Got a Custard Craving? Flan vs Crème Brûlée

Flan vs Crème Brûlée

Custard takes many forms but no matter how you enjoy eating it, there are few desserts more pleasurable.

I don’t know about you, but when I close my eyes and imagine that silky, creamy texture that comes with each sweet bite, it’s hard to keep my focus!

In fact, just typing this article about two of my all time favs is revving up my appetite so before I dash off to the kitchen and get cooking, let’s talk about the differences between two of the world’s most beloved treats – flan and crème brûlée.

If you love them as much as I do, it’s hard to choose between them despite the fact that they seem to be similar to one another. However, diehard custard fans around the globe know that there are differences between the two.

The main difference between flan and crème brûlée is that while both are custards with caramel, flan is made with the caramel on the bottom of the custard (which is then flipped when served so the caramel is on top) whereas crème brûlée is made without the caramel layer to start and is added (in the form of a hardened caramelized top layer) after the dessert has chilled.

There are still additional differences between these heavenly delights, and we’ll cover each and every one of them.

By the time you’ve finished reading, you might want both, but either way, you’ll be too hungry to care!

Origin Differences Between Flan and Crème Brûlée

It’s thought that flan is most likely originated in France. Here, the term “flan” evolved over the centuries from an ancient Germanic term for a flat cake, or “flado”.

While the transition from cake to custard might be lost in translation, the deliciousness of flan was here to stay. Over time, the French also referred to it as crème caramel. and while that’s still the case today, flan is broadly used to describe the dessert in most parts of the world.

Another interesting thing that differentiates flan from crème brûlée is the sheer number of varieties that have sprung up all across the globe. Seemingly, almost every country on Earth now has adapted a version of flan to suit local tastes.

While flan has an unquestioned fanbase all across the world, crème brûlée is inseparable from its home country of France for many who love this divine creation.

Interestingly, it’s thought that the creamy sensation might have evolved simultaneously across Europe from the 17th through the 19th century.

First to claim crème brûlée as their own is the English whose beloved burnt cream first appeared as a delicacy in the 17th century. Less than a century later, the Spanish had fashioned their own version, which was called Crema Catalana.

But, of course, for true crème brûlée lovers, all roads lead to, and end, in France.

It’s here that crème brûlée made its first splash in culinary circles towards the end of the 19th century and the rest, as they say, is history.

Flan Crème Brûlée
Originated in France Originated in France
Evolved from an ancient Germanic term for a flat cake Evolved simultaneously across Europe in the 17th through 19th century
Referred to as “crème caramel” in France First claimed by English as “burnt cream” in the 17th century
Widely adapted in various countries Strong association with France
Variety of flavors available Classic French dessert

Ingredient and Preparation Differences Between Flan and Crème Brûlée

As mentioned at the beginning of the article, flan and crème brûlée have virtually identical ingredients.

There are too many variations of flan to cover in depth here, but for the most part, the major difference between the two is how caramel is used.

In most flan recipes, the cooked caramel layer is added to the mold (or ramekins for small serving sizes) used to prepare it prior to the addition of the custard. Once the custard is added, the mixture is cooked in a water bath (or bain marie). Once complete, the finished dessert is flipped and served with the softened caramel layer on top.

Flan is often served chilled but is just as often served warm as well, since the caramel layer is soft, not hard, as is the case with crème brûlée.

Similarly, the custard portion of crème brûlée is usually prepared in a bain marie, but unlike with flan, the caramel layer is added once the custard has cooked, cooled and been chilled. Additionally, the caramel layer is not soft but instead a crispy caramelized coating.

A layer of sugar is applied to the top of the custard before being burned by a butane torch. The torch melts the sugar and seals it in place where it hardens atop the layer of custard beneath it.

Unlike flan, which can be served warm or cold, crème brûlée is best served chilled. This is because the layer of caramel that is torched on top of it will have difficulty adhering if the custard is too warm. 

Flan Crème Brûlée
Caramel added to mold before custard Caramel added after custard is cooked and chilled
Cooked in water bath Cooked in bain marie
Caramel layer is soft Caramel layer is crispy and caramelized
Can be served warm or chilled Best served chilled

Taste Differences Between Flan and Crème Brûlée

Most will find that the custard portions of flan and crème brûlée have a similar taste and texture to them.

Of course, this can vary if flan is served warm. If so, it tends to be a little softer and more delicate, whereas properly chilled crème brûlée has a distinctive quality to it. When pierced, the custard will remain firm with the carved away area of the dessert clearly visible.

The taste of each dessert’s signature caramel can also vary significantly.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense that it should.

In the case of flan, the caramel is in a liquid state, which adds an element of syrupy elegance to each bite. In sharp contrast is the nutty, charred sweet crust atop the crème brûlée.

With flan, the caramel blends seamlessly into the custard, mixing into each bite. Its caramelized counterpart in crème brûlée acts like a dividing line on the palate, clearly marking the sharp differences between the smooth, vanilla custard below and the smoky caramel above.

Really, though, how can you go wrong with either?

Caramel and custard.

Is there anything better?

We sure don’t think so!

Flan Crème Brûlée
Custard has similar taste and texture Custard is firm when chilled
Caramel is in liquid state, syrupy and elegant Caramel is nutty, charred and sweet crust
Caramel blends seamlessly into custard Caramel creates a clear dividing line on the palate
Can be served warm, softer and delicate Served chilled
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