How to Make Panna Cotta

  • by Nonna Box January 20, 2020
  • |
  • Last Updated on August 1, 2022

Full of aromatic sweet vanilla flavor and then topped with a fresh berry sauce, this easy authentic Panna Cotta recipe is so delicious. It’s a classic Italian elegant dessert that is rich and creamy, but not too sweet making it the perfect ending to any meal!

What is panna cotta?

Panna cotta is one of those traditional Italian recipes that is a well known classic best described as a chilled custard like dessert that is thickened with gelatin instead of egg. It literally translates to “cooked cream” in Italian and is said to originate in the region of Piedmont in Northern Italy. 

It’s a very simple dessert with just a few ingredients, yet full of intense sweet milky vanilla flavor with a silky texture. The custard is made by heating heavy cream, milk, and sugar together along with vanilla and then adding a bit of gelatin. Then the vanilla infused cream mixture is poured into small molds and put into the fridge to set. 

In this recipe, we are serving panna cotta with a fresh berry sauce, but it can also be served with caramel or a chocolate sauce if you prefer. And because it only takes about 10 minutes to make, it’s a fantastic make-ahead dessert that you can prepare, chill, and then serve the next day.

Panna Cotta with fresh and high quality cream

What ingredients do you need for panna cotta? 

  • Heavy Cream – You need full-fat heavy cream for added richness. Using half and half will not produce the same results nor will whole milk as they are of a different consistency. 
  • Whole Milk – Whole milk is the best choice and it blends together with the heavy cream to create the most ideal delicate creamy texture.
  • Granulated Sugar – This recipe uses regular sugar, but cane sugar will also work if you prefer.
  • Vanilla Extract – This dessert is essentially a vanilla custard, so it is crucial that you use pure vanilla extract for the panna cotta and one of high quality. You can also use vanilla bean paste or 2 vanilla bean pods in place of the extract.
  • Gelatin – Used to thicken the panna cotta and help it set once chilled. You can use unflavored powdered gelatin granules or gelatin sheets, but the most important thing is that you dissolve it in cold water and use the exact amount the recipe calls for. The concentration of gelatin does make a difference. Too much and your panna cotta is like rubber. Too little and it won’t set properly. Agar agar is also an option if you don’t want to use plain gelatin.
  • Fresh Berries – You can use any type or mixture of fresh berries for this recipe. Frozen berries will also work, yet you’ll need to omit the water when making the berry sauce or cook it a tad longer to thicken up. 

Panna Cotta

A delicious sweet custard famous all over the world that combines a few ingredients for an easy dessert recipe.
5 from 10 votes
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Course: Dessert
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 5 minutes
Total Time: 5 hours 10 minutes
Servings: 4 molds
Calories: 624kcal
Author: Nonna Box

Ingredients

  • 500 milliliters heavy cream
  • 100 milliliters whole milk
  • 100 grams of granulated sugar
  • 2 Tbsp vanilla extract
  • 8 grams of gelatin or 4 sheets alternatively 20 grams of powdered agar agar
  • 375 grams of berries
  • 1 Tbsp granulated sugar

Instructions

  • First, bloom the gelatin by covering it with 8 tablespoons of cold water in a shallow bowl. For this step do not use hot water. The water must be cold. Then set it aside for 5 minutes to soften. Also, do not stir the gelatin as it blooms.
  • Add the heavy cream, milk, sugar, and vanilla to a saucepan. Then bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat while stirring constantly with a whisk until the sugar has dissolved.
  • Remove the pan from the heat and whisk the gelatin mixture into the cream mixture right away while it’s still hot. Yet, while the cream mixture does need to be hot it should be removed from the heat and not be boiling.
  • Now, pour the mixture into 4 small 150ml molds or 1 large 600ml mold.
  • Place the panna cotta in the fridge for at least 5 hours or overnight to set.
  • To start the berry sauce, add 250 grams of the berries to a saucepan along with 1 tablespoon of sugar and 2 tablespoons of water. Then bring it to a simmer and cook for about 5 minutes or until the berries are soft and the sugar is dissolved.
  • Blend the cooked berry mixture into a puree using a blender or an immersion blender.
  • Strain the berry sauce with a fine mesh sieve and allow it to completely cool.
  • To serve, you can leave the panna cotta in the molds and top with the fresh berry sauce. Or, you can pop them out of the molds by dipping each one individually into very hot water for about 5 seconds, then turning each one over onto the serving dishes, and tapping the molds with the back of a spoon to release the panna cotta. Then top with the berry sauce and more fresh berries to serve.
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Pro Tips for this Recipe

