Perfecting Panna Cotta

Panna Cotta is one of those desserts that can be spotted on almost every dessert menu, in every city. After a surge of recent popularity, this once “it” girl has proved her staying power. A chic custard with a little shimmy Gordon Ramsey calls the “chi-chi-lina”, the panna cotta won hearts in the dining room with the simplicity of a comfort food, and has made friends in the kitchen with deceptive ease in preparation. A simple combination of cream, sugar, a little flavor, and some gelatin, and like magic you have a sophisticated dessert on your hands.

It is with the simplest preparations that the most care must be taken, and I have adopted various extra steps to ensure the simple preparation of panna cotta, often a casualty of mediocrity, carries not just a memorable flavor, but a perfect texture. With a simple flavor so easy to achieve, it is in refining the texture that panna cotta becomes a great challenge. Just throwing in the recommended dose of gelatin, throwing the mixture in the fridge to set will get you so-so results, most of the time. However, armed with a little information you can ensure your dessert will stand out each time.

Gelatin itself, we know, comes from animals. Thus it is easy to conceive that gelatin is a protein. Rendered most often from the collegen in the hide of four legged animals, this protein behaves much differently than most we are used to working with in the kitchen. Where as the protein in an egg will respond to heat by unfolding and bonding permanently to neighboring proteins (aka coagulating), the proteins in gelatin respond to heat by releasing their bonds to each other. The unusually long protein chains in gelatin, when cold, bind to each other into a triple helix, which cross link with others to form a web. This web interferes with the movement of the water the gelatin is dispersed in, thus gelling it into a solid.

Many things effect the final texture of a gelatin gelled liquid, particularly the manner in which it is cooled. The warmed liquid, necessary to release the proteins from their initial web and disperse them, is most often immediately placed in the refrigerator and cooled quickly. In doing this, the protein chains bond to each other immediately, and randomly, causing bulky and weak cross sections. By cooling the gelatin slowly, at room temperature, the proteins are allowed to mingle with each other, forming a tighter, more structured web. Thus, if you are creating weaker bonds, you would need more gelatin to set an immediate structure. This gelatin will progressively continue to firm over a period of time, thus the texture you gained the first day will be softer than the texture you have in 4 days. In my restaurant, I want the textures to be the same each day I serve the dish.

The way I have interpreted this information has led to this method. I heat a small amount of milk to dissolved the gelatin in. This sits on the counter until it is at room temperature, which takes about an hour or two, a time that is well within the limits of food safety. It is stirred occasionally, and once it is cool, the remainder of the cream is added.

I never heat the entire amount of the liquid used to make a panna cotta. I have found that in heating the cream, or particularly buttermilk, the texture of the liquid changes, and feels thin on the tongue. This fact I haven’t been able to fully support with reading. Everything I find suggests that the fat globules are encased in a membrane that is strengthened by heating. So I am not sure what about the heating process changes the texture of the cream within the gelled panna cotta. My only guess so far is that the heat will cause the protein clusters bound by caseins which float freely around the fat globules (think of a tiny tiny dust bunnies) to stick to the membrane of the fat globule (like a little dust bunny protective shield), perhaps leaving room for the water molecules to become more active in the cream. And perhaps this increased activity in the water molecules creates the feeling of thinness?

Either way, I can use the tried and true method used by chef’s for centuries, to assume facts by observation. I know because I can see it and feel it with my mouth that heating the entire amount of cream for a panna cotta feels thinner in the final product. And the thinner feel makes the panna cotta feel more like milk jell-o than a chic custard.

Recently, I have been withholding a portion of the cream, and very very carefully whipping it just enough to thicken it. To do this, the cream must be very cold, and have been very cold for a continuous period of time. When you whip cream, you are using the shear force of the whisk to strip parts of each fat globules protective membrane. The exposed fat is now sticky, and will adhere to two things; other naked patches of fat globules, and air bubbles. Thus, the air bubbles introduced by the whisk become encased in damaged globules and are trapped in place. When warm, the fat which is no longer encased in it’s protective membrane, is now capable of leaking out and collapsing the air bubbles. Thus the importance of the cream not only staying cold, but having been cold for quite some time.

