The Best Lemon Bars

I’m pretty picky about my lemon bars. The filling, the crust, and the sweet-tart balance all has to be just right. I’m like Goldilocks with her porridge.

These are Goldilocks approved.

The Best Lemon Bars - Good old-fashioned lemon bars that pack a punch of big time lemon flavor, without being too tart or too sweet!

  Before making these, I researched dozens of recipes, studying each meticulously, but nothing sounded exactly perfect. I referenced one of my favorite cookbooks, The New Best Recipe, but when I saw seven eggs, I slammed the book shut immediately.Unless you’re feeding a football team, any one singular dessert does not need seven eggs, period. I also checked out another trusty resource, The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion, and many others. But in the end, I came up with my own.

The bars consist of an easy shortbread crust, topped with an intensely lemony filling. The tartness and sweetness are well-balanced. You don’t even have to lug out your mixer to make them.


Make the crust by combining all-purpose flour, confectioners’ sugar, and one tablespoon of cornstarch, with one stick of very soft butter in a medium bowl. The softer the butter is, the easier of a time you’ll have. You can do this with a food processor, but it comes together in just a minute by hand, which I prefer to washing out my food processor for such a fast little crust.

Just as cornstarch helps cookies stay soft and tender, it does the same for this crust. Shortbread crusts tend to become too dry, hard, or tasteless, and remind me of dog biscuits, which is why I never make biscotti. I’m sorry for anyone who likes it but it’s so unsatisfying for me because I can’t get past that dry, hard-yet-crumbly dough. The cornstarch keeps this crust just a bit softer than some, preventing the cardboard phenomenon.

The crust mixture will seem crumbly, but transfer the pea-sized lumps and crumbs to an eight-inch square foil-lined pan, and press them down until a smooth crust forms. Prick it haphazardly with a fork in a dozen places so the steam can escape, and bake it for 12 to 15 minutes. As it bakes, if you notice any big air bubbles forming, prick them down with a fork, and continue baking.

You don’t want to impart color or have it turn golden. You just want it to firm up and hold together because the pan is going back into the oven anyway to bake the filling.

The Best Lemon Bars - Good old-fashioned lemon bars that pack a punch of big time lemon flavor, without being too tart or too sweet!

While the crust bakes, make the filling by coming two eggs, sugar, one-half cup of lemon juice, splash of cream, optional vanilla and lemon extracts, and whisk. My recipe differs from many I’ve seen in that it doesn’t use half of a carton of eggs, just two. The presence of two tablespoons of cream helps give the filling some depth, richness, and creaminess that you can’t get without it.

Most notably, the ration of lemon juice ratio is much, much higher than in most recipes. For an 8-inch square pan, most call for two tablespoons whereas mine uses eight (one-half cup); four times the amount. You’d think this would make you pucker up up for days but really, it doesn’t. The bars are robustly lemon-flavored, but not ridiculous, and they’re how I think a lemon bar should be. If I wanted a blondie with a hint of lemon, I’d use two tablespoons of lemon juice, but I wanted a good old-fashioned lemon bar, full of zing and tang. But they’re also sweet enough to be considered dessert, not torture.

With lemon desserts, balancing tartness with sweetness can be tricky. Too much lemon, and I want to pucker up and hide; too little, and I’m bored. Too much sugar and they have a sickeningly sweet quality; too little, and I want the torture to end. I think these are spot on, both in tartness and sweetness. Of course, if you don’t want something quite as tart, you could start with one-quarter cup of lemon juice; taste, and increase accordingly.

The overall depth of lemon flavor is boosted from two teaspoons of lemon zest. Most recipes this size use one teaspoon, but I doubled it and used two. When zesting a lemon, make sure to just take off the outermost yellow layer. As you move into white pith, it becomes more and more bitter. There’s a difference between tartness and bitterness. I prefer the former, not so much the later.

I also added a tiny bit of vanilla extract, something that isn’t traditional in lemon bars, but I love vanilla. I didn’t need to add any lemon extract as they’re already very lemony, but if you’re a lemon fiend, go for it. Citric acid will also make the lemon flavor really pop if you’re someone who just can’t get enough lemon intensity. It’s frequently used in pickling and canning, and found in the canning section of most grocery stores if you want to play around.

Pour the filling mixture over the crust and bake it for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the top has just set. As you pour the filling over the crust, it will seem like it’s liquid soup and there’s no way that it will set up in fifteen minutes time, but surprisingly, it does. Bake until the top has just set in the center and isn’t watery. Some movement and looseness is fine, and that’s how lemon bars are, but there shouldn’t be pooled liquid. Don’t overcook them and turn them into a rubbery state, either. They do firm up as they cool.

