Butterscotch Pudding

Silky smooth and not-too-sweet, this easy butterscotch pudding recipe hits all the salty sweet brown sugar notes of your favorite childhood treat.  

Butterscotch Pudding
If given the choice as a child (which happened rarely with my health-nut parents), I always chose chocolate pudding over butterscotch. I’m just that kinda gal, I guess. Or at least I was. It wasn’t until I worked at Farallon for a stint under the brilliant Terri Wu that I got bitten by the butterscotch bug.

One night, while I raced to finish my enormous prep list, Terri calmly worked beside me developing a caramelized bread pudding into which she stuffed chunks of roasted pear and Maraska-poached sour cherries and topped with cinnamon streusel. Batch after batch, Terri kept declaring the puddings ‘bland’. At the time, I couldn’t fathom how they could become any more flavorful, bursting as they were with myriad tastes and textures.

But then into one batch Terri threw a handful of Guittard butterscotch chips. She pulled the puddings from the oven and turned them out of their silicon molds and onto a plate. As we broke apart the large chunks of custard-soaked bread, the aroma of brown sugar and butter wafted irresistibly throughout the pastry kitchen. A bite of this dessert was heaven on a fork, the different components merging together in a symphony of flavors. Seeing my rapturous expression, Terri sighed. ‘Put butterscotch in anything and people will love it.’

When I left Farallon, I couldn’t find Guittard’s butterscotch chips anywhere, and I needed a fix. David Lebovitz’s recipe for butterscotch pudding sparked my curiosity. No store-bought butterscotch here, David makes his pudding with butter, dark brown Cassonade sugar, salt, egg, cornstarch and milk. I whipped up a batch using some palm sugar my friend Leigh brought back from Indonesia, but disliked that the coffee notes in the sugar gave the pudding an odd tang. Perhaps because of the acidity of the sugar, the pudding ‘broke’; I blended it back together at David L’s suggestion, but the chilled puddings retained an uneven texture, with molasses-colored liquid oozing from the solid pudding. I also found the puddings a bit too light in texture for me, being the spoiled-on-french-custards-full-of-cream-and-egg-yolks baker that I am, and while Jay jokes about getting me a salt lick due to my predilection for the stuff, this pudding tasted a bit heavy even for my taste.

I did some more research and found scads of different recipes. Some used only egg yolks as a thickener, some only cornstarch, some used both, and some used eggs, cornstarch and flour together. Some added in crème fraîche or greek yogurt to the finished pudding. Most used a combination of milk and heavy cream, and all called for dark brown sugar melted with butter. I tried a few batches using both whole egg and cornstarch, but I kept ending up with a grainy texture and wondered if this was due to the egg. The cornstarch must be cooked to a boil and beyond, and the egg, which usually shouldn’t be heated past 170º when making a smooth custard lest it scramble, must go along for the ride, so I decided to try the cornstarch-only route. I also wondered if whisking the butter in at the end, rather than at the beginning, might lend a smoother texture and help cool down the pudding a bit sooner. (This is also called ‘mounting the butter’ and that’s just hot.) Since I can’t get enough of vanilla bean, I decided to use the fresh stuff in place of the extract, and I wanted some salt to bring out the flavors in the pudding, but not too much.

An article from Gourmet that I found via The Kitchn used a mixture of milk and heavy cream, cornstarch as the thickener, and added the butter at the end, but there was some talk in the comments of it not setting properly and becoming ‘pudding soup’, so I decided to develop my own formula instead. It couldn’t be that hard, could it? Five batches later, certain after each that the next little tweak would make it perfect, I realized that I was closing in on the proportions in the Gourmet recipe, so I finally gave it a shot, adding salt and using vanilla bean in place of the extract. Of course, it was perfect: butterscotch heaven. I topped the puddings with unsweetened whipped cream and a sprinkle of flaky salt, and called it a day. (Right after I made another batch, you know, just to make sure it was really ‘the one.’)

This dessert comes together in a matter of minutes (plus some chilling time, if you can stop yourself from licking it all straight from the pot), and uses ingredients commonly found laying about in one’s pantry, doing nothing, waiting to become something divine. The rich butter and deep brown sugar convey the classic flavor reminiscent of those little plastic, foil-topped containers of yore (should you have been so lucky). Unlike the real thing, however, these will actually live up to those exalted memories.

