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.

MY OTHER RECIPES

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
Ingredients
  • 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
Instructions
  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. I am super picky about my lemon bars too! I have made many different recipes, and ended up with a hybrid of my own that I thought was perfect. Well, now you have sent me back to the drawing board with this one! I can’t wait to try these, and as soon as I lose my holiday weight (haha), I am making these!

  2. Balance with lemon bars is key. I don’t like ones that are too sweet. Here’s my version:

    http://www.kitchenkonfidence.com/2010/08/julias-lemon-bars/

    No lemon extract, but they still have good lemon flavor.

  3. Yay, you’re back up! Everything looks as lovely as ever!

  4. LOVE that you used lemon extract as well. I always rely on zest and juice to give it that great lemon flavor but can imagine how extract gives it that added oomph! Delicious and gorgeous pictures as always!

  5. when averie says it’s the best… you know it’s the best! these look wonderful, Averie and I can tell you took your time setting up each gorgeous square so beautifully in each shot. And the gorgeous sprinkles powdered sugar on top reminds me of the salt “sprinkles” from yesterday. :) I love lemon desserts and lime desserts for that matter(love key lime pie!). I’ve only ever seen lemon bars with a shocking amount of eggs, like you mentioned. Its refreshing to see that they can be made, and made well, with a reduced amount. That shortbread crust is calling to me right now, especially with the beloved cornstarch added in!

    • Sally yes, you know me so well! If I say it’s the best, I mean, I am done searching and can write the recipe off and file it as done on my life’s bucket list. Thanks for the photo compliments. These were HARD to shoot. Much harder than I even thought. The bright bright yellow, the white, the shiny surface (all are glare city) as well as the semi-opaque filling (can look blurry), contrasted with a crust that could possibly flake apart (but thankfully didnt) and then the dark wood/light bars….yes, between the recipe itself and the shoot, I set myself up for a nice challenge :) But it was worth it!

  6. I know what you mean about biscotti. I always had to drench it in my coffee to enjoy it but then my coffee was full of wet biscotti. Ew.

    Lemon has been my favorite flavor for ages. In yesterday’s post I mentioned how I always got a pretzel for lunch and that was coupled with a lemon sorbet. It always satisfies my taste buds. Amazingly, last night Simeon asked me if I would please make a lemon dessert. No, I’m not kidding. (How often does that happen with your recipes??!) He is like Skylar…he will eat whole lemons and LOVES all lemon sorbet. I’ll make this for him, cornstarch and all because he’s not allergic. Awesome recipe! :-)

    • Lol at your first sentence but 100% true!! And you can totally omit the cornstarch in the crust for allergen purposes, it will just be a little firmer. And Simeon has proven time and time again, he’s psychic. FOR REAL!

  7. WOW, Averie, these are GORGEOUS! I’m hosting a baby shower later this spring and our colors are navy, light blue, and YELLOW… this looks like the absolute perfect dessert to make!

    • Oh they would be PERFECT for a shower. I almost wrote in the post, these are baby shower, bridal shower, and tea-time food. But then thought well that’s sort of limiting; but really my first thought WAS baby shower food!

  8. I do love lemon bars! I’ve not tried cornstarch in the crust before, but that’s an interesting tip! So pretty too, pinned ya back. ;)

  9. So often, lemon bars are just sugar bombs that taste vaguely of lemon. I like mine to scream lemon and whisper sweetness. Lemon juice, zest, AND extract? Bomb. I love lemon extract and use it in so many things- including savory dishes. Lemon….so good in any season.

  10. Lemon desserts are one of my very favorite things, and with that shortbread crust, these look absolutely perfect!

  11. These look soooo perfect. Lemon Bars are my absolute favorite cake/bar and I love the lemon to just make you pucker with sour then take you bake with the powdered sugar. These look perfect for me :)

  12. Reading your posts are such a treat. I love hearing about your thought process, often nodding in agreement with you (for example, my favourite shortbreads are made with corn starch, I’m extremely picky with lemon tarts, I love a thicker shortbread base, and it is IS hard to get that perfect balance of tart ‘n sweet). These bars are so gorgeous – love that bright vibrant yellow colour. My husband would go bonkers for these.

