I’m almost positive that the lemon bars of my youth were these Krusteaz mix bars. They made rare appearances in our household’s rotation of the more popular Ghiradelli brownie mix and Neiman Marcus chocolate chip cookies. I’d never thought to try to top them, but when many of you requested a lemon bar bake off, I decided to dive in and find the best from-scratch recipe!
- 37 total tasters
- All 9 recipes were baked fresh the day of, chilled or left to cool at room temperature per each recipe
- All recipes were served either room temperature or slightly chilled (removed from the fridge ~1 hour before tasting)
- All tasters ranked each lemon bar curd and crust on a scale from 0-10 for flavor, texture, and overall as a whole
- All lemon bars were baked either in a glass or metal 8×8 or 9×9 pan, per each recipe. Pans were lined with parchment paper, foil or simply greased per the recipe.
Lemon Bar Ingredients
- Bleached Gold Medal all-purpose flour
- Unsalted Land O Lakes butter
- Adams cream of tartar
- Adams Best vanilla flavor
- Diamond kosher salt
- Kroger sugar
- Regular lemons from Kroger!
The Origin of Lemon Bars and How I Chose the Recipes
When investigating the origins of the lemon bar, I found that the first lemon bar recipe wasn’t published until 1962 (in the Chicago Tribune), which was closely followed by another very similar recipe by the Betty Crocker R&D team in 1963. Both recipes called for just a few tablespoons of lemon juice (as opposed to the cups of lemon juice in modern versions), and the Chicago version used flour as a thickener while Betty Crocker omitted it.
Nowadays, with literally thousands of lemon bar recipes on the internet, I found many different permutations of ingredients. For this particular bake off, I stuck with shortbread crusts (though Skyler insists graham cracker crusts are superior–maybe next time!), which are generally comprised of butter, sugar, flour and salt. However, I also added in some recipes that use powdered sugar instead of granulated, cornstarch, and even egg yolks.
Ina Garten was the “benchmark” recipe in this bake off, with Sally’s Baking Addiction as a similar but slightly different (lower sugar) candidate. Other recipe sources were chosen based on reputation/performance in past bake offs as well as unique techniques and/or ingredients (like creaming vs. food processing the dough, adding powered sugar, pine nuts, etc).
In general, the results really reflect that my tasters tend to like sweeter lemon bars (which I suspect mirrors the more common preferences). The excellent technique-driven but super tart bars like Bravetart and Flour came out close to the bottom while while the sweeter, more traditional bars take top honors. This is a bake off where I kind of disagree with the overall results because all the recipes were pretty solid; it’s just a matter of your preference for tartness vs. sweet, a softer custardy texture vs. a firmer bar-like texture.
However, it’s no surprise that NYT took last place given the strong reactions to the olive oil and sea salt-spiked lemon filling. More on that later.
Now let’s dive into some of the factors and patterns that emerged from the rankings!
Powdered sugar in the crust: Powdered sugar historically has done magical things in baked goods–see these thick, cakey pancakes and these ethereally delicious sugar cookies. However, the crusts that used powdered sugar (i.e NYT, Bravetart, Flour, Mel’s Kitchen Cafe and Tartine) almost all received lower crust ratings (Tartine may be the exception since it added pine nuts, which added subtle crunch). My hunch: the cornstarch in powdered sugar leads to a softer, doughier crust. With lemon bars, most people prefer a crisper bite from the crust, which is where granulated sugar can be preferable over powdered.
Cooked vs. uncooked curd: Some theorize that uncooked curds are more flavorful than cooked curds. Interestingly, while a cooked curd (Cook’s Illustrated) took first place, the runners up (Ina and Sally) plus Smitten Kitchen, Tartine and Mel’s Kitchen Cafe all used uncooked curds. I think the ingredients (i.e. ratios of lemon juice/sugar/etc) mattered more here in terms of flavor rather than technique.
Whole eggs vs. egg yolks: Bravetart’s recipe taught me the importance of egg yolks (and an insane amount of them) to achieve a brilliant yellow curd. Added egg yolks are a pain, but in general they seemed to achieve a silkier, slightly looser curd texture. Ina achieved a syrupy texture thanks to a LOT of sugar, but all other recipes that used only whole eggs (Mel’s, Smitten Kitchen, Sally’s) were all on the drier side. When in doubt, if you’re looking for a drier filling, a recipe with whole eggs only is likely a better choice while one with additional egg yolks is likely to give you a softer texture.
