Crème Anglaise

Churn this velvety sauce into ice cream, serve it with your favorite sweets, or pour it over fresh fruit for a simple dessert.

Overhead view of ile flottante in creme anglaise
Meringue served with crème anglaise.Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

In culinary school, I absolutely dreaded making crème anglaise: The prospect of having to cook a custard-base with eggs on the stovetop was so anxiety-inducing that just thinking about it made me want to vomit. During my culinary school exam, I cooked my crème anglaise as slowly as possible, determined not to curdle it. I stirred continuously, then carefully strained it into a bowl. Though I was the last to leave the room, I am pleased to say no scrambled eggs were involved. It’s been many years since, and crème anglaise no longer intimidates me. Becoming a pastry cook left me with no choice but to confront my fears: I’ve now made it more times than I can count, enough for it to feel like second nature. There’s no need for you to have those same fears, though; with just a bit of care and good technique, scrambled crème anglaise is an unlikely outcome.

What Is Crème Anglaise?

Crème anglaise is many things: It’s a sauce. It’s a custard. It’s a sauce and a custard that you can churn into ice cream. At its most basic, crème anglaise is a mixture of milk and/or cream, egg yolks, sugar, and a vanilla bean that has been cooked until just thick enough to coat a spoon, a temperature typically between the range of 165 to 185ºF (75 to 85ºC), depending on how thick you want it. 

Creme anglaise in white bowl
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

It's a sauce worth learning, because crème anglaise is incredibly versatile. It’s often used as a vanilla sauce, whether in Sasha’s torrijas caramelizadas recipe, on fresh fruit, or as a pool for floating meringues. It also can be used as an ice cream base for French-style (meaning: yolky) ice creams. Because of its relatively neutral flavor, a basic crème anglaise can also be flavored countless ways by steeping or whisking in herbs, spices, citrus peels, teas, chocolate, coffee, and more. Think of every ice cream flavor you’ve ever had—that’s how adaptable crème anglaise is. To make mint chip ice cream, for example, you’d make crème anglaise but skip the vanilla and instead infuse it with mint, then fold in chocolate chips during the churning process. You could blitz crème anglaise with a strawberry compote to make a summery strawberry ice cream, or incorporate Nutella or gianduja to make a rich hazelnut and chocolate ice cream.

Crème anglaise is, in short, the mayonnaise of the pastry kitchen, except more so given all that ice cream potential.

The Importance of Yolks

Crème anglaise gets its rich, silky texture from egg yolks, which contain lecithin, a lipid with emulsifying properties. What begins as a runny mixture slowly becomes a velvety sauce as the egg yolks cook, coagulate, and thicken the crème anglaise. “Egg proteins are made of strands that are folded together when the egg is raw,” Jacquy Pfeiffer wrote in his book The Art of French Pastry. “When they start to warm up in the milk they unfold and detach, then once the mixture reaches 165ºF (75ºC) to 180ºF (80ºC) they reattach back together and solidify, allowing the mixture to thicken into a smooth, thick custard sauce.”

In order for this to happen, the mixture has to be stirred continuously on low heat to ensure the proteins coagulate evenly. Without constant stirring, the eggs closer to the bottom of the pot would heat up and coagulate faster. The result? Sweet, vanilla-flavored scrambled eggs. This was my constant fear in culinary school, but while curdling the custard is a possibility, it's easily avoided if you know what to do.

On Tempering

A lot of custard recipes (including some for crème anglaise) instruct you to use a technique called tempering, in which you whisk a small amount of hot dairy into the beaten yolks before stirring that tempered egg mixture into a larger pot of hot liquid. The reason for this is to dilute the egg proteins so they're less likely to seize and scramble like the eggs in egg-drop soup. It's a necessary technique at times, but too often it's applied to all custards regardless of whether it's needed or not.

In this crème anglaise recipe, we call for tempering, but mostly to be overly cautious. Because the milk and vanilla beans steep for 25 minutes off heat, chances are the milk will have cooled enough when it comes time to add the yolks that they won't coagulate. But tempering anyway is just a little bit of insurance, if for some reason your pot of milk hasn't cooled below the coagulation temperature for egg yolks. That said, if your milk stands even longer than 25 minutes and is obviously cool enough that there's no risk of the eggs cooking as soon as they make contact with it, you're probably safe to just remove the vanilla bean and very thoroughly whisk the yolks and sugar straight in.

How to Determine When Crème Anglaise Is Done

My culinary school instructors used to joke that if you took the time to take the temperature of your crème anglaise—which meant your hands were likely busy with the thermometer and not stirring your custard continuously—then it was too late. Obviously this does not have to be true. You can take the temperature on your crème anglaise without curdling it, but my teachers had a fair point: You should know what to look for visually with or without the help of a thermometer. And if you do want to check the temp, you should be careful about how you go about it so that you don't stop stirring in the process. 

As you cook your crème anglaise, it will thicken slightly and become more velvety. It should resemble the texture of melted ice cream (because that’s essentially what it is) or eggnog. You can also dip a metal spoon or offset spatula into the sauce and run your finger through the sauce on the spoon. If the line holds, then the sauce is ready. It’s what the French call “nappe,” a texture that’s not too thick and not too thin. Just be mindful that you’re continuing to stir while you do this so you don’t accidentally curdle your crème anglaise. 

For those who prefer to use a thermometer, the sauce is in the zone when it reaches between 165ºF (75ºC) and 180ºF (80ºC). Though for a truly luscious sauce, we recommend cooking your custard to 175ºF (79.5ºC). Just don’t go past 180ºF, unless you’d like a serving of those vanilla-scented scrambled eggs I mentioned earlier.

In a 2-quart saucier or saucepan, combine milk, vanilla bean and scraped seeds (or extract), orange zest (if using), and salt. Set over medium-low heat and cook, stirring frequently with a rubber spatula, until milk registers 190ºF (88ºC) on an instant-read thermometer, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat, cover, and set aside to steep for 30 minutes.

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When the milk has steeped for 25 minutes, whisk together 1/4 cup (50g) sugar and egg yolks in a medium bowl until sugar is dissolved and mixture turns pale yellow, 2 to 3 minutes. Set a fine-mesh strainer over bowl with egg mixture, and slowly pour one-third of milk mixture into yolk mixture to temper, whisking constantly to prevent yolks from curdling. Add remaining milk mixture, whisking constantly until well-combined; set aside but don’t clean strainer; wipe out saucepan.

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Strain custard through fine-mesh strainer into now-empty saucier; you should have 2 cups of liquid. Return to stovetop; once again set aside but don’t clean strainer, and wipe out bowl. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon to prevent egg yolks from curdling, until mixture registers 175ºF (79.5ºC) on an instant-read thermometer and thickens slightly so that it coats the back of a spoon, 3 to 5 minutes. Working quickly, remove from heat and pour crème anglaise through fine-mesh strainer back into now-empty bowl. Place piece of plastic wrap directly on surface of crème anglaise to prevent skin from forming, and refrigerate until ready to use.

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Special Equipment

2-quart saucier; strainer

Make-Ahead and Storage

The crème anglaise can be made up to 3 days in advance and kept refrigerated.