Ultimate Vanilla Pudding (Perfect Stove-Top Custard)

I intended to do a quick pudding post but, well, one thing led to another, and now I’ve done a mountain of research instead. The exploration began with a simple hankering for Caramel Pudding. I grabbed a standard formula from somewhere, went straight to the kitchen, and whipped it up in less than 10 minutes.

The only problem was that the end result had hardly any caramel flavor, even though I started with burnt sugar, and the texture was a little lumpy after chilling. In other words, not the perfect pudding I’m going to pass on to YOU.

Ultimate Vanilla Pudding (Perfect Stove-Top Custard)

So that fiasco got me pondering processes and proportions. And even though I am still hankering for Caramel Pudding, I am now more focused on understanding the underlying science, so that I can easily and successfully make any pudding flavor I want in the future.

I’m not considering chocolate here, however, as I did a ton of research and testing on that theme earlier. If you are interested in the best Chocolate Pudding in the known universe, see LunaCafe’s Ultimate Chocolate Pudding. As I referred back to my work there, I was reminded to perfect an easy to remember formula that can be expanded as necessary. Sometimes you want pudding for one and sometimes for six.

Ultimate Vanilla Pudding (Perfect Stove-Top Custard)

I was also reminded to adopt the easiest process possible to produce the desired result. It is rather astonishing to see how many ways fine cooks can think of to step through such a simple technique.

Basically, all we are trying to do here is melt sugar in milk and then thicken it with cornstarch and egg yolk. The cornstarch should be introduced before the egg yolk, although simultaneously will also work. Without the cornstarch, we can’t bring the custard anywhere near a boil. In fact, if you want to use egg yolks alone to thicken your custard, the custard must not exceed 165°. Otherwise, the egg yolks will curdle. Cornstarch, on the other hand, begins to thicken at 203° and needs to go to 208° for full activation. Even a slow simmer is fine for the egg yolks though, as long as sufficient cornstarch is present.

Ultimate Vanilla Pudding (Perfect Stove-Top Custard)

Pudding is not a dessert fit for a queen–although if I were a queen (Swamp Boogie Queen!), I would insist on having it nearly every day. It’s supposed to be homey, comforting, quick, and EASY. It should be one of the first dishes a young cook learns to make at the stove (perhaps with a cool induction burner).

Armed with this simple culinary building block, a world of desserts become possible—custard pie, ice cream, gelato, fresh fruit gratinee, mousse, Bavarian, soufflé, dessert sauce, chiffon pie, cake filling, parfait, verrine–you name it.

Ultimate Vanilla Pudding (Perfect Stove-Top Custard)

LunaCafe’s Ultimate Vanilla Pudding Tips and Tricks

  • Although several methods were represented in the sampling of recipes I choose to explore, the one that works the best is also the simplest. I call it the Basic Pudding Method. It requires a small bowl, a saucepan, a whisk, and a silicon spatula. No whisking or blending is called for after the pudding has set and a strainer is rarely required. To save a step (separately liquefying the cornstarch), the sugar, cornstarch, salt, and milk are combined and brought slowly to a bare simmer. The egg yolks mixed with a bit of milk are added after tempering to the thickened pudding, and the pudding is NOT brought back to a rolling boil, which helps to ensure that the egg yolks will not curdle.
  • Heat kills enzymes in raw egg yolks, which will otherwise break down the starch bonds and thin the custard. Pudding must be brought to just under a simmer (208º) after adding the egg yolks. I like to maintain that temperature for a minute or longer to be on the safe side.
  • Use moderate heat, a heavy bottomed saucepan, and a silicon spatula.
  • Stir pudding constantly with a silicon spatula, making sure to get into every corner.
  • To protect the egg yolks from too sudden heating, whisk them together with a portion of the recipes milk measurement BEFORE you actually add some of the hot pudding to temper them.
  • I notice a perceptible “grit” when I use egg white in custard, thus I prefer egg yolks only.
    Most puddings are too thick to strain through a fine mesh strainer, regardless of what the recipe says. If you have a single mesh strainer, you might try that. If you follow the directions below carefully, however, no straining will be necessary.
  • I encountered a couple of recipes in which an immersion blender or processor is used to whip the pudding after thickening. From a food chemistry point of view, whipping the pudding after thickening should break the gel. Plus, what a mess. The texture of my pudding is so smooth and silky, I see no point in actually trying this.
  • I encountered one method, attributed to Pierre Hermé, in which, in a processor, the room temperature butter is added to somewhat cooled pudding (140°) and processed for 3 entire minutes to form an emulsion. I haven’t tried this yet because it really adds to the mess in the kitchen, but most importantly because the pudding is so amazingly smooth, light, and luscious, I can’t imagine it being any better. (If you do a comparison, do let me know your thoughts.)

