Crème Caramel Vs. Flan: What's The Difference?

Though crème caramel and flan are creamy desserts that can be flavored with caramel, there are a few factors that separate the dishes. Chefs are tasked with different processes when preparing the recipes, and if you look carefully, you will be able to notice subtle nuances in the presentations of the finished items. We're here to help so that the next time you find yourself confused between two dessert orders, you know exactly which one to choose.

Flan can be sweet or savory in taste and be found on breakfast, lunch, and dinner tables, while sweet crème caramel is served primarily for dessert or enjoyed as an afternoon treat. Savory flan recipes can be enveloped in a pastry-like crust, and many dairy products are used to make versions of creamy, sweet flan. Though crème caramel requires fewer ingredients to make, the satisfying texture offers a sweet punctuation mark at the end of a meal. 

What is crème caramel?

Crème caramel is a dessert of French origin. Crème caramel present diners with a custard base and a sweet caramel layer topping. The custard is made from milk, eggs, and sugar, and the mixture is commonly flavored with vanilla from extract, beans, or pods. Crème caramel is baked in ramekins that are placed into another dish that has been filled with boiling water. This technique known as bain-marie is essentially a double-boiler, offering just the right amount of heat for more delicate recipes like custards.

After crème caramel has finished cooking, the ramekin is inverted on a plate to serve. The top of the dessert is sticky and sweet, similar to crème brûlé — although the latter requires a blowtorch to produce a crunchy sweet topping. 

Unlike flan recipes, you'll never find a crème caramel that isn't sweet, and the subtle nuance of vanilla has come to define crème caramel. 

What is flan?

Though crème caramel and flan are similar recipes, flan can be richer in taste and is an older recipe than crème caramel.  Flan's beginnings can be traced back to Roman culture, and the dish has been served as both a main course and a dessert. Flan has developed regional recipe variations: Eggs, sweetened condensed milk, whole milk, cream, and even cream cheese are used in Mexican flans, while firmer, eggier Leche flan is made on Philipino stovetops using egg yolks and not the entire egg. The base of flan is spongy, and typically is shorter and wider than a crème caramel.

Similar to crème caramel, when flan is made to be a dessert, the dish offers a sweet custard base and can be served to diners in an upside-down fashion. Savory flan recipes, however, are cut into slices like quiche and present filling servings of baked vegetables and a flaky pie crust. With so many different kinds of custards waiting for you to try, you'll never be lacking in a dessert to serve after dinner.