Thickeners: Of the recipes I tried, recipes were only thickened with flour, cornstarch, or nothing. Only three recipes were thickened with nothing but eggs (Bravetart, Flour and NYT). Olive oil put NYT in a category of its own, but both Bravetart and Flour had by far the most tart, pure lemon flavors–probably thanks to the lack of flour/cornstarch. They also had uniquely textured fillings (Bravetart was more jello-y while Flour was very custardy)–like I mentioned above, the additional yolks help achieve a different texture. Flour definitely helps add more structure to the filling, but it’s not necessary! I thought more flour = stiffer filling, but actually Ina and Sally’s recipes have almost the same proportions of everything except Ina has much more sugar and flour–the extra sugar makes Ina’s filling looser and more syrupy despite having more than twice the amount of flour in Sally’s.
Lemon zest vs. lemon juice vs. cream of tartar: Looking to make your bars more lemony? Yes, you’ll probably have to use more pure lemon juice. But also, using less thickener (like Flour/cornstarch) also helps lemon shine through. Cook’s Illustrated also uses cream of tartar to add an acidic element without needing to increase the lemon.
Analysis of the Best Lemon Bar Recipes
New York Times: an olive oil-based, greasy-tasting curd on top of an outstandingly crisp and caramelized crust
This olive oil and sea salt lemon bar from the NYT calls for olive oil in the curd rather than the crust–a feature that causes the curd to be far softer than typical lemon bars. Based on comments, it seems many have had issues getting it to set properly and I agree. I had to bake it ~20+ min longer than the state time to get past the dangerously wobbly stage, and still didn’t set up very well after 2 hours in the fridge.
The addition of 1/4 cup of extra-virgin olive oil plus half a stick of butter in the curd is twice the amount of fat compared to other bars, and this is one time where more fat did NOT make for a better result. Many disliked the olive oil flavor that shone through the slightly gloppy, almost watery curd and overpowered the lemon. “The curd actually tasted like an egg yolk canola oil flan. Never again,” said one. “Vegetal flavor notes that don’t pair well with lemon,” said another. Virtually everyone complained about the flavor, and most didn’t love the gooey texture either.
However, the par-baked crust was crisp, buttery and one of my favorites! It uses slightly more butter and flour than other 9×9 recipes, and also adds powdered sugar and lemon zest. I would definitely try the crust paired with other curds, but would never repeat the curd.
Bravetart: an intensely tart curd with a crisp, bronzed crust for lemon lovers
First, know this about Stella’s recipe: it calls for 11 EGGS to make an 8×8 pan of lemon bars. Three whole eggs and about 8 yolks. It’s a commitment.
But! They are also possibly the most stunning lemon bars I’ve ever made. Stella uses the same weight of yolks to whole eggs to achieve a thick, perfectly set curd without cornstarch or flour to mar the flavor or appearance. After straining the filling, you’ll end up with a smooth, picture-perfect sunshine yellow jello-y topping. Flavor-wise, the custard is INTENSELY tart and purely citrus-y, just barely tempered by sugar.
The crunchy, bronzed crust is actually very similar to NYT’s crust (both whizzed into buttery crumbs in a food processor as Stella specifically avoids creaming the butter and sugar–see her article for more), except that it uses all powdered sugar. The logic here is that no “friction or liquid ingredients” are needed to help dissolve granulated sugar. Both are thoroughly par-baked for 30+ minutes, resulting in a very crunchy, flavorful crust (though watch for burning and rotate the crust often if your oven has hot spots). This crust is a great, deeply flavored crust that still is just barely able harness the explosion of lemon flavor on top.
This proved quite divisive as many tasters found the curd too tart and some didn’t love the syrupy, jelly-ish crust. “Throw this lemon jello monstrosity away,” demanded one taster. “Curd was like jello and too tart,” said another. But those who love tart enjoyed the flavor (“made my mouth pucker in a good way”). For those looking for a pure, intensely tart lemon bar experience, this is the bar for you.
Flour Bakery: a vibrantly tart, lusciously silky curd atop a pate brisee crust
With a gorgeously thick and glossy custard, Flour’s vibrantly-hued curd was second only in color and lemon flavor to Bravetart. Flour is the only recipe that uses what’s essentially a pate brisee (pie dough–in fact, it’s very similar to Flour’s apple pie crust!) that’s rolled out rather than pressed into the pan. Unfortunately, the effort that goes into creaming and rolling out the dough kind of gets missed as the curd soaks into the crust. Upon casual bite, it tastes pretty similar to other less-laborious crusts. Some tasters did notice that the crust is softer and not crunchy–there’s kind of a powdery, slightly softer quality. “Crust melts away, but not in a good way. I want some crunchy with my curd,” said one taster.
