This easy lemon bars recipe bakes up a big tray of sweet and tangy dessert! Each serving has the perfect combination of almond shortbread crust topped with a gooey citrus filling.
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When your sweet tooth has a craving, or you’re looking for a sharable dessert, give these delicious lemon bars a try. The recipe has just two simple components- an almond shortbread crust and luscious citrus curd. The contrast is delightful, with a crisp bottom layer and smooth filling.
To ensure a sturdy crust texture, you’ll need to pre-bake it first. The hardened dry surface prevents it from becoming soggy once you place the moist lemon filling on top. The recipe makes a large tray, which is perfect for making a big batch to share.
The cookie-like crust
I make the crust using a vanilla shortbread cookie base consisting of flour, soft butter, and granulated sugar. I add an egg for richness and baking powder to avoid a dense texture. To add more flavor and enhance the crust’s consistency, I coarsely ground sliced almonds in a food processor.
The combination of ingredients creates a buttery, fine crumb for easy handheld bites. The process starts with creaming butter and sugar together, then adding the dry ingredients to form the dough. Be careful not to overmix. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a tough texture due to excess gluten formation.
Use floured fingertips to press the dough evenly into a 9 by 13-inch baking pan. I prefer this shape as it’s easy to cut out several individual squares for serving. The filling is very sticky, so make sure to grease the sides and bottom with cooking spray.
I also recommend laying down some parchment paper. Roll out enough so that it hangs over the sides. These paper edges act as a handle and allow you to lift the lemon bars out of the pan easily after baking.
Benefits of par-baking the crust
Bake the crust by itself first, until lightly golden-brown and the surface sets. This process forms a sturdy layer to support the thick lemon filling on top. The par-bake technique is similar to blind-baking pie dough. It prevents a soggy and undercooked bottom, once the wet filling is added.
Make the lemon filling
For an intense but balanced citrus flavor, use fresh lemons. If in season, I prefer Meyer lemons with hints of orange notes as a tasty alternative. Zesting the lemon skin adds wonderful aromatics and essential oils that infuse into the filling. A generous amount of lemon juice adds bright, tanginess to each slice.
The filling should have a thick curd-like consistency. To thicken the mixture, I add eggs and flour. The starches in the flour swell and thicken as they cook, and the egg proteins start to gel but not completely firm up like scrambled eggs.
Bake the lemon bars
I use a moderate oven temperature of 325-degrees for gently cooking the lemon curd filling. Keep a close eye on the texture change. Towards the last 5 minutes of baking, you’ll see the center go from loose to firm and then set. The surface should be dry to the touch, with a thin shiny crust.
If you see cracks on the top, that’s a sign the filling is getting too hot. And if you tried to press through the crust top, it would be soft and sticky underneath. If you over bake the bars, the egg proteins will harden and curdle. The texture will be chewy instead of gooey.
Allow time for cooling
Although you may want to dig in right away, it’s essential to let the bars cool completely. There is still some carryover cooking that fully thickens the flour starches and egg proteins. Let them cool to room temperature, and then transfer them to the refrigerator for an hour to chill. This process will make it much easier to cut and serve once the butter in the crust firms and the filling thickens.
Cutting and serving
The bars are very sticky and gooey since the filling has a lemon meringue pie-like consistency. For clean individual pieces, dip your knife in warm water, make your cut, then carefully wipe off the blade and repeat. Right before serving, I like to sprinkle powdered sugar on top. Cold bars also prevent the sugar from melting.
What to serve this with
- Top with meringue for a fancy presentation
- Serve with a side of whipped cream
- Place a berry compote on top
How to keep the filling gooey but sliceable
The filling is very similar to a spoonable lemon curd, but I use flour to create a stiffer gel consistency. Eggs begin to turn into a solid around 144 to 158ºF (62 to 70°C). However, since it’s in a mixture of sugar and starches, it doesn’t bind as tightly together. During baking, keep an eye out. The high proportion of egg can turn the consistency rubbery and bread-like if baked too long.
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Classic Lemon Bars
- ⅓ cup sliced almonds
- 1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
- ¼ teaspoon baking powder
- ¾ cup unsalted butter, softened to 65 to 67ºF (18 to 19ºC)
- ½ cup granulated sugar
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 large egg, room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 6 large eggs, room temperature
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest
- 1 cup lemon juice, about 4 to 5 lemons
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 3 cups granulated sugar
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- powdered sugar, as needed for dusting
- Set the oven rack to the middle position. Heat to 325ºF (163ºC).
- Lightly grease the bottom and sides of a 9×13-inch baking pan with cooking spray. Line the pan with a piece of parchment paper, enough to hang over the longer edges. This will help to lift the bars out after baking. Set aside.
- Add sliced almonds to a food processor. Process on high speed until a coarse ground texture is achieved, about 25 seconds. Alternatively, chop the nuts using a chef's knife.
- Over a medium bowl, sift the flour and baking powder. Add the chopped almonds, whisk to combine.
- In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, add the softened butter, granulated sugar, and salt. Mix on medium-low speed (setting 4) until light and fluffy, 90 seconds. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
- Add the egg and vanilla, mix on medium-low speed (setting 4) until combined, 25 seconds. Scrape down the bowl and paddle.
- Add the flour mixture and turn the mixer on and off 15 times. Mix on low speed (setting 2) until the mixture just comes together, about 10 seconds.
- Transfer the crust to the prepared baking pan. Flour your hands, then press the crust evenly to fill the bottom of the pan, leaving no spaces between. Push the crust up the edges so that it reaches ¼ to ½-inch up the sides of the pan. Use more flour to dust hands as needed to prevent sticking.
- Par-bake the crust for 20 minutes, then place on a cooling rack. Meanwhile, make the lemon filling.
- In a large bowl whisk together the eggs, lemon zest, lemon juice, and vanilla extract until combined.
- In a medium bowl whisk together the granulated sugar and flour. Add to the lemon mixture and whisk until smooth. If needed, whisk again before adding to the crust if it’s been sitting.
- Pour the lemon mixture on top of the hot crust. Use oven mitts to transfer the lemon bars to the oven carefully. Bake until the surface is shiny and the center has just set. It may have a slight wiggle, about 30 to 35 minutes. Do not overbake, if the top starts to crack it’s getting overcooked, the bars will become thick and chewy instead of gooey. It will continue to cook and thicken as it cools.
- Cool the lemon bars on a wire rack until room temperature, about 1 ½ to 2 hours. Chill in the refrigerator for 30 to 60 minutes to make the bars easier to slice.
- To cut the bars, run a paring knife along the edge of the pan to help release the bars from the sides. Place a cutting board next to the pan. Slowly and carefully use the overhanging parchment paper to lift the lemon bars out and place on the cutting board.
- Dip a knife into warm water and carefully wipe off after each cut to make it less sticky and easier to portion. Cut into 24 bars, about 2 by 2-inch squares. Dust the tops of the bars with powdered sugar. Serve immediately or store refrigerated in an airtight container.
- Storing: Store in an airtight container in a single layer refrigerated for up to 5 days.
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