What we are trying to do is not add too many of these air bubbles, and definitely not large ones created by pounding a whip into the cream. Rather, I whisk slowly back and forth by hand, standing in my walk in refrigerator if possible. I am encouraging the fat globules to stick to each other rather than encase brittle air bubbles.

To steep flavor into your product, I either employ a cold infusion over a period of 24 to 48 hours often with fresh mint, tea leaves, coffee and whole spices, use a liquid addition to the panna cotta like a pulled shot of espresso, orange flower water, and liquors, or steep the flavor into the small amount of liquid heated to melt the gelatin.

And finally, I always use sheet gelatin. Those of my readers that work in professional kitchens will know this product well. Granulated gelatin is second rate. The amount of gelatin and the quality of the gelatin within the granulated form varies. The powder can contain a high amount of broken protein that will never re-bond into the triple helix’s that create the web like junctions. It can contain more or less of viable proteins from batch to batch, creating stronger and weaker gels than you expect. Plain and simple, it’s inconsistent. Unfortunately, it’s the only gelatin readily available to the average cook. I highly recommend finding a source for sheet gelatin if you plan to use much of it at home.

So after a long winded post, I will provide a step by step recipe for a panna cotta perfect for the fruitless season arriving soon.

Kaffir-Lemongrass Panna Cotta

1 cup whole milk

1/2 cup sugar

zest of one lemon, and one lime

10 kaffir lime leaves

1 stalk lemongrass, bruised and chopped fine

1 tbsp chamomile buds

3 cups cream, 1/2 cup held very cold

4 sheets gelatin

Preparing;

Place 1/2 cup of cream in the bowl you intend to whip it in, and place it in the refrigerator along with the whisk you intend to whisk it with.

Gather six 6-oz serving dishes or desired molds

1. Steep the milk with the sugar and flavors. Place the milk, sugar, lemon and lime zest, kaffir leaves, lemongrass, and chamomile in a small sauce pan and heat just below boiling, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from heat and steep for half an hour. During the last 5 minutes, soak the gelatin sheets in ice water.

2. Add the gelatin. Strain the milk, and return to a sauce pan, rewarming the milk. Remove the softened gelatin sheets from the ice water, squeezing to remove as much of the water as possible. Add the gelatin to the warm milk, and stir until completely dissolved and evenly dispersed. Transfer to a bowl and allow to cool on the counter at room temperature for 1 hour.

3. Whip the cream. When the milk is cooled, begin whipping the 1/2 cup of very cold cream. Do this with gentle back and forth motions of the whisk, avoiding beating much air into the cream. You should see the cream begin to thicken in a minute or two, once the fat globules are damaged enough to adhere to each other. Continue gently agitating the cream with the whisk, stopping when the cream is thick enough to hold itself, but doesn’t quite hold peaks.

4. Add the cream to the cooled milk/gelatin. Add the unwhipped cream to the milk/gelatin mixture that has cooled on the counter with a whisk. Carefully now, add the whisk thickened cream and fold with a spatula until the two are evenly combined.

5. Fill the molds or serving dishes. Pour the panna cotta into the dishes or molds quickly, as the cold from the cream will now begin to fully set the gelatin. You will see the mixture is thick, and may need to tap the glasses a bit to obtain a flat top, or use an offset spatula to smooth the top of the molds.

6. Chill the Panna Cotta. Place the panna cotta in the refrigerator and allow to set overnight. It will take a full day of setting to achieve the propper texture.

28 Responses to “Perfecting Panna Cotta”

  1. Nina says:

    Wow. This post is what blogging is all about — thank you for sharing this information (or rather, it feels more like wisdom) in such a clear and entertaining way.

    I fell in love with panna cotta in Italy, but have, sadly, learned to avoid it here. I’ll have to try out this version.

    And lightly whipping a portion of the cream is so clever.

  2. Wow Dana, your chemistry knowledge is impressive! Have you ever tried making Panna Cotta with agar instead of gelatin? As a veg. I’m always bummed that I can’t order it, but I’ve been curious whether I can make my own. I’ll have to give it a shot.