Cool them for about an hour at room temperature, and then refrigerate them for at least three hours before slicing. Although you could serve them at room temperature, a chilled lemon bar with a dusting of confectioners’ sugar is the only way for me. They’ll keep for up to five days in the refrigerator in an airtight container.

The Best Lemon Bars - Good old-fashioned lemon bars that pack a punch of big time lemon flavor, without being too tart or too sweet! Easy, no-mixer recipe!

I am so pleased with these because the flavor is robustly lemony and tart, but they’re not sour, pungent, bitter, or overwhelming. They’re just sweet enough, but not too much. The sprinkling of confectioners’ sugar gives them a tiny bit of additional sweetness and gives them that classic lemon bar appearance.

The filling itself is dense but light, almost like a lemon custard with a touch of creaminess. It’s smooth and firm, without being rubbery. The crust is buttery, just crisp enough, but retains some softness, flakiness, and tenderness. It’s a ever-so-slightly sweetened and thick enough to stand up to the layer of lemon filling and not be overwhelmed by it. I don’t like it when shortbread crusts are paper thin and prefer them on the thicker side. Not too thick, not too thin. Hello Goldilocks.

My almost six-year old is a lemon fanatic. She’ll reach into a water glass with a lemon, fish it out, and eat it. She loved these because anything lemon-flavored is a hit with her. My husband said these are his favorite lemon bars of all-time, too. Not that either of us eat lemon bars all that often, but when we do, I’ll use this recipe.

I wouldn’t call them The Best if I didn’t really think they were.

The Best Lemon Bars - Good old-fashioned lemon bars that pack a punch of big time lemon flavor, without being too tart or too sweet!

The Best Lemon Bars
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
These good old-fashioned lemon bars pack a punch of robust lemon flavor, without being either too tart or too sweet. They come together in minutes by hand and are so satisfying. A soft, flaky, buttery shortbread crust is the base for the golden yellow lemon filling that tops it. As they bake, the filling sets up into a gorgeous shade of yellow, and is dense yet light, smooth, and creamy. They're my favorite recipe for lemons bars me and remind me of the lemon bars my mom and grandma used to make.
Serves: one 8-by-8-inch pan, 9 generous squares
  • For the Crust
  • ½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick), very soft
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ¼ heaping cup confectioners' sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • pinch salt, optional and to taste
  • For the Filling
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup lemon juice, or to taste (about 2 juicy medium lemons; see note below)
  • 2 tablespoons half-and-half (whole milk or cream are okay)
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract, optional and to taste
  • ½ teaspoon lemon extract, optional and to taste
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons lemon zest loosely packed, or to taste (see note below)
  • confectioners' sugar, for dusting
  1. Preheat oven to 350F. Line an 8-by-8-inch pan with aluminum foil, spray with cooking spray; set aside.
  2. For the Crust - In a large bowl, combine all crust ingredients and cut the butter into the dry ingredients with a pasty cutter or just stir and mash with a spoon until a sandy, crumbly mixture forms. I do it by hand because it's easy, fast, and I don't have to wash out my food processor; but use one if you prefer. Transfer crumbly mixture to prepared pan and using your fingertips, press crumbs down to form an even flat layer of crust. Prick crust with a fork haphazardly in a dozen places so air and steam can escape while it bakes. If air bubbles form while baking, prick them down and return pan to oven. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until crust has just barely set. It should not be golden or browned at all, it should still be white. You just want it to stick together and it doesn't need to be cooked through fully since pan is going back in the oven to bake filling. While crust bakes, make the filling.
  3. For the Filling - In a large bowl, combine eggs, sugar, lemon juice (start with ¼ cup and increase to taste; I find that using less than ½ cup isn't intense enough, but add to taste), half-and-half, optional vanilla (I used it even though it's not traditional), optional lemon extract (I don't find it necessary and omitted it), and whisk until smooth. Add the flour and whisk until lumps are gone. Add lemon zest (add to taste, starting with 1 teaspoon but I prefer 2 teaspoons) and whisk to combine. Pour mixture over crust. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes (I baked for 18), or until the top has just set and isn't jiggly in center. Some movement and looseness is normal and desired, you just don't want it liquid-like or runny; slicing into some looseness is fine, liquid is not. Top will be yellow and lemon-colored, but not browned. Allow bars to cool at room temperature for at least on hour. Cover pan and refrigerate for at least three hours, or overnight, before slicing and serving. Optionally, dust with confectioners' sugar before serving. Store extra bars in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

Related Recipes:

