Traditional Panna Cotta Recipe

  • by Nonna Box January 20, 2020
  • |
  • Last Updated on June 10, 2022

There are many custard desserts in the food world; flan, pots de crème, crème caramel, etc. One traditional Italian version that is actually a little bit different is Panna Cotta.

What is the difference between panna cotta and crème brûlée?

When making a custard or flan, you take milk or cream, sweeten it, thicken it with eggs, and then boil it down before baking or chilling it to set. Panna Cotta takes a different approach which can leave it far lighter and silkier than the other options.

Instead of mixing in and cooking an egg, one uses gelatin to set the sweetened cream. This leaves an incredibly smooth and clean tasting pudding that can be topped with almost anything from fresh fruit to sauces and liqueurs.

Panna Cotta with fresh and high quality cream

What is Panna Cotta made of? The Key Ingredients

The most old-fashioned recipes call for only three ingredients: heavy cream, sugar, and gelatin. Gelatin in Italy was sometimes called colla di pesce, or “fish glue”, because isinglass, which is derived from dried fish, was one of the early reliable sources of gelatin.

Not to worry, modern gelatin will not come from fish, so there should be no worries about any “interesting” flavors being found in the end product.

Sugar is fairly self-explanatory, but as is the case with most traditional dishes, you need to make sure that the heavy cream is fresh and of very high quality. The main draw of Panna Cotta over many of the other custard desserts is the fresh and light, yet still sumptuous, flavor that comes from the sweet cream.

It is an elegant base upon which many other flavors can be layered. This can be ruined if there are any issues with the quality of the ingredients.

Although the oldest recipes call for just those three ingredients, most modern versions from sources like Il Cucchiaio D’Argento (Silver Spoon, one of Italy’s premier cookbooks) use a few extra ingredients to simplify and enhance the dish.

The recipe below takes these adaptations into account.

Traditional Panna Cotta

A delicious sweet custard famous all over the world that combines a few ingredients for an easy dessert recipe.
5 from 7 votes
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Course: Dessert
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
Total Time: 4 hours 45 minutes
Servings: 4 molds
Calories: 550kcal
Author: Nonna Box


  • 500 ml (2.11 cups) heavy cream fresh
  • 100 g (0.5 cups) sugar
  • 100 ml (0.42 cups) milk
  • 2 (2 ) unflavored gelatin sheets
  • 1 (1 ) vanilla bean or 1 tbsp of vanilla extract


  • In a bowl of cold water, place the gelatin sheets to soak for 10-15 minutes. Set aside.
  • Pour the milk into a pan and heat. Just before boiling turn off the heat and add the gelatin sheets to the pan (squeeze out excess water first from the gelatin sheet).
  • Stir until well until the gelatin is dissolved then set aside.
  • In another pan, over medium heat, combine the heavy cream, sugar, and vanilla bean or vanilla extract.
  • Bring to a low boil while stirring at low heat, then immediately remove from heat when it starts boiling.
  • Remove the vanilla bean and blend the sweetened cream with the milk/gelatin mixture.
  • Pour into an aluminum custard cup, or silicone molds, and then let cool in the refrigerator to set (at least 4h, preferably overnight).
  • Remove from the custard cup, or silicone mold, onto a plate right before serving. Top with jam, fruit like fresh berries, strawberry sauce, raspberry sauce, lemon juice, or liqueurs as desired.


The vanilla bean is not an essential element of this dish, it adds a nice note of flavor but can be omitted if only the sweet cream flavor is desired with your additional toppings.
Also, the goal is often to limit the amount of gelatin used to less than 8g per 500ml of liquid.
If your gelatin leaves are larger than normal, please ensure that not too much is used as that leads to a rubbery Panna Cotta.
Remember, the beauty of Panna Cotta is its silky softness and light flavor, not a hard-set pudding or a runny custard.
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How to easily demould a panna cotta

If you used aluminum custard cups: it’s very simple, just break the cup on one side and turn it over onto the plate when the air reaches the base of the cup.

If you used silicone molds: boil some water in a shallow pan, immerse the mold for 3 seconds (no more) and turn it over quickly on the plate.

How long should panna cotta stay in the fridge?

Panna cotta can be stored in the fridge for up to 3 days covered with plastic wrap.

How to freeze panna cotta

You can freeze panna cotta in the aluminum custard cups by covering it with plastic wrap and placing it in the freezer. When you need it, transfer it to the fridge 3-4 hours before serving it. Make sure it’s completely thawed. You can store panna cotta in the freezer for up to one month.

Panna cotta origins

Panna Cotta is known as a traditional and classic Italian dessert and one would think it must be centuries old. In truth, it is only found in Italian recipe books starting in the 1960’s.

This did not stop the Region of Piedmont from selecting it as one of the “traditional foods of the region” when they published their official list in 2001.

The recipe they call for includes a few additions that are not found in other recipes (rum, marsala, and a layer of caramel much like a crème caramel) but it does show that the dish is regarded as being a long-standing part of the Italian food tradition.

vanilla panna cotta recipe

Some theories attribute the dish to a Hungarian cook in the Langhe region in the early 20th century (as seen in The Oxford Companion to Food), while others suggest it comes from modifications to other milk or cream and gelatin based desserts. The name translates simply to “cooked cream” and there are many dishes built around a boiled or simmered cream base.

What we now know as Panna Cotta likely developed naturally out of this group of desserts as cooks looked for cleaner and lighter custard dishes that could pair with a wider range of flavors. Regardless of how it was developed, Panna Cotta is now a part of the traditional set of Italian desserts.

Other dessert recipes:

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