Classifying Stove-Top Custards

As long as we are considering pudding, we may as well fit it into the hierarchy of stove-top custards. For instance, what’s the difference between Custard Sauce (Crème Anglaise), Custard Pudding, Custard Pie Filling, and Custard Filling (Crème Pâtissière)?

First of all, each of these custard derivations is prepared on the stove-top, rather than in the oven. The stove-top method gives these custards a particularly silky texture and luscious, voluminous mouth feel.

The most significant difference between these custards is their degree of thickness. They can each be made more or less rich by increasing or decreasing the proportion of egg yolks and other fat (cream for a portion of the milk and optional inclusion of butter). So from thinnest to thickest, here they are:

Custard Sauce (Crème Anglaise)   Custard Sauce is a simple mixture of egg yolks, sugar, and milk, brought to just 165° on the stove-top. You may find recipes that specify a tiny amount of cornstarch in addition, but this is only a safeguard to help prevent the egg yolks from curdling. The tiny amount used does not alter the somewhat thickened but still flowing consistency of the sauce.

With additional egg yolks and heavy cream for a portion of the milk, this sauce is the time-honored base for the smoothest, silkiest ice creams.

Custard Pudding   Custard Pudding is similar to Custard Pie Filling in ingredients and process, but it is not quite as thick. Typically, the proportion is 1 tablespoon of cornstarch per cup of milk.

Custard Pie Filling   Custard Pie Filling is nearly the same as Custard Pudding. However, the cornstarch is often increased somewhat to allow the pie to cut cleanly without drooping on the plate. Typically, the proportion is 1½-2 tablespoons of cornstarch per cup of milk.

Custard Cream (Crème Pâtissière)   In contrast to Custard Pie Filling, Custard Filling contains a significant amount of flour (rather than a lesser amount of cornstarch) and perhaps additional egg yolk as well. Because of the added starch, it can be brought to a boil without fear of curdling the egg yolks. Typically, the proportion is 5-6 tablespoons of flour per cup of milk.

Custard Filling is very thick and best utilized as a thin base for a fresh fruit tart; or, lightened with whipped egg whites, it can be used as a filling for cream puffs or in a layered dessert. To my palate, it is an abomination to use this filling in a dessert that should be light and voluminous, such as Coconut Cream Pie. But such things are done, even in otherwise fine restaurants.

And now that we have learned so much about stove-top custards, let’s have some pudding, shall we?

LunaCafe’s Ultimate Vanilla Pudding

If there is a more perfect vanilla pudding in the universe, I haven’t encountered it. Descriptors for this pudding include light, delicate, decadent, luscious, and perfectly creamy, with a voluminous mouth feel. This is, without a doubt, the best vanilla pudding I have ever eaten.

The set for this custard is intentionally soft. If you want the pudding to hold it’s shape on a plate or in a pie crust, double the cornstarch.

The formula is easy to remember: For every cup of milk, use 1 tablespoon cornstarch, 3 tablespoons sugar, 1 egg yolk, and 1 tablespoon butter. With the addition of ½ teaspoon vanilla and ? teaspoon salt, you will have a perfect vanilla pudding.

Ingredient Note   It isn’t required, but the inclusion of some cream makes for an exceptionally luscious pudding. I almost always include it.