    • I am so glad you love the post and the process. I like to spell out why I did A, B, and C and what my goals were and why I chose what I did. Sometimes I make things and just toss things in knowing they’ll work out reasonably well, but with these, every choice was measured b/c I am very picky about my lemon bars :) That’s good to know you also use cornstarch in your shortbreads. That was a first for me!

  13. I totally love lemon bars and I think the base is just as important as the lemon. I really like Joy the Baker’s recipe and sometimes add rosemary or thyme. My 2 year old also loves to eat lemon slices and always laughs hysterically when he tries them…too funny!

    • You 6 year old with the cherries and Shirley Temples and your 2 year old with the lemons….they would definitely get along with my almost 6 year old!

      I actually saw Joy’s recipe after I made these. Not sure why it wasn’t coming up in my early searches. Good to know you really love it and yes, the base is SO important. Otherwise the whole thing just tastes off!

  14. Averie, I have yet to try lemon bars! I don’t know what is taking me so long, but these look irresistible :) Will have to use this recipe, thanks!

  15. 1/2 cup of lemon juice for an 8-inch pan recipe!! Thank you! ♥ You get it. :D (I can’t express how disappointing it is to bite into a lemon bar that has only a trace of lemon.)

    My favourite lemon bar recipe (so far) is one that I found on Fine Cooking’s site, but yours sounds like my kind of lemon bar! Beautiful plate too!

    • 1/2 cup isn’t even ‘that’ much…I mean, yes, but I was reading some recipes that call for 2 tbsp. My tastebuds don’t even process that! It’s like if I wanted a blondie, sugar cookie, snickerdoodle or some other light colored dessert, I’d have one. But lemon bars need to POP! And then the 2 tsp of zest helps!

      The plate was SUCH a diamond in the rough find from…Target! About 4 years ago. They had ONE plate, I bought it, and I’ve never seen anything as Anthro-inspired ever since. Bummer. Because I love that plate, too!

  16. Lemon bars are one of my favorite treats. Totally agree that you have to achieve the right balance of sweet and tart. No bitterness ever. My fave lemon bar is Ina Garten’s. They’re insanely delicious.

  17. These look wonderful, love the strong use of lemon – yum!

  18. My mouth is puckering in anticipation. Good thing I still have a whole bag (like, a HUGE bag) of lemons left!

  19. Oh my gosh, Averie… I could eat an entire tray of these perfect lemon bars.

  20. I swear we must have hung out together in another life. I have been tweaking my lemon bar recipe this whole week, and haven’t yet posted it or made it to perfection! You and I are on the same page with the food lately!! First bread, then pretzels and now lemon bars. I am so loving this!! :) Your lemon bars look amazing!!! Love your recipe!!

  21. totally agree – I love lemon desserts, but if there isn’t enough lemon tartness and flavour they aren’t great! But definitely don’t want them so tart you don’t want to eat them. My grandma was a real lover of lemon desserts, especially lemon meringue (something I’m afraid of trying!) these look delicious =)

  22. lemon bars are one of my all time favorite recipes – good ones are a bit hard to find – most I find way to sweet. Your bars look perfect

  23. Those are some seriously beautiful lemon bars for sure. Is there anything better than lemon?

  24. are you like in my head? my favorite things to eat…. your prior post – the one hour pretzels and i said i love me some soft pretzels…now lemon bars…lemon bars are by far my favorite desert. i barely ever make since i am always disappointed…but now that YOU created your own. and you said they are the bEST this is it! i know it!!!!

  25. Awesome! My grandmother used to make these all the time and no one in my family knows the recipe because she never wrote anything down. I’m going to totally blow them away at the next dinner! Thank you!

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