    By the way, I’ve started interning at Cafe Flora. I worked my first two nights on pantry and am having a great time.

  3. Spring says:

    Thanks Dana – Those are some wonderful instructions! Now I feel confident that I’ll be able to make good panna cotta on my own. I know what you mean with the “thin feeling on the tounge” and have been wondering how to avoid it. I do have one question, though: the other 3 cups of cream – should those be cold too? Regular, refrigerator cold maybe?

    Thank you!

  4. chris says:

    Hey Dana,

    I have to disagree with you about powdered gelatin. Leaf gelatin is fine, and it usually comes with some kind of rating (silver, gold, platinum, what ever), but all this means is how strongly it gels–something referred to as bloom strength. A low bloom gelatin around 170 bloom is pretty typical of leaf gelatin and will give you a softer set that melts quicker in the mouth. Powdered gelatin tends to be higher bloom strength 200, even 220 bloom, which gives a firmer more rigid set. Depending on what you want to do both can be useful. For example, powedered gelatin is generally useful for creating an aspic that you want to use as garnish on a warm plate. It melts slower and will make it to the table before becoming a puddle. The only down side to the stuff in the store is there is no indication of what the bloom strength is… which is ashame because it would be useful information. However, I wouldn’t say it’s second rate.

  5. Kat says:

    We just found gelatin sheets at DeLaurentis. They are $3.50 for 10 sheets (I use 2 for one recipe from the Silver Spoon) and can be found upstairs in the small baking area next to the top of the stairwell. We also discovered whole Madagascar Vanilla Beans at World Spice for $3.50 each which is the cheapest I have found.

  6. dana says:

    Michael- Actually, my chemistry knowledge is incredibly small, and not extensive at all. It is limited to what I can find easily accessible, and comes mostly from either Chris Young or Harold McGee. I seem to fill in the blanks as I extend my own knowledge of cooking, benefiting from others work. I am simply a humble cook with a huge curiosity.

    Chris- Of course, my wording wasn’t fair. I consider the powdered gelain second rate because it limits my control. I get varied results every time I use it. If only they provided bloom strenthth, or any information that could be used to determine the results, I might not have been so harsh in summarizing the powdered form. Gelatin sheets are the only form of gelatin I have found consistant results from, but my experience is thus limited.

  7. kayenne says:

    re: mr natkin’s question.

    the thing with gelatin, it melts when warmed and agar doesn’t – so the resulting mouthfeel won’t be the same. agar sets even in normal room temperature. but you can still have that soft jiggly consistency by using only a small amount of agar, but it won’t be as creamy. i’m wondering if some other form of vegetable starch can be used instead…?

  8. tdw says:

    Great recipe and story behind the it…

    How do you suggest removing the panna cotta from the dishes or ramekins when serving?

  9. lyn says:

    this recipe sounds great…i now understand why the consistency is sometimes like jello…i am making vanilla bean pannacotta tmoro…do you wet the ramekins…also is the extra cream at room temperature…? thanks

  10. clotilde says:

    Thank you, Dana, for sharing this recipe and all the science behind it — I look forward to trying your method.

    If it’s not too much trouble, could you tell me how much your gelatin leaves weigh? I’ll be using the ones I buy here in French grocery stores, and I’d like to make sure they’re the same format. Thank you!

    [Re: the use of agar-agar vs. gelatin, I've played around with the amounts of agar-agar per cup of milk/cream, but I've never been quite satisfied with the texture that it creates -- slightly crunchy and too firm.]

  11. dana says:

    Re: Natkin- I have been spending all this time thinking about the gelling agent, but you can’t use milk or cream, so how are you going to make a panna cotta at all? Agar set soy milk?

    TDW- I use metal cups that transfer heat. Then I dip them in hot water and turn the panna cotta out.

    Lyn- only the half a cup of cream you are going to whip lightly needs to be very cold. The other cream should be cool.

  12. dana says:

    Clotilde- My sheets weigh 2.5 grams a piece. Hope this helps!

  13. clotilde says:

    Thanks for the speedy response, and the tip about the metal cups, too!