3 large egg yolks

9 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoon cornstarch
3/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
3 cups whole milk (or ¾ cup cream and 2¼ cups whole milk)

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into 12 chunks
1½ teaspoon vanilla (I love Mexican vanilla here)

lightly sweetened whipped cream, optional

  1. In a small bowl, whisk egg yolks with ¼ cup of milk until well combined. Reserve.
  2. In a 3-quart saucepan, whisk together sugar, cornstarch, and salt, and then slowly whisk in the cold milk, a little at a time to ensure no lumps form. Scrape the bottom and sides of the saucepan with a silicon (heatproof) spatula.
  3. Over medium heat, stirring constantly, bring to a bare simmer.
  4. Ladle ½ cup of the hot pudding into the egg yolks and whisk rapidly. Repeat two times. Now add the egg yolk mixture back to the saucepan. This tempers the egg and helps to prevent curdling.
  5. Lower the heat to medium-low and continue stirring the pudding until it thickens to the point that it coats the back of the spatula, from 2-4 minutes.
  6. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter and vanilla until the butter is melted.
  7. Immediately pour the pudding into a medium mixing bowl or 4-cup glass measuring cup. (If you think you may have lumps, pour the pudding through a single mesh strainer, using a plastic spatula to push the pudding through.) Alternatively, you can pour pudding directly into six ½-cup serving dishes. (The reason I rarely do this is because I prefer mounded servings.)
  8. Quickly press a small piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin from forming.
  9. Let cool, and then refrigerate until chilled, at least 2 hours.
  10. To serve, spoon pudding into six, ½-cup ramekins (if you didn’t do this earlier).
  11. Top each serving with a generous mound of whipped cream.
  12. Serve immediately.

Makes about 3 cups, or six ½-cup servings.

Cookin’ with Gas (inspiration from around the web)

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Copyright 2010 Susan S. Bradley. All rights reserved.

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  1. Anonymous says

    There are a million recipes on the internet for pudding, but I’m picking yours because it has the most science! Knowing the ‘whys’ really help me. Also, I love how easy it is to scale…not just halving or doubling, but 6 servings to 8 or 4. Genius!

    What would you think about substituting arrowroot for cornstarch? I know that the cornstarch is a thickening agent, which arrowroot is as well, but thanks to all the science, I see that cornstarch also helps to prevent curdling. Does arrowroot do that as well?

    Thank you!!

    • says

      Thanks so much, great to hear. :-) Yes, arrowroot will work, as will flour, as far as preventing curdling goes. Stick with arrowroot or cornstarch though for the gloss. Hope this helps. :-)

  2. dan says

    fantastic custard! I think your recipe worked so well because you explained the thickening processes accurately and more importantly gave time frames and exact temp settings to replicate your intial results, thank you so very much for taking the time to write this!

    I would also like to note that i did not use butter as i do not have unsalted, and i also mixed the dry ingredients into 1 cup of milk (1 of 3 required by your recipe) and wisked until blended(still in measuring cup) and then poured into the 2 cups waiting in the sauce pan. After that i followed the recipe and was careful to not let the mixture bubble more than 3 or 4 times Throughout the entire process.

    i advise trying one of of your depicted parfait creations with a little bit of fruity pebbles cereal in the layer s with nuts and granola. Itll blow your mind!

  3. Josey says

    The pudding was the best ever.
    I hope you don’t mind but I used all half and half and Splenda to keep carbs down and it came fantastic.
    It was like a meal in itself.
    Thanks so much!