Even after nine batches of butterscotch pudding (hey, I had to get it just right – I did it for you!), I’m already looking forward to the next. I guess I’m just that kinda gal.

Pudding it to you:

**2017 update: This recipe has remained such a favorite that I’ve adapted it several times over the years. It forms the base of Banana Butterscotch Pudding with Mesquite Gingersnaps in my cookbook Alternative Baker: Reinventing Dessert with Gluten-Free Grains and Flours. It also goes into this Gluten-Free Banana Butterscotch Cream Tart with Buckwheat Cocoa Crust, and this fall variation – Butterscotch Pumpkin Pudding with Whipped Mascarpone and Toasted Buckwheat.**

Persimmon Pudding
Chocolate Rosemary Pots de Crème
(Raw, Vegan) Chocolate Pudding

One year ago:

Citrus Cornmeal Poundcake
Winter Veg Mac n’ Cheese

Butterscotch Pudding

Adapted from Gourmet

You can (probably) use half and half in place of the milk and cream if you like. (Update, 1/21/12: half and half works, but has a higher fat content than the milk/cream mixture and results in a firmer, less creamy pudding. Try reducing the cornstarch to 2 tablespoons, and/or omitting the butter.) My favorite sugar for this was organic dark brown sugar; if you only have light brown sugar on hand, you can try whisking in a few drops of molasses to taste along with the butter at the end. Or try experimenting with more exotic sugars, such as panela, palm sugar, muscovado, or Alter Eco’s unrefined muscobado sugar. If boozy butterscotch sounds appealing, add 1 1/2 tablespoons of whiskey or dark or gold rum after adding the butter. If you lack vanilla bean (which you can buy in bulk in the Mission, ororder), stir in a teaspoon of vanilla extract after adding the butter at the end.

Makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup (3 3/4 ounces) packed dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) unsalted butter, in several pieces
unsweetened whipped cream
flaky salt, such as Maldon

In a medium saucepan, whisk together the cornstarch, salt, and sugar. Add the milk, cream and vanilla bean and scrapings and bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking frequently(you will have to stop whisking to verify that it is boiling; there will be fat bubbles that pop gloopily). While you whisk, make sure to scrape the entire bottom of the pot, including the corners. When you see the gloopy bubbles, reduce the heat to medium-low to maintain a simmer and continue cooking for 1 minute. The pudding should be the texture of a loose yogurt, or warm caramel sauce. Turn off the heat and whisk in the butter.

Fish out the vanilla pod (or strain the pudding into a measuring pitcher if at all lumpy) and divide the pudding into 4 cups. (You can rinse the vanilla pod, let it dry, and stick it in a bottle of booze or a jar of sugar, if you like.)

Pudding skin is an area of some disagreement, with supporters of either side, pro-skin and anti-skin, debating their points heatedly. As for me, I just cover the cups with plastic wrap (not pressed onto the surface of the pudding) and mine haven’t formed much of a skin.

Chill the puddings until cold and set, 1 1/2 hours or up to several days. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream and a few flecks of flaky salt.

33 thoughts on “Butterscotch Pudding”

  1. Yeah, this one's a winner for sure. If I hadn't just made about a gallon of tapioca (and used up most of the milk in the process), I'd be making this tonight!


  2. I made this after yet another failed butterscotch pudding that turned out grainy and watery.
    It turned out perfectly!

    Anyone having trouble making pudding should try this recipe.
    It has the creamy, smooth texture that we all want in a pudding.

  3. I have a hard time finding dark brown sugar sometimes. Will this work with light brown sugar? I always prefer dark brown sugar for everything, but I currently have light brown sugar. :(

    1. Yes, light brown will work fine, the pudding will just have a milder flavor. If you have any dark molasses, you could add a drop or two. Let me know how you like it. :)

  4. Thank you for this recipe. I basically just drank it all before it cooled. I can't have dairy so made it with a coconut milk beverage and subbed the coconut milk creamer for the cream and it worked really well. It's delicious!

