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Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Brett Regot; Design: The Kitchn
Recipe Review

We Tested 4 Famous Lemon Bar Recipes and Found a Clear Winner

published Apr 3, 2020
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For me, lemon bars are deeply personal. Every time I eat one, I am transported back to my childhood: I’m sitting next to the glittering pool wrapped in a damp towel, hair still wet from my swim. My friend’s mom brings out a dish of lemon bars and tells us to dig in. Six sets of tiny, prune-y hands rush toward the tray, and we ravenously shove the bars into our mouths at warp speed, crumbs flying. One piece is certainly not enough, so I make my way back into the kitchen for one more. This time, I savor the bright lemon custard as it dances its way across my palate. I am satiated and utterly happy.

Back then, I didn’t know much about texture or technique; I just knew that I loved this gooey lemon thing with its beguiling lemon custard, and that I would take any chance I got to devour one. So when given the opportunity to make four kinds of lemon bars for Kitchn’s celebrity recipe showdown series, I was more than happy to oblige.

These days, I’m a bit more discerning. When it comes to the perfect lemon bar, I’m looking for three things: A sturdy-yet-tender crust that holds up texturally to the custard, a bright lemony filling that strikes the perfect balance between tart and sweet, and a clear distinction between the two layers. It should also be easy to make and not require any fancy ingredients or equipment, so that I don’t have to wait long to dig in.

Here’s what happened when I put four popular recipes to the test.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Brett Regot

Meet Our 4 Lemon Bar Contenders

There are countless lemon bar recipes on the internet, and they vary greatly in how they’re made. For this showdown, I was curious to know not only which recipe was the very best, but also what technique yields the best results. With that in mind, I chose four recipes — from Ina Garten, Serious Eats, Martha Stewart, and Deb Perelman — that each had a distinct point of view.

Deb Perelman’s recipe is unique because it uses just one lemon, pith and all, for the entire tray. Martha Stewart’s recipe uses sweetened condensed milk, rather than granulated sugar, to sweeten the filing. Ina Garten’s recipe calls for a whopping three cups of sugar in the filling, and uses extra-large eggs. And Serious Eats’ recipe has you cook the filling on the stovetop, and incorporates bold lemon flavor in the form of both juice and zest. Deb and Ina use granulated sugar in their crust, whereas Martha and Serious Eats use powdered sugar. Which technique would win out? I took to the kitchen to find out.

How I Tested the Lemon Bars

I baked all the lemon bars on the same day and made them all exactly as written. I ate them with my quarantine companions: my 9 year-old daughter and my 21-year-old daughter. To keep an even playing field, I used the same brands of flour, sugar, lemons, and eggs across the board.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Brett Regot

1. The Best for a 9-Year-Old’s Birthday Party: Ina Garten’s Lemon Bars

Before I begin, I need to clear the air. I love Ina. I care deeply that the Barefoot Contessa and her husband Jeffrey are safe and sound in the comforts of their home. I believe she is a kind, talented, super-sweet woman — but not quite as sweet as her lemon bars, because very few things are. These are by far the sweetest lemon bars I have ever eaten. I could barely make it past one bite, but my nine-year-old loved them — and my nine-year-old self probably would have, too!

If you’re serving lemon bars to anyone with a sweet tooth (kids included) and need an easy, reliable recipe, Ina’s will work. But in my opinion, there are better, more balanced lemon bars to be had.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Brett Regot

2. The Best When You Only Have One Lemon: Deb Perelman’s Lemon Bars

The promise of this recipe is that you can stretch just one lemon into an entire tray of lemon bars. And while it does work, it falls a little short in the flavor department. The lemon bars have a subdued lemon flavor — like diet lemon, if you will. And while I personally don’t mind the pieces of bitter pith (the entire lemon sans seeds goes into these bars), I can see where this might be off-putting to some eaters and younger palates. With a few tweaks, however, these bars could be really great. 

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Brett Regot

3. The Best for Impressing Your Friends: Serious Eats’ Lemon Bars

These are the lemon bars you make for a fancy dinner party, or to gift to a friend. They are so beautiful. You could take these bars and sell them! Sunny is the perfect way to describe them — they pack a full-flavored lemony punch that will make you pucker and beg for more. If you love tart lemon flavor, this is your recipe. It comes in a very close second place, but only because the technique may deter less experienced home cooks from making it. But if you ask me, it is 100 percent worth the effort.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Brett Regot

4. The Best Lemon Bar, Period: Martha Stewart’s Lemon Bars

I chose this as the winning recipe for two reasons. The first is ease — it requires just seven ingredients and very little prep. The second is flavor: It has a bright lemon filling made with sweetened condensed milk, which adds an element of comfort and makes these almost reminiscent of Key lime pie, but better. The only problem with this recipe is that you’re left with a tray of lemon bars that you probably don’t want to share with anyone. If you’ve got the ingredients, I encourage you to make these ASAP.