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
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.

194 comments on “The Best Lemon Bars”

  1. I made these last night (in the dead of night) and ate them this morning and have been giving them out like it was the best thing I tasted in the world~ DELICIOUS! Crust was not dry or hard but nice and moist. The filling was nicely set and everything… but my family apparently is super sensitive to sweet (which is a pity). I believe that is it perfectly tart and just a tab bit too sweet but still manageable for me.But for my family should I reduce the sugar or add in more lemon? Or both?!

    • Thanks for trying the recipe and I’m glad it came out great for you and that it’s one of the best things in the world you’ve tasted! On account of that, I wouldn’t change a thing with the recipe. If you start tinkering with the ratio of sugar/lemon, the filling will set up differently and have a different texture. You can play around on your own with making tweaks but because I love the recipe, I haven’t tinkered with it after developing it to the point I wanted it.

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  4. better then the best lemon bars. Made for a family gathering, these Bars got rave reviews!
    Thanks for sharing this great recipe.

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  6. Very tasty !! I juiced 3 lemons and my bars were tart,tasty and gooey :)

  7. I was looking for a Lemon Bar recipe (with less eggs, since I’m calorie counting and eggs can get it up there!) and Pinterest pointed me here. Super glad I found it.

    My dad has been complaining because he has these lemon trees… about 4 0f them, and they MASS produced lemons this year and we were having a hard time thinking of what to do with them. THIS is the answer.

    Thank you for your beautiful, simple, no-mixer recipe. I’m so excited to bake these on Monday morning. :) YUM!

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  9. Hi Averie! The bars looks great. But i do not have cooking spray which is needed to spray onto the foil. so what should i do to the aluminum foil so that the crust turns out right? Should i use parchment paper?

    • I personally don’t like to use parchment in baking pans because it doesn’t ‘seal’ tightly in the corners like foil. I recommend greasing the pan or foil then with a little butter so the bars don’t stick.

      • i’ve baked them and they turn out great! it’s a good recipe! by the way, is it possible to keep the bars for up to 5 days?

      • I would keep them in the fridge and I think they’ll be fine but that would kind of be the max/limit before I’d try to make them closer to the event, if that’s what you’re trying to save them for.

  10. very good recipe, but your blog has too many pictures. It is difficult to find the recipe when viewing on a small screen device.

  11. I love your site. I’m just wondering if I could double this recipe and bake in a 9×13?

  12. My dad asked me to make some lemon bars and I knew exactly where to come to get a recipe. You’re my #1 source for dessert recipes because everything always turns out delicious.

    I had to use 1% milk, extra flour instead of cornstarch, and no lemon zest.
    My dad felt it was TOO lemony (I used 1/2 cup lemon juice, but next time I’ll use 1/4 c for him) but everyone else thought they were great! I will definitely make these again.

    • Thanks for trying them and for your nice compliments about my recipes :) And I’m glad that everyone loved them! You could cut back to like 1/3 c on the juice, no zest, for your dad. That would probably be perfect for him – because yes, these are lemony and for total lemon lovers :)

  13. Hi Averie! These look amazing. I’m making dessert to take to my boyfriend’s family for the weekend and would love to try them. If I run my AC on high, do you think they would stand in a 1.5 hr car ride?

    • I think they’d be just fine! I would just wrap the pan in aluminum foil, put it inside a large ziplock bag, put the bag/pan on top of an ice pack, and you’re set :)

  14. These look fantastic! Just wondering: I have Celiac disease and cannot do gluten. I can figure out how to make substitutes for the crust, but as for the flour in the lemon filling would I need to use an all-purpose GF flour or is there something else I could substitute? Do I just need something to thicken the filling, such as flax meal? Any help would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

    • I find that the small amt of flour in the filling will cause it to set up better, but you can play around with cornstarch and/or use an AP-GF flour as you said. I probably wouldn’t put flax into it just based on texture. I’d go for little bit of cornstarch (like you’d do if you were making pie filling) probably as my first choice. You can always omit and see how well (or not well) they set up – I’m not sure but I think they’d still be passable.

  15. I made this recipe this morning and it is to die for. I had to share it with my friend otherwise I was afraid I might eat it all by myself. Will definitely be making these again.

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  19. Hi Averie, I made these last night as I have a friend coming over for dinner and needed a dessert. I’m also going to make the pizza with your dough base (again! lol) and that’s why I decided to make the lemon bars. I wanted something “light” and refreshing as pizza is quite heavy and lemons are always good after a big meal to help you digest (not so much cakes, but whatever!). Well, last night it was me and my husband staring at the bars as they were still n the pan and we decided that our friend would have known if we’d had a little piece. Well, we ended up eating a quarter of it, it was that good! Can’t wait for my friend to try it, he will love it!!! This is definetely a keeper!! Thank you so much! :)

    • I am so glad to hear that you and your hubs polished off a quarter of the pan in no time – that’s a sign of success :) Thank you for telling me little stories like these! And that you love the bars and hope your friend did as well!

      Happy to hear you’re a big fan of the pizza dough (as I’ve said before) – knowing you’re Italian and like my little old pizza dough means a ton :)

      • Ok, so my friend came over, he absolutely loved the pizza, he was so impressed ( hes’s italian too, btw)! And he loved the lemon bars so much that he asked me if he could bring the leftovers at home and also wanted the recipe for it! so yeah, I would definetely call it a success!! Thank you so much! :)

      • Glad that your Italian friend loved the pizza – and the Lemon Bars. And…wanted the recipe! Total success. Thanks for sharing these stories! Makes my day :)

  20. I made these for a 4th of July party and everyone LOVED them!!! This recipe is definitely a keeper :) the lemon layer came out a little runnier than I expected, but it didn’t even matter cuz they tasted DIVINE

    • So glad you loved them and so did everyone at the party! Next time for the runnier filling siuation – either bake slightly longer, use slightly less lemon juice and/or cream (and don’t use milk next time, use cream or half-and-half – not sure what you did this time around) and that should take care of it! But doesn’t sound like a big issue regardless :)

      • Thank you for the suggestions! I did in fact use whole milk, I will try cream next time …. But no way on cutting back on the lemon :)

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  22. I just made these. LOVE THEM! So much better than other recipes I’ve tried. They are light, creamy, and perfect! Thank you!

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  24. I lost my lemon bar recipe… Mix the dough together abd then grate it.. Then add the lemon filling and bake.. Does anyone have this recipe?

  25. Just made these “lemony bars of heaven” tonight, and my family loved them!! Will make these again for sure.

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