  5. This recipe is so simple, it’s making me anxious :) You don’t melt the sugar to make a caramel before adding the milk? Basically just stirring the sugar with the cornstarch, and them adding the milk and cream before turning up the heat?

  6. Oh thank you for posting this recipe! I also tried the David Lebovitz version. I was suspicious of his use of whole eggs — normally would use just yolks in pudding/custard. Texture was indeed grainy and flavor was rather bland — disappointment! (If you want a great DL recipe, try his no recipe cherry jam — it is To Die For!)
    Found your post by typing in GRAINY butterscotch pudding. I think you correctly identified the problem, and the fix. My mom’s scrumptious banana pudding recipe calls for butter at the end, like you recommend.
    Made two batches of your recipe this morning — to top a cheesecake dessert for Thanksgiving — and PERFECTION! Beautiful vanilla specks, lovely texture, and rich butterscotch flavor. THANK YOU!!!

  7. Oh my goodness this is wonderful. Found this yesterday and made it for dessert tonight. A few months ago I made butterscotch pudding from a recipe book I have used for 53 years. First time it was great but only the first time. Then no matter how careful I was it went grainy every time and I finally gave up on it
    I licked the spoon and nearly swooned. Wonderful butterscotch flavour and a silky texture. The ease of making was a huge bonus. Thank you so much for sharing this technique!

  8. Have to echo everyone else–tried a few butterscotch pudding recipes and always got grainy kind of gross pudding that my husband would still try to eat while saying “it’s not SO bad…” But this? Is delicious and looks like pudding! And I couldn’t believe how easy it was. Thank you!

  9. Fellow Alanna, haha!

    I’ve been working my way through your Alternative Baker cookbook and today I was looking for a pudding recipe. This recipe was just hanging out at the bottom of my pinterest recipe board and I had never tried it. After trying your Chestnut Brownies and Chocolate, pear and rosemary tea cakes, I cannot wait to try this. It looks so simple. I’m going to make it in little jars so that they’re like pudding cups.

    1. Aw, it’s always a joy to meet a fellow Alanna! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the recipes in Alternative Baker! I make those brownies all the time too. This butterscotch pudding is an old favorite – I make it whenever I have milk that needs to be used up. Please let me know how you like it! It’s also the base of the banana pudding in the book, and I’ve used it in a banana tart on the blog, and there’s a spiced pumpkin version here too. I’ll make a note of those in this post!

  10. OMG!!! I also searched for ‘grainy pudding problems’ and found your recipe. I now make it about every 2 weeks! It is so easy and when I am hankering for something sweet, I just whip up a batch. I have also made butterscotch pies from this recipe. Everyone who has had it loves it and one of my kids asked if they could have a birthday butterscotch pie instead of a cake.
    So….. I think I read where you adapted it a bit to make chocolate pudding but I can’t seem to find it. Could you post it again? Thanks!!!

    1. Hi Reland! Aw, I’m so glad you all love this pudding recipe! Thanks a million for the sweet note! I’m not remembering having made it into a chocolate pudding (at least, not successfully enough to have written it down) but I’ll work on it! :) The pumpkin version is pretty dreamy though!

  11. Hi there, this recipe sounds great, thank you for sharing! Have you ever tried making a butterscotch mousse? Im asking because I would love to fill a tart, or do you think this recipe wouldn’t work well for this. Also, if I wanted to add some chocolate would you recommend white or milk chocolate or none. Haha so many questions in my head :)

    1. Hi Amanda! Thanks for all the questions! To fill a tart, you can just add a little more cornstarch and it will thicken the filling right up. I did that in this tart recipe, and there’s one in my cookbook also. :) If you add in chocolate, I would probably try bittersweet since I think milk or white could make the pudding too sweet. Chocolate will also make the pudding much firmer when chilled, so you may need to add extra dairy or decrease the cornstarch. Let me know what you try!

      1. Thank you! I will make sure to post a picture of my final dessert! And of course I’m going to buy your cook book! Thank you!!!

  12. have you made Butterscotch pudding with eggs and then tried this without the eggs? what are the differences in taste and texture?

    1. I have – I found the version with eggs to become grainy because you have to boil the mixture to cook the starches, so I prefer no eggs.

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