For the Custard Crazed – Panna Cotta vs Flan

Panna Cotta vs Flan

Few desserts possess the special qualities of custard and, of course, if you’re a fan, the chances are pretty good that you’re unlikely to turn down a delicious helping of panna cotta or flan.

I know I wouldn’t!

If there’s one thing that makes them irresistible, it’s that creamy, decadent mouthfeel that comes with each bite. And while they might seem pretty similar in this way, there are several things that set them apart from each other.

We’ll get into all the details later, but for now, the main thing that makes panna cotta and flan different from one another is a key ingredient used to give them their custard-like taste. You see, panna cotta makes use of gelatin to achieve this texture while flan includes eggs. This difference is also why panna cotta is not thought of as a true custard since a custard must include eggs as part of the recipe.

Not including the ingredient differences, the two desserts share different origins, preparation methods, taste and much more.

If you’re ready, let’s have a look at each of these in more detail and learn all about these two beloved sweet treats!

Origin Differences Between Panna Cotta and Flan

Most people know that panna cotta is an Italian creation, specifically of the Piedmont region, which an area of the country heralded for its dairy products.

Little is known about the early versions of the classic dessert and, in fact, it wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that it gained more recognition as recipes for it showed up in cookbooks of the era.

Ever since, the popularity of panna cotta has spread far from its homeland to all corners of the globe. Even so, it still holds a special place of reverence for Italians. So much so that it was declared an official food product of the Piedmont region in the early 2000s.

In France, flan is referred to as crème caramel and it’s at least one of three countries that claims to be the origin of this classic treat.

Before we get to that, though, you might wonder why the words appear in the order they do with crème appearing before caramel. Well, it’s because the dessert is turned over prior to serving, which means the caramel is on top of the custard.

While France has certainly left its mark, both England and Spain have also laid claim to being the home of this creamy custard. But regardless of its exact origins, it didn’t take long for its popularity to cross borders. 

In fact, variations of flan are available in countries all across the globe from Argentina to Vietnam and nearly everywhere in between.

Panna Cotta Flan (Crème Caramel)
Origin Piedmont, Italy France, England, Spain
Recognition Middle of 20th century Unknown
Popularity Global Global
Special significance Official food product of Piedmont, Italy None specified
Serving method Not specified Turned over before serving

Ingredient Differences Between Panna Cotta and Flan

One reason that both panna cotta and flan have persisted as popular desserts for so long is the simplicity of the ingredients in each of them.

However, even though they’re similar, they aren’t the same and this is one of the key distinctions between the two of them.

A basic panna cotta recipe will contain sugar, cream, vanilla and gelatin. In contrast, a simple recipe for flan will have vanilla, sugar, cream and eggs.

Did you catch the difference?

That’s right.

Panna cotta uses gelatin as its thickening agent, while flan uses eggs. It’s this difference that throws most people off since the end result is almost the same in terms of mouthfeel. 

And again, strictly speaking, a custard is only considered custard when it contains eggs.

Panna Cotta Flan (Crème Caramel)
Ingredients Sugar, cream, vanilla, gelatin Sugar, cream, vanilla, eggs
Key distinction Uses gelatin as thickening agent Uses eggs as thickening agent
Mouthfeel Similar Similar
Custard No Yes

Preparation Differences Between Panna Cotta and Flan

Another odd aspect of the term “panna cotta” is that it can be translated to mean “cooked cream”. The reason that it’s unusual is that, unlike flan, the use of an oven or other form of extreme heat is not used to make panna cotta.

Rather, the cream used in panna cotta is first warmed and then mixed with a solution of sugar. Depending on the recipe, there may also be other flavorings used. The gelatin is added to the mixture later before being transferred to molds where it sets.

Once in the molds, panna cotta is chilled and takes on its characteristic wobbly, smooth texture before being served.

Part of the appeal of flan is in its presentation, which is all a result of the way the dessert is prepared.

First, the sugar is caramelized and then poured into the molds (or ramekins for individual servings) where the custard base is added afterward. From there, flan is most often prepared on the stovetop in what’s called a “bain marie”, or hot water bath. Alternatively, they can be placed in an oven bath as well.

Prior to being served, the flan is turned, which ensures the clear caramel is on top while the base of the dessert rests in a pool of liquid caramel.

Umm, yum!

Panna Cotta Flan (Crème Caramel)
Translation “Cooked cream” Not specified
Heat used in preparation No Oven or stovetop (bain marie or hot water bath)
Ingredients Cream, sugar, flavoring(s), gelatin Cream, sugar, vanilla, eggs, caramelized sugar
Preparation Warmed cream mixed with sugar and gelatin, chilled in molds Caramelized sugar poured into molds, custard base added, cooked on stovetop or in oven, turned prior to serving
Presentation Chilled and smooth texture Clear caramel on top, base resting in pool of liquid caramel

Taste Differences Between Panna Cotta and Flan

There can be no question that when it comes to how these creamy desserts feel on the tongue, they’re pretty close to each other, but leaving the texture aside, there are definitely some differences in taste.

Starting with panna cotta, it could be said that it possesses a much more dairy forward sweetness. In addition, panna cotta can come in a variety of flavors depending on the recipe, which can make them even less like one another in terms of taste.

Perhaps the most obvious difference is the inclusion of caramel in flan. Most flan recipes also possess hints of nuttiness to them, which is unlike the milky flavor present in most panna cotta recipes.

But in the end, does that really matter?

I, for one, love them both and I’m sure you share those sweet tooth sentiments!

Panna Cotta Flan (Crème Caramel)
Texture Similar Similar
Taste Dairy forward sweetness, can come in various flavors Caramel, nutty hints
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