  14. Well for me, I’m lacto-ovo vegetarian but not vegan – so I’m happy to use milk and cream, just not the gelatin. Actually I like to douse myself daily in as many dairy products as possible. I think kayenne has a good point about mouthfeel though. The agar won’t want to melt in your mouth the way gelatin would.

  15. dana says:

    Michael- No, agar wont give the same exact texture. But it’s probably worth playing with. While it won’t “melt” it will “crumble”, and at low levels, might do so in such a subtle manner that it seems to “melt”.

  16. Rogan says:

    This is a great post, and looks like a great recipe. A friend once made this for me with aged balsamic poured on top — fantastic. I’m going to make this tonight, with maybe orange zest, or vanilla as the only flavoring, and serve with either aged balsamic or maybe reduced balsamic tomorrow as the finale of a five course dinner. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

  17. Rogan says:

    This turned out really well. I messed it up a bit (I was using gelatin packets and the milk seized when I slowly cooled it to room temperature), but it still turned out great. I ended up flavoring it a bit with vanilla, and using a reduced balsamic glaze spattered artistically on top.

  18. clare says:

    where can I get kafir lime leaves, chamomile buds and lemongrass.I live in an area that thinks parsley is foreign muck!

    I have had supermarket panna cotta, and seen it made on TV and there seem to be zillions of recipes – why is this one so different and have so many ingredients? It’s hard to even get leaf gelatine where I live, and we have no car to travel. Any advice on alternatives to the kafir lime leaves, chamomile buds and lemongrass would be helpful.

  19. dana says:

    This recipe has no more ingredients than any other panna cotta, except to flavor it. Lime leaves and lemongrass come from asian markets here in seattle, and chamomile can come from the tea isle. If you don’t have access to these try flavoring a panna cotta with vanilla, simple and classic. I can’t offer alternatives to lemongrass and kaffir, though, their flavor is absolutely unique.

    You can order leaf gelatin from the king arthur flour website.

  20. [...] also followed the advice of “Perficting panna cotta” and the result was worth it. The dark chocolate I used, had some tiny pieces of nuts in it, [...]

  21. Read this post & decided to try to your technique. I kinda cheated by using flavoured gelatin dessert mix. It came out alright… I think. I’ll try again with proper ingredients next time. By the way, you have have a great website.

  22. [...] honest after a failed first attempt, I came across a blog called The Tasting Menu that had an entry Perfecting Panna Cotta. This was exactly the thoughtful explanation and recipe I was after. It discussed the chemistry of [...]

  23. gubgub says:

    Agar set soy milk?

    That’s actually a japanese classic in its own right – not as rich as panna cotta, and IME not as loosely set, but quite lovely flavoured with a little maple syrup and served with strawberry sauce.

  24. [...] reading the “tastingmenu blog” by a professional chef & her partner, the post on perfecting panna cotta caught my attention. Panna cotta is an italian desert that consists of flavoured cream set in [...]

  25. paul says:

    lovely recipe

    i’ve just tried with coconut milk and pandan leaf and with a palm sugar reduction fantastic

  26. [...] I adapted the recipe from these gorgeous pannacottas and read up on the technique on this great post. [...]

  27. dawn says:

    hi, I’ve been trying to perfect panna cotta for the longest time, (even took a class with Dietmar Sawyer!) but felt that chefs were leaving out something crucial in their instructions. I have enjoyed and want to make panna cotta that’s creamy but not milky or powdery, with a silky smooth texture that’s like unctuous silk. I live in the tropics and I don’t know if the humidity or milk products here have something to do with my failures. BUT anyway, after much trial and error, and experimenting, I found out that leaving the cream + milk mixture to rest for a while, after the gelatin leaves go in (agree with you that leaves are best!), then cooling further in an ice bath, and sieving the mixture at least twice (sometimes I do it 3 times, if I’m working with coconut cream), results in what I think is the perfect panna cotta. thanks for sharing your results, I wish I came upon your site when I was experimenting! :)

  28. Tracy says:

    Made a version of this last night – replaced 1/3 cream with coconut milk and 1/3 with greek yoghurt.

    Tasted great

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