    • says

      Josey, so glad you liked it. Experimentation is definitely encouraged in my kitchen. :-) Glad to know the formula works with a sugar substitute and half and half. Best…Susan

  4. Sarah Jerose says

    Excellent recipe. I’ll be using this with my high school FACS (home ec) class. We’ll be making banana pudding with it. Everyone should know how to make a good pudding. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Sherry says

    Thank you ;)) I made the vanilla & chocolate pudding today ! And they are fab !!!! I look forward to trying more recipes;)) but I wish you would add what is mixed with the pudding in your photos ;)) and maybe what to do
    With all these egg whites ;)))

  6. Theodora says

    ABSOLUTELY AMAZING!! I made half this recipe for this Thanksgiving and I hope everyone likes it! I know I do! My sister and I LICKED the pot clean! Absolutely perfect! I love this recipe
    !! :) :)

  7. Cassi says

    I made 2 pudding recipes last night–1 from Martha Stewart & another from Chow…both disappointed–they were “grainy” if you will (after reading your post–probably due to curdled eggs) & had an “off” flavor. I literally just finished making your recipe, just with a touch less butter & sugar, but the texture–PERFECTION!! And I didn’t even have to strain it like I did the recipes last night. THIS was the silky smooth consistency I was looking for! (I threw 1/3 of the batch in the freezer & ate it straight out of the pot!) I almost gave up on homemade pudding last night & just wanted to thank you for a stellar recipe! Will be posting to my Pinterest!! Just goes to show you how important the method can be & knowing the science! I believe the tempering & simmering (not boiling) made 100% difference in outcome! Thank you so much!!

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Cassi, you have made my week! Oh heck, my MONTH. You’re my new BFF.:-) I worked long and hard on that formula and method, as I too had been disappointed one too many times with the standard recipes. So pleased you got great results!

  8. Michelle says

    Fan-flippin-tastic! Just what I was craving and perfectly smooth. Thank you for sharing! I used two tablespoons less sugar and it was still plenty sweet :~}. I’ll use even less next time.

  9. Jelilat says

    Hi Susan,
    Great recipe. My pudding came out fantastic. I substituted the sugar for honey as I was making it for my mum who does not take sugar. It did not have that 100% smooth silky texture but there were no lumps in it. Any idea why this could have happened? I think it may have been because I did not seive the cornstarch

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Jelilat, thanks for letting us know your results. The pudding should be silky smooth. If it has a grainy texture, the egg curdled in the process. This shouldn’t have happened because the cornstarch typically prevents it. Try again and let me know what happens.

  10. maria says

    Dear Susan i woud love to make the pudding, but the big glass one, what are the layer in betwen? Cracker, nuts? I want the same!!

    I’m from Chile and love all your “gringa’s” marvelous recipes.
    Have to say that the prefered one is the Perfecta Mundo cookies!! absolutly amazing!!

    Thank you very much!

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Maria, thank so much! You know, I really don’t recall what I used there. The glossy quality suggests it is more than simply toasted, large flake coconut though. I’m toasting coconut with butter and sugar right now to check my hunch. Should have the result shortly. Stay tuned. :-)

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Maria, this turned out great. Give it a try (cut in half if you like):

      Toasted Coconut Crunch

      1 pound (6 cups) large flake, unsweetened coconut
      ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
      ½ cup sugar

      1.In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the butter and sugar.
      2.In a large mixing bowl, combine the butter and sugar with the coconut. Mix well with your hands to evenly coat the coconut with butter and sugar.
      3.Scoop the coconut mixture onto a 13- by 18-inch edged baking sheet, and distribute evenly.
      4.Set a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 350°.
      5.Bake for about 20 minutes, periodically turning the coconut mixture with a large spatula. (Be diligent about redistributing the coconut every 5 minutes or so. It will darken too much around the edges if not redistributed.) The coconut will smell wonderfully toasted and turn a light golden brown when done.
      6.Remove from the oven, toss to redistribute, and let cook on the pan.
      7.When completely cool, store in an airtight Ziploc bag.

      Makes 6 cups.

  11. Kitchen Witch says

    So last night instead of sleeping, I was lying in bed trying to come up with a recipe for stovetop (not oven baked custard) pudding using milk, an egg, potato starch, and sucanat, which I figured would give a caramel-ly flavour.

    Tonight, I used the words “pudding with egg” in a search on Google and find your lovely recipe! Will use a combo of my idea and your helpful tips and see what I get.

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Kitchen Witch, you will love this recipe. It’s the perfect comfort food and quick to make too.