The curd is a cloud-soft, pure lemon pudding that is, like Bravetart, incredibly tart and lemony thanks to over two cups of lemon juice. However, the addition of butter and heavy cream helps round out some of the acidity, leading to a slightly less polarizing reaction from tasters. While some thought the curd “had a good acid/sweet balance and texture, others thought it was “very tart, a little too intense” and “overpowering; good in small bites.” Texturally, one also noted that this felt “less like a bar and more like a custard” and indeed, the curd is so delicate that I would worry about transporting this at a bake sale or something; it’s not as sturdy as others.
One last note: this lemon bar was baked in a metal pan and some tasters picked up on a metallic flavor which may have also affected its results. This is a gorgeous, though labor-intensive lemon bar for intense lemon bar lovers looking for a more custardy-textured filling. I probably would not make this crust again, but would definitely repeat the filling.
Mel’s Kitchen Cafe: a middle-of-the-road bar with equal layers of curd and crust
Mel’s lemon bar recipe was one of the most straightforward I tested–if you use a food processor to cut in the butter, the crust is a breeze. The filling is simply whisked together and poured on top after par-baking, and the bars don’t even require chilling!
However, the main taster complaint was that the curd to crust ratio was off: “not enough lemon, too much bar,” said one. The crust–which is just butter, flour powdered sugar and cornstarch–bakes up a bit soft and one-note Flavor-wise, it reminded me of a slightly muted (less lemony) Tartine, i.e. on the sweeter side.
Tasters who preferred sweeter lemon bars liked the sweetness level, but still some complained that there was a “very mild lemon taste,” “not tangy enough,” and that it was “fine, a little bland.” My hunch is that the issues were more around the ratio of lemon filling to curd rather than flavor issues. If I made this lemon bar again, (only if I was pinched for time), I would definitely double the lemon filling.
Smitten Kitchen’s whole lemon bars: a streamlined lemon bar recipe with a mellow, textured lemon filling
Deb’s whole lemon bars skip the whole juicing/zesting situation and instead pulverizes a whole lemon in a food processor along with sugar, eggs, etc. It’s a genius move that I very much appreciated in the midst of squeezing a million lemons for the other recipes.
While the flavor was a crowd favorite, the texture is noticeably thicker and pulpier compared to the others thanks to the pulverized lemon. Buttery and sweet, the filling lets the lemon take a more subtle backseat to the sweetness and contrasts well with the same powdery crust as Ina. The bite is almost cakey or fudgy rather than gooey like some of the other custardy lemon bar fillings.
Tasters who preferred sweeter lemon bars loved this one. “Delicious; feels well balanced,” said one. “A nice round citrusy bite that comes together well. A tiny bit more of a cakey texture than bar,” said another. Critiques mainly focused on the mellowness of the lemon: “needs more bite, more lemon juice,” “bland, mellow, textured” but on the other hand, some enjoyed the subtlety: “less lemony but very subtle and good,” This is definitely my lemon bar of choice if pressed for time/if I didn’t feel like squeezing lemons!
Tartine: a tart but balanced lemon bar with a buttery pine nut-studded crust
Using another powdered sugar crust like Mel’s, Tartine adds optional pine nuts. Perhaps because Tartine calls for a slightly longer parbake (25-30 min vs. 15-20 min), it has a much crisper texture–and the pine nuts add pockets of toasty, almost brown buttery flavor.
With a generous amount of eggs, sugar and lemon juice, the curd is thickened with a whopping half cup of flour. This led to a soft but fairly structured curd (i.e. not jiggly/delicate) that reached a nicely tart middle ground–somewhere between the sweetness of Deb/Ina and the intense tartness of Bravetart/Flour. If you want to omit the pine nuts, the crust would still be fantastic but I liked the unobtrusive nuttiness that they added.
Tasters praised the “bright and tangy curd” and “gleek-promoting tartness” and “sugar cookie-like crust.” However, some complained that “it has a good bite of acidity but tastes too eggy” and of course, some said it was too tart. One complained that it had “too much crust to filling ratio, crust was too buttery”–which I’m not sure if anyone else will ever complain about. This is a lemon bar that I would definitely make again in the future.
Sally’s Baking Addiction: a slightly more tart, firm version of Ina’s classic lemon bars
Sally’s bars are a very similar version of Ina’s but with less sugar and flour in the curd (Ina’s has a half cup to Sally’s 3 tablespoons). The lemon flavor shines through more cleanly in Sally’s bars, and the curd has a creamy yet firmer, stiffer consistency over Ina’s gooier bars, making for neater cuts. Buttery and thick, the crust is a fairly soft bed for the slightly more jellied-textured topping. It’s like the tarter, more sophisticated version of Ina’s classic recipe.
