This silky, smooth, delicious custard-based dessert is known as flan in the United States, Spain, Mexico, and most Latin American countries, but goes by the name crème caramel in France and the United Kingdom. It’s essentially a simple vanilla-egg custard made using canned sweetened condensed or evaporated milk with a caramel sauce. A thin layer of caramelized sugar is added to the bottom of the vessel it’s cooked in. Before serving, it’s flipped over, giving it its famous dark caramel topping. Traditionally, flan is cooked in a water bath in the oven and can also be slow-cooked in the Suvie, or you can use a sous vide immersion circulator.
The Origins of Flan
Although it’s mainly known as a Latin American dessert, it is thought that flan originated in Europe during the Roman empire. The Spanish then adopted and adapted it by adding caramelizing sugar to the mix. The Spanish brought a variety of dishes to Central and South America when they invaded 500 years ago, including flan, which has been a popular Latin American dessert ever since.
Varieties of Flan and Crème Caramel
Although not known as flan or crème caramel, many countries have similar variations of this custard-based dessert, including the Philippines, Croatia, India, Japan, and Malaysia. In Valencia, Spain, some cooks replace the milk with juice from the ubiquitous, local oranges, and the dessert is known as flan de narañja —a zesty, dairy-free alternative.
Flavors and Spices You Can Add to Flan
Flan’s simple vanilla custard base means it’s a blank canvas to add any variety of flavors, spices, and seasonings. You could add them to the caramel or to the custard. The warm flavors of cardamom and cinnamon would work especially well in the caramel, or try adding ground nutmeg to the custard for some peppery notes. Adding any citrus zest such as orange, tangerine, lemon, or lime would also lift the richness and add another layer of flavor. Whipped cream is a common accompaniment to serve with flan.
The Perfect Make-Ahead Dessert
The bonus of using the sous-vide method for flan is that you can cook the jars and refrigerate them for up to five days in advance, making them an easy, stress-free dinner party or holiday dessert.
Temperature and cooking times for flan
|Immersion Circulator||179°F||1 hour|
Recipe for Sous Vide Flan
|Servings||Active Time||Preheat Time||Cook Time|
|6||15 minutes||30 to 45 minutes||1 hour 5 minutes, plus 4 hours chilling|
Ingredients and Tools
- Suvie or immersion circulator
- Large pot or sturdy container (if using an immersion circulator)
- Medium non-stick skillet
- Silicone spatula
- 6 (8 oz) wide neck canning jars with lids or 12 (4 oz) jars for Suvie
- Large mixing bowl
- Fine-mesh strainer
- Large measuring cup with pouring spout
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- ¼ tsp kosher salt
- 2 large eggs
- 4 egg yolks
- 1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 tbsp vanilla extract
1) If you’re using a sous vide immersion circulator, pre-heat your water bath to 179°F. This can take up to 45 minutes to get to temperature.
2) ) In a medium non-stick skillet, add ¾ cup granulated sugar and cook over medium heat. Stir continuously until sugar first clumps together, then melts into a dark amber syrup, about 4 minutes. Stir in ¼ tsp kosher salt. Remove from heat to avoid burning the caramel.
3) Carefully spoon 2 tbsp of caramel into each canning jar (spoon 1 tbsp if using 4 oz canning jars). Rest for 10 minutes to allow caramel to harden.
4) Beat 4 egg yolks and 2 large eggs together in a large bowl.
5) Stir 1 (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk, 1 cup whole milk, 1 tbsp vanilla extract into the eggs. Do not over mix, as you want to prevent bubbles from forming.
6) Pour liquid through a fine-mesh strainer into a large measuring cup with a pouring spout (or jug) to remove bubbles and make sure the custard is smooth.
7) Once caramel has hardened, divide the egg custard mixture between the 6 jars (around 4 oz per jar), making sure you leave a gap at the top. Do not fill to the top. Screw on the lids so they are closed tight enough so they will not leak, but not overly tight.
8) Using tongs, carefully lower the jars into the heated water bath, so they are submerged, and cook for 1 hour (if the temperature drops as soon as you put them in, time 1 hour from when it reaches back to 179°F again).
If you are using your Suvie, fill 12 (4 oz) jars with the custard mixture as described in Step 7. Divide the jars between two Suvie pans and cover entirely with water. Insert pans into your Suvie and input the following settings.
Suvie Cook Settings
Bottom Zone: Sous Vide at 179°F for 1 hour
9) When the cook time is up, using tongs, carefully remove the jars from the water bath, transfer to a baking sheet lined with a dishtowel. Allow to cool for 15 minutes, then transfer to the fridge for at least 4 hours to chill and set.
10) When ready to serve, remove lids and use an offset spatula to run around the edge of the custards, pressing against the glass so you do not disturb the edge of the custard. Give the jar a shake, then place a small plate (serving-side down) on top of the rim, holding the base of the jar, flip the plate over, and give another shake until you hear the flan pull away from the jar. The flan is served upside down with the caramel on top. Pour any remaining caramel in the jar over the flan. Alternatively, you can serve the flan in the jar.
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How do I know my flan is cooked?
The good thing about the sous vide is that you can be confident that it will be perfectly cooked throughout. To visually see if it is cooked when it first comes out of the water bath and you take the lid off, the custard will be firmer around the edges, but it will wobble in the center if you shake the jar. It will firm up further once it’s chilled in the fridge.
Why bother with sous vide when I can just make custard on the stovetop?
Two words: precision and accuracy. Using the sous vide method takes away any guesswork and allows you to cook the custard perfectly without the fear of over-cooking the eggs. It’s advantageous if you are preparing for a dinner party as you can do this 2 to 3 days in advance and refrigerate until you are ready to serve.
Can I leave my flans in the water bath once the cook is finished?
We don’t recommend it. Our tests have shown that eggs react to longer cook times at a faster rate, so we recommend you remove them from your Suvie, or sous vide as soon as they are done.
How long will my flan keep in the fridge?
If stored in the canning jars, the cooked flans will last for up to 5 days in the refrigerator.
Why is there a little water at the top of some of my jars when I open them after cooking?
It just means they were not tight enough as a little water has seeped in; you can just pour the water off, it will not affect the flavor or texture.
Why is my flan not coming out easily after following all the instructions and shaking the jar upside down a few times?
It means you had too much caramel in the jar, so the custard is sticking to the base. If you keep (carefully) shaking and persevere, it will eventually come loose.
How can I get any excess caramel from the bottom of the jar? It won’t come off after regular dishwashing.
You can add some dish soap to each jar and soak in boiling water for a couple of hours, and it will melt and loosen, which will allow you to wash off using a scrub sponge. Or you could place the jars in a skillet filled with water that comes up to the rim and gently simmer, which will melt the caramel, and you can easily pour off.
Help! My skillet has caramel stuck on it and I can’t remove it
Add a squirt of dish soap and half fill the skillet with water and simmer over low heat to melt the caramel. It can then be poured off and the skillet washed normally.