  12. Moonflower says

    I so wanted this to turn out well… but alas, it flopped, big time! My pudding turned out very runny. Of course, I had to deviate from the recipe (as usual). I don’t drink cow’s milk so I used unsweetened almond milk. Could that have prevented it from thickening properly? I also used coconut palm sugar instead of regular sugar. My pudding was also far too salty (yuck). I was doing 1/3 recipe amounts so I used 1/8 tsp of salt. I cooked it a little longer than recommended since it didn’t seem to be thickening and let it stay at the low boil stage for a couple minutes (with some starting and stopping). Could only get a sauce consistency rather than pudding. Any advice?

  13. Moonflower says

    I so wanted this to turn out well… but alas, it flopped big time! My pudding turned out very runny. Of course, I had to deviate from the recipe (as usual). I don’t drink cow’s milk so I used unsweetened almond milk. Could that have prevented it from thickening properly? I also used coconut palm sugar instead of regular sugar. My pudding was also far too salty (yuck). I was doing 1/3 recipe amounts so I used 1/8 tsp of salt.

    Any advice?

  14. Anonymous says

    I so wanted this to turn out well… but alas, it flopped big time! My pudding turned out very runny. Of course, I had to deviate from the recipe (as usual). I don’t drink cow’s milk so I used unsweetened almond milk. Could that have prevented it from thickening properly? I also used coconut palm sugar instead of regular sugar. My pudding was also far too salty (yuck). I was doing 1/3 recipe amounts so I used 1/8 tsp of salt.

    Any advice?

  15. Norma Jean says

    After working here at the dairy all day, we were looking for an easy recipe using our dairy milk, cream and butter. I was trying to teach my two 13 yr.old granddaughters how to make a simple blancmange type pudding. We used about 1 and 1/2 cups of cream skimmed from the goat milk and the rest of 4 cups of fresh milk. We made it exactly as you directed. It was absolute heaven. We also used fresh unsalted butter and vanilla bean paste as I was out of mexican vanilla. Thank you for this recipe it will be a family treasure. It is one of the first in the girls new recipe card box. Silky, smooth, classic taste, my compliments.
    Thank You, Norma Jean, Alexa, Kaitlyn

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      So lovely to hear, Norma Jean, thank you! You’re right: Everyone needs a perfect vanilla pudding recipe. There is nothing more delicious and comforting. I have worked up a Salted Caramel Pudding variation that I will post soon. It is DIVINE.

  16. Curious cook says

    I’ve seen some recipes where the egg is added to the cold milk mixture first, and then it’s all heated together. What is the benefit to waiting to add the eggs (tempering them first, of course)? Don’t know if you’re still reading comments since this is WAY after your post.

  17. Charlotte says

    Thank you for the wonderful recipe! I have made it twice with great success -even using nonfat milk since I couldn’t wait to try it (I added a smidge more cornstarch since I didn’t have whole more OR cream). It turned out perfect! I have been searching for a way to recreate my French grandmother’s custard, and this is the closest I’ve come. By the way, in our house, we never ate pudding cold. Cold? Maybe we lack patience in our family, but we have always served it warm from the stove -SO delectable!!

  18. Susan says

    Love your research and the list of custard definitions. I know this sounds crazy..but I sometimes crave vanilla pudding. Yes..not chocolate. Oh, and I LOVE the skin. Wouldn’t dream of putting plastic wrap on top.

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Susan, oh no, you are a pudding skin lover! :-) Well, you are in good comnpany. I read recently that David Lebovitz loves the skin too. By all means then, skip the plastic wrap. I’m with you on craving vanilla sometimes. It’s amazingly simple, homey and comforting, plus amenable to a wide variety of partners.

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Naomi, I grew up eating boxed pudding, so it was only because there was no box in the cupboard one day long ago that I resorted to making it from scratch. What a relevation! We must spread the word. :-)

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Krista, it’s amazing how many folks have never made pudding from scratch. It’s an altogether different experience than the boxed stuff. Dreamy! :-)


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