Tasters loved the “good balance of sweet and tart,” and “proportional balance of crust and curd.” One noted that the texture was more “creamy and less lemon bar-y.” A few complained that the flavor was “unremarkable, can taste a lot of the cornstarch,” that there was a slight artificial aftertaste to the bars. But overall, the sweetness balance of this lemon bar made for a crowd-pleasing choice that is very easy to make. If you’re looking for a classic option with less sugar than Ina’s, this is the one!
Ina Garten: the classically sweet and traditional lemon bar with a soft and neutral crust
Ina and Sally actually use the same crust recipe in terms of ingredients, but differ in that Ina calls for creaming the ingredients whereas Sally just mixes melted butter in. I didn’t notice a huge difference between the two crusts–both are relatively thick, soft and powdery. In Ina’s case, this crust stands up well to the thick and syrupy curd that has a kind of chemical citrusy sweetness. The curd is very reminiscent of a lemon meringue pie filling with notes that reminded me of lemonhead candy.
Tasters praised Ina’s bar for its “balanced curd to crust ratio and texture. Fluffy and light.” “Tangy flavor and gooey texture; crust could be crunchier but overall effect is delicious,” said one taster. Another noted: “curd has a great consistency, crust has right amount of sweetness. Well balanced curd but not the best crust.” Accordingly, most critiques were around the crust (“crust brings the whole deal down. Almost dough like, not enough flavor and mushy texture”) or the “fake lemon flavor.”
As a standalone bar, I don’t think most people would be put off by the artificial lemon notes. This bar was a bit sweet for my personal preference, but a solid crowd-pleasing choice!
Cook’s Illustrated: my ideal lemon bar! A soft, well-balanced curd on a brown butter crust
After quite a few lackluster performances from Cook’s Illustrated in the past few bake offs, I was honestly skeptical about their recipe (with its claims of using cream of tartar to get the perfect “bright finish” and specifically using granulated sugar and par-baking the crust thoroughly to get a crisp crust). However, this lemon bar blew me (and many other tasters) away!
The sliky but not overly gooey curd is intensely lemony, but not overpoweringly so. It manages to be tangy but smooth (i.e. not overly acidic or mouth puckeringly tart) and achieves the perfect sweetness level for me. The crust is indeed crispy with a distinctly buttery, caramelized flavor–it’s so dark, it almost verges into graham cracker crust territory. Together, it’s just a fabulous lemon bar.
Tasters loved the “nicely browned crust, great balance of sweet and sour.” and noted that the “curd has the right consistency, the perfect balance of rich sweetness and tangy lemon.” The only complaints about this bar was that the crust was a bit too crumbly and didn’t hold it’s shape well when cut. If anything, people thought there could be a little less crust/more curd. For me, I’d take flavor over form any day. This is a fairly easy recipe to make, with a curd that just requires being thickened on the stovetop. This was far and away my favorite lemon bar!
A Few Tips on Making the Best Lemon Bars
- Bake in glass: Always bake in glass pans to avoid a metallic taste
- Always par-bake: For a crispy crust, thoroughly par-bake your crust until it’s golden brown so that it stays crisp
- Use fresh lemon juice: Always use fresh lemon juice! I hope I don’t have to tell you to never use the bottled stuff.
- Strain the filling: Especially if your recipe calls for lemon zest, make sure to strain the filling for a smoother texture. (This tip does not apply to Deb’s whole lemon bars, please don’t try straining those.)
- Getting rid of the white top layer: If you find your lemon bars bake up with a white, foamy layer on top, this is totally normal! According to Sally, this is a layer of air bubbles from the eggs rising to the surface. I couldn’t find any surefire ways to get rid of this layer, but it seems to affect more “traditional” recipes like Ina’s–opt for softer custard styles like Bravetart or Flour if you want to avoid this.
- Getting the perfect powdered sugar layer: Powdered sugar tends to soak into lemon bars that have been refrigerated. For the most picturesque bars, choose ones that can be cooled and served at room temperature and sprinkle the sugar right before serving
Best Lemon Bars: Recommendations
Most crowd-pleasing: Cook’s Illustrated, Ina Garten, Tartine Bakery, Sally’s Baking Addiction
For tart lemon bar lovers: Bravetart, Flour Bakery
Best flavor to least effort ratio: Smitten Kitchen
For sweet and classic lemon bars: Cook’s Illustrated, Ina Garten, Sally’s Baking Addiction
My ideal lemon bar combination: Cook’s Illustrated (recipe as written), or maybe the NYT or Tartine crust paired with CI, Flour Bakery, or Tartine’s curd.
Pin this post to save it for later.
Just hover over the image and click the Pinterest button!
Happy baking! As always, I’d love to see if you try any of these recipes–you can hashtag your photos on Instagram with #pancakeprincessbakeoff!