Big Little Recipes

5-Ingredient Lemon Bars Are a Classic With a Lil' Twist

January  1, 2019

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big, BIG everything else: flavor, ideas, wow factor. Psst: We don't count water, salt, pepper, and certain fats (say, olive oil to dress greens or sauté onions), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re making almost-classic lemon bars—with your new favorite crust.

When I was little I used to ask for lemon bars for my birthday. Not cake, not cupcakes, not pie. Lemon bars. Because our neighbor, who was a wonderful cook and baker, made the lemoniest, tartest, best lemon bars around. They were so good that, whenever we were lucky enough to have them, I'd take the whole plate and stash it away for later, to eat all myself.

I want to say I’ve changed a lot since then, but sometimes I wonder.

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In college, the campus catering company also made a mean lemon bar, which would reliably appear at campus events. If such an occasion and I happened to cross paths, I attended for a few minutes, piled a plate with lemon bars, then dashed home to my mini fridge.

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Top Comment:
“made the lemoniest, tartest, best lemon bars around" ... I read this and knew I'd hit a jackpot recipe. Every other lemon bar recipe I've tried was such a let down because their was so little actual lemon pucker! Thanks.”
— Cece

Which is to say, if you put a lemon bar in front of me, watch out: I am on my worst behavior. I can’t be trusted. Maybe it’s the buttery, crumbly shortbread crust or the creamy, puckery lemon curd. To me, they’re the perfect dessert.

Photo by Ty Mecham

And they have a naturally short ingredient list. Most lemon bar recipes include flour, butter, salt, lemons, sugar, and eggs. That’s it. Which makes this dessert prime Big Little Recipes material—they’re already big in flavor and little in demand.

But because each component is essential, one can only add and substitute, not trim. For instance, you could swap out the lemon—and I’ve done that—but then it’s no longer a lemon bar. Can you swap out the flour? In the crust, totally, but I wouldn’t advise thickening the curd with something dark-hued and deep-flavored, like whole-wheat or rye. What about the eggs? Maybe, but that likely would be for dietary concerns, not flavor.

Which leaves us with the sugar and butter. Baking extraordinaire Alice Medrich developed a sugar-free honey lemon curd—and it’s amazing and you should make it. So that’s one path.

But what about the butter? A few years ago, The New York Times’ Melissa Clark published Lemon Bars With Olive Oil and Sea Salt. This idea stuck with me. Only, instead of enriching the lemon curd with the olive oil, I wondered: What if we focused on the crust? After our community became smitten with Smitten Kitchen’s Olive Oil Shortbread With Rosemary & Chocolate Chunks I knew there was hope.

My initial test was more complicated than I anticipated. By the time the shortbread got crunchy, the oil started to brown. Unlike butter, which is even more flavorful when browned, oil tastes bitter and burnt. So, how to get the right texture and taste? A lower oven temperature and longer bake time did the trick, yielding an olive oily crust that’s sturdy enough to support a thick layer of lemon curd.

And when I say a thick, I mean it. When I started developing this recipe, I turned to a few tried-and-true favorites for inspiration: Yossy Arefi’s, which are inspired by Alice Medrich’s. And Tartine’s. To give you a sense of the size, here are the liquidy ingredients in each: Yossy and Alice’s versions both use 3 eggs and 1/2 cup lemon juice for an 8-inch square pan. Tartine’s uses 6 eggs plus 1 yolk and 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons lemon juice for a 9- by 13-inch pan.

Mine uses 6 eggs and 1 cup juice for an 8-inch square pan, which means it's roughly twice as thick—deep-dish, if you will. Because when it comes to citrus curd, I'm a big believer in more is more. From there, I toned down the sugar and bumped up the lemon zest. The result is an ultra-lemony lemon bar with a je ne sais quoi shortbread crust that makes you want to reach for a second square. And you should.

What do you think makes a great lemon bar? Tell us in the comments!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Rosalind Paaswell
    Rosalind Paaswell
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    Debbie Gadouas
  • Cathy
  • Cece
Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Rosalind P. November 16, 2019
I commented a while back -- this is a great recipe! Meant to add that I've used 50% whole wheat flour, or 100% whole wheat pastry flour.
Benita June 6, 2019
It sounds amazing, but is there anyway you can make this recipe Keto Friendly? I would greatly appreciate it! Thank you!
Emma L. June 6, 2019
Hi Benita! For the Keto diet, you'd have to eliminate the flour and sugar, right? This recipe relies pretty heavily on those two ingredients, so I don't think it would work without them (any adaptations would be significant enough to turn it into a different recipe). If any readers have any ideas, please share them! And while it's very different, here's a Keto-friendly dessert we have on our site:
Rosalind P. May 5, 2019
I share your passion for lemon bars -- for any lemon-y dessert. And your lemon curd is as divine as the olive oil base. I sometimes use an alternate recipe for the lemon topping -- something that I make whenever I have a few egg yolks left from an egg-white recipe. It's scalable up or down, but here are the basics: place 6 yolks and 1/2 cup sugar in the top of a double boiler or bowl, place it over a pot of simmering water. Whisk with a wire whisk vigorously for about a minute. Then gradually add 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, and about a tablespoon of lemon zest,still whisking. Keep cooking and whisking over the simmering water until the whisk leaves ribbons in the mixture and it is like a thick pudding. this should take about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, whisking occasionally to avoid a skin forming. This can be done with lime as well. And you can make it a vanilla curd by eliminating the citrus, adding 2 teaspoons of vanilla and 1/2 cup of regular, skim or vegan milk.
Debbie G. April 5, 2019
Can 5 ingredient Lemin Bars be prepared then freezed?
Emma L. April 6, 2019
Hey Debbie! I haven't frozen lemon bars myself, but someone asked this on our Hotline a few years ago, and a couple community members responded that they freeze fine, if you wrap them properly. More details here:
Cathy September 16, 2018
What would you replace with the coconut oil?
Cece September 9, 2018
"made the lemoniest, tartest, best lemon bars around" ... I read this and knew I'd hit a jackpot recipe. Every other lemon bar recipe I've tried was such a let down because their was so little actual lemon pucker! Thanks.
FrugalCat September 8, 2018
How about coconut oil? My house is so warm it is always liquid.
Emma L. September 11, 2018
I haven't tried this with coconut oil, but that's a fun idea! Maybe refined if you don't want the coconutty flavor.