Pink Lemonade Freezer Bars (no-bake) – Pink lemonade and whipped topping are combined for the sweet and creamy filling, and both the crust and crumble topping is buttery and made with Ritz crackers. It’s a sweet-and-salty, creamy-and-crunchy dessert, and comes together in minutes

Baked Orange Banana Coconut Donuts with Orange Coconut Vanilla Cream Cheese Glaze – Baking with fruit of any kind adds great sweetness, flavor, and moisture and these use both oranges and bananas. The batter can be baked as muffins if you don’t have a donut pan

Strawberry Jelly Rolls – A 15-minute recipe from start to finish, including baking time and the dishes. Fresh, homemade jelly rolls using a shortcut you won’t believe. Lemon jelly in these would be excellent, especially paired with the cinnamon-sugar coatin

Pineapple Banana & Coconut Cream Smoothie (vgean, GF) – Packed with Vitamin C, healthy, and refreshing. Feel free to add rum or Malibu and turn it into a pina colada

Peach Jelly-Filled Banana Bread Bars -Part jelly danish crossed with ultra moist banana bread. Peach yogurt is used in the batter and the bars are fall-apart soft and moist. Peach jelly is swirled throughout before baking, boosting the peach flavor, moisture, and sweetness. These bars are dense and rich like a fudgy brownie and although they photos didn’t do them justice, these were incredible

Orange PushUp Smoothie – The most popular recipe on my site in 2012. It’s sweet and tangy, citrusy and creamy, very refreshing, and has the flavor of classic Orange PushUps

Do you like Lemon Bars or lemon-flavored desserts Do you bake with citrus?

Feel free to link your favorites. I want to bake more with citrus while it’s still at it’s peak.

188 comments on “The Best Lemon Bars”

  1. You’re right about lemon bars–they’ve got to be made “right”. These look just like the ones I love–that my Mom used to make. Whenever I see lemon bars now, they just aren’t the same. Not enough lemon! They tend to be too floury and dry. These sounds perfect!

    • There are so many issues and pitfalls that can plague lemon bars and I tried to overcome them all! If you ever need a recipe like the ones your mom probably used to make, I have a feeling these are very similar. They remind me of the ones my grandma used to make.

  2. Ha, you beat me to it – I was just about to say that your fillings ingredient-list and the photos made it look like some sort of yummy lemony custard, which I can definitely get behind. You are the bar QUEEN.

  3. I LOVE lemon bars! One of my favorite treats to make. Hmmmm, now that I think about it, I don’t know if I ever posted my recipe….I’ll have to look back! thanks for sharing Averie!

  4. okay…LOVE lemon bars.

  5. I shy away from sour tastes–I never buy grapefruit or citrus fruits related to it and I generally go for clementines or tangelos when I do buy citrus. So, I’ve never made lemon bars but I have tried them and liked the ones that are sweet enough (no surprise there with my sweet tooth, huh?!?). My husband adores lemon bars–I know he’d love these and I think I would too (the crust to filling ratio looks great)! The shortbread is a sweeter version of my favorite pie crust–I use a little powdered sugar rather than granulated.

    • I don’t normally go for something like this if there was chocolate or other things around, but trying to lighten things up this time of year and embrace citrus season was the plan. And my daughter loves sour things and she had never had lemon bars, so figured, what the heck! The shortbread crust, if nothing else, was a good experiment and one to have in my arsenal. Loved it and will be very versatile!

  6. I love lemons period. I’m the weirdo that steals your lemon from your tea or water glass if you’re not using it so I can eat it. Plain. I can’t remember the last time I had a lemon bar though. Reminds me of the yummy insides of a lemon meringue pie.

  7. They are gorgeous indeed. I too am picky about lemon bars. I don’t like them too sweet and the crust has to crumbly and not soggy at all. Nice work!

  8. Those lemon bars are making me drool! How do you get your photos so vibrant??

    • In editing, I kick up the saturation a bit because with pale yellow, if I don’t, it just gets washed out on screen. I try to just do it very slightly and not make it look artificial but it’s hard with light colors to find that balance. I try to make them look on the screen exactly how they looked in person and the color on screen IS what they looked like. Nice and yellow!

  9. Oh my! I love, love, love lemon bars! These looks like perfection to me.

  10. We love lemon bars! My neighbor (who happens to be a huge baker like you) has a Meyer lemon tree that is going crazy with lemons. She has been dropping off lemons on my doorstep everyday along with batches of lemon bars, because that is one of John’s favorite desserts. Your bars look perfect and when my neighbor gets tired of making lemon bars, I will have a great recipe to use to make John some. xoxo, Jackie

    • I used to live in a house with a huge!!! lemon tree as well as a Meyer lemon tree and had more lemons than I knew what to do with but never really embraced them like I should have. If you try this recipe, would love to know your thoughts since it seems you guys know your lemons/lemon bars!

