Custard is a rich, creamy culinary preparation made with cream and eggs, or other ingredients with similar properties. It is often a sauce, but can sometimes be set, and appears in both sweet and savoury dishes, although it is most commonly associated with dessert. It is available in many forms, from a thin pouring sauce, to a solid, baked layer, and can also be powdered or frozen.
Sometimes custard is thickened using flour, but you can make sure yours is gluten-free with this easy gluten-free custard recipe.
How to prepare and use custard
There are many recipes that call for custard in some form or other, and how it is prepared depends on the type of recipe and the consistency of custard required. It can be used as a pouring sauce for hearty desserts like crumbles and sponge puddings, or as an almost-set crème pâtissière for filling eclairs and profiteroles. It can also be set to varying degrees, from a wobbly consistency like a crème brûlée or a trifle, to something more solid like a baked cheesecake.
Dessert custards like the examples above are often sweetened using sugar and vanilla, and sometimes also include spices like nutmeg. Savoury custards like quiche or frittata may be flavoured with cheese or herbs, and are often set around other savoury ingredients like vegetables or meat.
Some custards, known as stirred custards, are prepared on the stove, either in a pan, or a bain-marie. This will produce a sauce-like custard, like zabaglione, Bavarian cream, and pouring custard, or crème Anglaise. The sauce can then be thickened using a starch like flour or cornflour, to produce a thicker, more paste-like custard such as créme pâtissière.
Custards that are cooked in the oven are known as baked custards. These are also frequently cooked in a bain-marie, and include custard pies, flans, crémes brûlee and cheesecakes.
Whichever method is used, preparing custard can be a delicate operation, and should always be done on a low, steady heat. The slightest increase in temperature can cause the mixture to curdle, resulting in a texture that resembles scrambled eggs instead of a nice, smooth custard. A bain-marie is often used in custard-making, as it slows the transfer of heat, making it easier to remove the custard before it curdles. You can also add a small amount of cornflour to help stabilise the mixture.
Custard is also available in powdered form, known as custard powder, or instant custard, depending on the brand you buy. Popular in the UK and Australia, custard powder is generally made from cornstarch, vanilla flavouring and yellow food colouring, and so is not technically a true custard. To make a ‘custard’ using powder, just add milk and heat slowly, stirring all the while. For a step-by-step guide take a look at this instant custard recipe from Zimbo Kitchen.
Difference between custard and ice cream
Custard is also available as a creamy and delicious frozen treat, which is similar to ice cream in many ways. Both are made with milk, cream, and sugar, and both have roughly similar nutritional profiles, but there are also several differences in recipe, flavour and texture.
The official difference between ice cream and frozen custard, according to the FDA, is that frozen custard should contain at least 1.4% egg yolk by weight, in addition to the milk or cream and sugar. This gives the mixture a richer, creamier taste. To confuse matters slightly, you may sometimes see ice cream recipes that include egg yolks, but the difference is that they don’t have to. Technically speaking, if a recipe calls for less than 1.4% egg yolk, it remains an ice cream, but any more and it becomes frozen custard, at least according to the FDA.
Another key difference is in the way these two frozen treats are made. Ice cream has lots of air churned into it to make it light and fluffy, but frozen custard adds as little air as possible, for a denser, silkier texture. And while ice cream is stored in a freezer until firm, frozen custard is sold at a soft-serve temperature, which prevents your tongue from becoming numb with cold, so you can really appreciate that rich custard flavour.
For a simple but impressive custard recipe, try this magic custard cake, a dessert that went viral on Instagram and TikTok after food blogger Jo Cismaru translated the recipe into English and put it on her site. Made using a single, simple batter, this cake transforms into a three-layered dessert during cooking, with a creamy custard in the centre and a fluffy cake layer at the top.
Another super-simple dessert, this fruit custard recipe from NDTV combines a chilled vanilla and cardamom custard with a selection of fresh fruit for a cold, creamy treat.