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I've attempted to make creme brûlée several times using different recipes. The usually result is that the custard doesn't set, and gets up too runny. I've tried adjusting the ingredients, and the amount of time I let the finished product set in the fridge.

I'm wondering what is the cooking process or ingredient that determines the consistency? Time in the oven, level or water in the around the ramekins in the oven, amount of creme/milk compared to egg yoke?

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You might take a look at the answers to this question: cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/4686/… –  Chris Steinbach Aug 25 '12 at 9:29
    
Proteins. Use enough yolk (mcgee gives the lowest workable Ratio) and heat it to at least 70 degrees Celsius. –  rumtscho Aug 25 '12 at 16:49
    
Good question. I actually got runny creme brulee at a restaurant once... –  awe Sep 6 '12 at 11:00
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2 Answers

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While Rudy refers to one excellent resource, it is indeed one which the authors are quite proud of ($450 on Amazon, yikes). @Yossarian provides a much better (more economical source for essentially the same information) In his first blog post: Three Books for Every Kitchen. The New Best Recipe Book, from Cooks Illustrated (Amazon, $22.97), accurately describes the coagulation process and heat concerns (with a slightly different ratio of products) it great detail beginning on page 952.

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In addition to the direct question you pose, "What makes Creme Brulee set?" to help you with your 'general frustration' in making Creme Brulee I would recommend this 3 minute video from Alton Brown's "Good Eats". I believe you will find it a useful resource.

(should the link fail: search on YouTube for "Alton Brown Creme Brulee" and you should find the video easily)

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I would prefer to give an answer that doesn't involve spending hundreds of dollars, but Modernist Cuisine has a great table about the consistency of custards comparing cooking temperature to egg concentration. If you can find a copy at your local library the kitchen guide has a table on page 233, otherwise check out volume 4 page 84.

Quick synopsis: What sets the creme brulee is the egg proteins coagulating. If you were to take the weight of the liquid in the brulee and add 30% of that weight as eggs and cook it to 181 degrees F you would have a creme brulee texture. Overcook to 190 F and you have flan, undercook to 176 F and you have creme anglaise. The two main factors are egg concentration and cooking temperature.

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