornstarch. Picture a creme anglaise, but thickened. I love this and make it all the time. Having a funny memory back working in corporate catering, standing on a small foot stool and stirring huge batches of this in a kettle pot with a gigantic whisk. We used this in so many ways in the bakeshop. Great arm workout I might add.

This custard is thickened with cornstarch, this protects the egg yolks when boiled. Boiling serves two purposes here: 1) thicken the mixture significantly 2) Cook out the starch where it doesn’t taste pasty.

  • Vanilla pudding
  • Thickened mixture that uses cornstarch
  • Made in a saucepot
  • Requires constant stirring
  • Consist of milk or half and half, sugar, egg yolks, and cornstarch, then adding butter and vanilla flavoring
  • Requires boiling

Versions: Adding some chocolate chips after cooking turns this into a chocolate pastry cream. Also, I’ve even used this as a cinnamon roll filling (replacing cinnamon/sugar mixture) and it bakes up nicely.

USES: Cake fillings, tarts, eclairs, cream puffs.

Panna Cotta

Unlike the creme anglaise and pastry cream, panna cotta is thickened with gelatin and does NOT contain any eggs. Makes for a great low-fat creamy dessert. Wonderfully served with a fruit compote on top or fruit couli.

  • Cream, milk, half and half, or a mixture of all, sugar, gelatin, and flavoring
  • Thickened with gelatin
  • After cooking placed in individual serving cups and chilled.


Sabayon also falls into this stove top category and its a bit of a different type of sauce. You probably have seen this served over fresh fruit. As with a creme anglaise, this is thickened by the use of egg yolks. Additionally, wine is used in this custard, champagne is the most commonly one used.

  • Vanilla wine sauce
  • Requires a double boiler
  • Eggs are the thickening agent
  • Consist of egg yolks, sugar, salt, wine and cream

USES: Served over fresh fruit and cakes

Baked Custards

Baked custards are basically made the same way as on the stove with the exception of the way it is thickened and cooked. Cooking takes place in the oven usually in a hot water bath. This ensures the custard cooks evenly and the eggs do not curdle. Additionally, this is also where the thickening occurs of the custard via the heat created in the oven.

Perfectly baked custard will be smooth and firm, almost like a soft jello.

Crème Brulee

pecan pie creme brulee with a spoon
Pecan Pie Creme Brulee
creme brulee rolls on baking sheet with vanilla custard
Creme Brulee Breakfast rolls

One of my all time favorite custards that I make often. It’s to die for, I have loved it from the very first spoonful came into my mouth! Creamy and smooth, just melts into your mouth. The crunch of the caramelized sugar on top supplies the perfect touch for a delightful dessert. Ironically, the French name for this is “burnt cream.”

Creme Brulee is generally hast two steps of cooking. First, its cooked just a bit on the stove, then poured off to finish in the oven. Thickening doesn’t occur when cooking on the stove. Second, this first step is to combine all the ingredients and bring the mixture up to temperature to dissolve the sugar and incorporate the egg yolks.

Final stage, the mixture is poured into ramekins or baking dishes, and finishes cooking in the oven in a water bath where it will become a firm custard. Personally, I like the chill the custard after it cools before I serve it. The warm caramelized sugar on top goes so well with that chilled custard for a incredible dream come true for your tastebuds!

  • Vanilla cooked custard
  • Heated on the stove then finished off in the oven
  • Heat from the oven is the thickener
  • Cooked in a water bath
  • Consist of milk, half and half, or cream, sugar, egg yolks, vanilla
  • Typically served with a sugar topping that is caramelized

TIP: You can flavor these by steeping fruit rind or coffee beans when steeping. Also can add chocolate chips after heating on the stove to make a chocolate brulee. Personally, I love the coffee beans to turn it into a coffee brulee. Fantastic!

Pots de Creme

trio of coffee pot de creme custards
Vanilla Pots De Creme with Caramel

This is know as a more fancier version of a vanilla pudding. I love the name don’t you? Translation “Pot of Cream.” Pots de Crème custards bring back memories of my first restaurant job as a pastry assistant where this was on the menu. Absolutely delicious. Similar to a crème brulee in how it’s made. Initially cooked on the stove then poured into smaller cooking vessels and finished off in the oven in a water bath. Note, this differs slightly in that, creme brulee usually uses a bit more cream.

Crème Caramel

This is official name of Flan. This is a custard that gets baked over caramelized sugar, the opposite of a crème brulee. Baked off in the oven, then flipped out to reveal the caramel top. Magic! 🙂

  • Caramel is made on the stove then poured into ramekins
  • Vanilla mixture is heated briefly on the stove just till boiling, eggs are tempered in
  • Consist of cream, eggs, egg yolks, sugar, and flavoring
  • Baked in a hot water bath.


Other familiar custards baked also include cheesecake, bread pudding, and quiche.

Love learning about pastry, check out my other post in the Pastry 101 series

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1 thought on “Custards 101-What’s The Difference between them?

  1. ” … panna cotta is thickened with gelatin and does NOT contain any eggs.”

    Au contraire… there are many variations of Panna Cotta – some without the use of gelatin and thickened instead with egg whites. ie: “A few weeks ago, I had a delightful lunch cooked by a chef trained in Northern Italy. He insisted the proper way to make Panna Cotta was without gelatin, and it was indeed the best version of this decadent dessert I’ve ever had.”

    A very interesting version of Panna Cotta – no gelatin and egg whites:

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