  11. Your pictures are gorgeous! I rarely think to make lemon/citrus desserts, but when I do I’m always pleasantly surprised at how much I like them. I’m a chocoholic at heart, but lemon bars, lemon pudding, or lemon *anything* is a much needed, refreshing break from dense, rich chocolate. So glad you created the perfect recipe! Keeping this one in mind for when I need a break from chocolate overload.

    • “I’m a chocoholic at heart, but lemon bars, lemon pudding, or lemon *anything* is a much needed, refreshing break from dense, rich chocolate” <--- me too on all accounts! I don't normally go for something like this if there was chocolate around but trying to lighten things up this time of year and embrace citrus season was the plan!

  12. Averie, can I come over to taste test it? I am sure it’s really good! :) I haven’t tried a lemon bar I liked so much to get a second bite, and the fact that I don’t like sweets has nothing to do with it. I love lemons and add lemon juice and zest almost in anything I cook. I even made a tiramisu yesterday and snicked a dash of lemon zest in it! :) To me you can’t spoil anything with the lemon. From your photo I can tell I’d like a second bite, and even a third. Oh well, I’ll have a whole piece of that not too sweet and not too tart, and I may even have a cup of coffee with it! :)

  13. I love knowing that you are like Goldilocks with your lemon bars! I always find it fascinating learning what people are more selective about… and I totally get why these are Goldilocks approved: I think the zest is what makes it. Lovely lemon bars, Averie!

    • Well I’m super picky about EVERYTHING I make/bake but with these there were so many possible pitfalls, issues, etc to solve so it made for a fun research project of sorts. Not something I want to do every day but I like a good challenge like this for myself sometimes!

  14. Averie, I can see why you would call these sweet treats the best :) Little nibbles of sunshine :)

  15. Okay, would you please stop posting recipes for foods I absolutely love like soft pretzels and lemon squares and cookie butter and microwave caramels? My pre-meno pot (translation: premenopausal belly, can be confused for a beer belly) can’t take it anymore.
    I’ve been making this Cooking Light recipe for lemon bars since the late 90’s and I really enjoy it. Cooking Light calls for three eggs and a third cup of lemon juice. But I like the idea of putting in more juice so I’ll have to try yours.

    • Oh that recipe has lots of promise and I saw that one in my research. I reduced an egg and added more lemon juice. And just going by that photo of theirs, it looks a little bit dry (but it could just be the photo) but mine are moister than that. If you try my version, would love to know how you think the two compare!

  16. I LOVE lemon bars. I have never made them but this looks very tempting.

  17. How pretty is that color! Do you know if there’s a way for me to pick the bars off my screen?!?! Sorta salivating over here… ~slurp~

  18. Loooove these! I’m a total sucker for all things lemon. Ps, your site isn’t working for me. I see the words, pics and it allowed me to add a comment, but nothing else shows. Gah, mine has issues this week too. So frustrating!

  19. I don’t generally crave lemony foods in the winter, but I have been wanting more refreshing foods lately. I haven’ trade lemon bars in a while, but I wonder if I could veganize these using agar or arrowroot for the filling. I will find out!

  20. These look (and I bet taste) just like the lemon bars I used to have from my favorite bakery at home. They are the perfect combo of lemon-y tartness and sweetness from the crust. Cannot wait to give these a whirl!

  21. I am VERY into lemon desserts lately. And you will be actually scared by the amount of egg yolks i had to include in the ice cream I’m posting on Friday. But….regardless. Obviously I need these in my life. The sweet-tart sounds fabulous!

  22. Once again, we are on the same wavelength! I’m posting lemon bars tomorrow :). These look relish, the flavor sounds perfectly balanced and I love that you added a little vanilla!

  23. Ha! I’m the SAME way with lemon bars. Last summer I tried 4 times to make an IPA lemon bar and I never got it “postable.” Just was never the right balance. And this look exactly like what I was trying to accomplish. Perfect!

    • I researched these Jackie before I ever started cooking like you can’t believe. I mean when I say I must have cross-referenced 50 recipes from cookbooks, blogs, etc…not even kidding. I am glad they look like what you were trying to achieve. I got my wish and they’re what I tried to achieve!

  24. But you COULD lug out your mixer if you wanted to… right? Heh… I’ve been coming up with all sorts of crazy things to make just so I can use my new mixer! Great bars, Averie ;)

  25. Lemon bars are one of my most favorite sweet treats. Ever!

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