Mouth-watering custards are an all-season favorite, more so, when they can be readily prepared right at home. Made from a basic mixture of milk, eggs and sugar, and sometimes flavored with ingredients such as vanilla beans, custard can be served warm or cold. Great on its own as a dessert, it can also play a starring role in sweet dishes such as crème caramel and crème brulee.
Ready to get whisking? Here is what you need to know about preparing homemade custards:
Custards generally have a short ingredient list. They are made up of a dairy component (milk, cream, half and half), a sweetener, a thickener (eggs, starch, gelatin, or a combination), and flavoring ingredients. Despite the short list, one has to be extra careful with the process. Make sure to handle each ingredient properly to achieve success. Read your recipe all the way through before you begin, and prepare any and all equipment you might need.
Types of custards:
With so many kinds of custard available, the easiest way to classify them is by their cooking method.
Baked Custards: These custards are cooked by baking in the oven. The ingredients are whisked together, poured into a vessel, and baked until set. They are generally thickened with only eggs and/or egg yolks, which makes them one of the more delicate varieties of custard. Even with such an easy proven method, they can be some of the hardest to master. They are generally baked in a water bath, which helps regulate the water temperature around the custard, as it cannot exceed 100 degrees Celsius. The water's cooler temperature encourages a slow and steady coagulation of the eggs, which prevents curdling or over-baking.
Boiled Custards: These are made by slowly cooking ingredients on the stovetop until thickened. They are usually made with a combination of thickeners, using both eggs and/or yolks along with a starch to set the texture. Because the two are used together, it is important the custard comes to an actual boil.
Stirred Custards: Like boiled custard, stirred custards are prepared on the stovetop, but because they are made with just eggs and/or yolks, they need not come to a boil. Doing so can cause the mixture to curdle, resulting in a lumpy, eggy-tasting mixture instead of a thick, silky-smooth custard. Start with a whisk, which helps keep the mixture in motion during the early stages of cooking, and once it begins to thicken, switch to a silicone spatula and stir.
Cold Set Custards: These custards are mixed and then set in the fridge until chilled. There are only a few types of custards that fall into this category, and their methods of preparation differ. One example is panna cotta, which is set with gelatin. The mixture is heated to dissolve the sweetener and/or infuse flavor into the custard. Then the gelatin is added and the custard is poured into vessels. The finished custard is chilled until totally set, and then served.
Frozen Custards: As the name suggests, these custards are frozen. Frozen custard recipes often are made using stirred custards that are cooled completely and then churned into a frozen dessert (like crème anglaise, which is the base for basic vanilla ice cream).
Sugar + starch = a perfect match:
Starch tends to clump up inside the custard — and it can be hard to get those clumps out. Not only that, clumped up starch does not dissolve properly, which means your finished dessert may not have the proper texture. To avoid this, just whisk the starch with a portion of the sugar before you begin. The granules of the sugar will help break up the starch, and it will coat the sugar instead of clinging to itself.
Tempering: When it comes to custards, tempering means gradually adding two mixtures together: hot dairy to room temperature eggs/yolks. If you pour whisked eggs directly into a hot pan, they will begin to cook immediately, resulting in something that looks and tastes a lot more like scrambled eggs. Instead, slowly add the hot liquid to the eggs in a slow, steady stream while whisking constantly to combine the two. This allows you to bring the eggs to a higher temperature in a more controlled way. Once you have warmed up the egg mixture with a portion of the hot milk, you can slowly pour this mixture back into the pot and continue with the recipe.
Determining when it is done:
For baked custards, the product should appear set on the edges, yet ripple gently when you shake it in the center. If there are cracks in the center then it has spent too much time in the oven. If the cracks are in the sides then it is baked unevenly.
For boiled custard, you only need to see one to two large bubbles to be sure. However, note that these bubbles should appear near the center of the pot. Tiny bubbles around the outside of the pan do not count since the edges are in more direct contact with heat.
Stirred custards are finished when they are fully thickened and what this means will depend on the recipe in question. In most cases, the mixture should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Dip your spoon or spatula into the custard, then run your finger through it. If the line made by your finger stays, the mixture is properly thickened.
Cold set custards are finished when they are fully chilled. Unmold cold set custards by running a paring knife gently around the edges to help release it.
Frozen custards will vary greatly in what makes them ‘done’. Follow guidelines for your ice cream maker or refer to specific recipes for more details and visual cues.