  • You must use cold water to bloom the gelatin and also give it the full 5 minutes to soften to ensure that the panna cotta has a lovely smooth texture. The gelatin will absorb the water and swell as it blooms letting you know when it’s ready. 
  • The cream mixture with the vanilla must still be very hot when the bloomed gelatin is added. But gelatin must never boil.
  • Use high-quality vanilla for the most intense delicate vanilla custard. This panna cotta recipe is based around the vanilla, so it’s a really important ingredient. You can also use 2 whole vanilla beans in place of the extract if you prefer. Just slice them longways and scrape the beans into the cream and milk mixture as it’s heating. 
  • Chill the panna cotta for at least 5 hours in the fridge for it to fully set. Taking it out too early will result in panna cotta that will not hold its shape.
  • Use fresh berries to both make the sauce and top the finished dessert for the best flavor and most beautiful presentation. Also, adding a teaspoon of lemon juice to the berries as they cook will bring out their flavor even more in the berry sauce.
  • When dipping the panna cotta in hot water to unmold, be careful not to get any water onto the panna cotta itself or in the mold. You just want to quickly dip the mold into hot water, but not immerse it. 
  • Be sure to keep the panna cotta and fresh berry sauce in the fridge until right before you are ready to serve. This chilled Italian dessert has to stay cold to both unmold and hold its form. However, it is possible to unmold the panna cotta ahead of time and keep it in the fridge.

FAQ

Is it like Flan?

Both panna cotta and flan are custard desserts full of dairy and flavored with vanilla, but the biggest difference is that eggs are used in flan and it’s typically baked. Whereas, panna cotta is not baked and set using gelatin.

How long does it last?

Panna cotta will keep in the fridge for about 4 days when covered with plastic wrap.

Can you freeze panna cotta?

Yes! It freezes the best in smaller individual size portions. Just wrap each portion well with plastic wrap and the panna cotta will keep in the freezer for up to 2 months. Then just thaw the portions out a few hours before or overnight in the fridge before serving.

How do you unmold panna cotta?

To remove the panna cotta from the mold, run a sharp knife around the edge of the mold. Then dip the mold with the panna cotta still in it in hot water for about 5 to 10 seconds. Now, turn it over onto a dessert plate and give the top of the mold a few taps with the back of a spoon to release the panna cotta. If it still isn’t releasing, try dipping it in the water for a bit longer.

Can you serve panna cotta in glasses?

Yes, you can serve panna cotta in any dish you like. You do not have to use molds for this panna cotta recipe. It can be set and served in ramekins or in fancy dessert glasses. Just simply portion it out into the serving dishes of your choice, chill, and then top with the berry sauce before serving.

How do you prevent skin on panna cotta?

The best way to stop a skin from forming on the top of the custard is to allow it to cool for just a bit before pouring it into individual molds. Basically, if you wait a few minutes for the panna cotta mixture to cool in the saucepan it will form a skin. You can then remove that skin by passing the mixture through a fine mesh strainer and then pouring it into the molds to set.

Why did my gelatin not set?

The most common reason that your gelatin didn’t set is because the milk mixture was not hot enough when you added the bloomed gelatin. The gelatin has collagen proteins that tangle when heated and remain tangled when chilled which is what makes firm up and set.

What types of berries are best with panna cotta?

One of the most popular is raspberry sauce, but strawberry sauce and blueberry sauce are just as delicious. A combination of different types of berries is also an option. You can even top your finished panna cotta with some shaved chocolate for an even more delicious dessert. Feel free to be as creative as you like.

Can you make vegan panna cotta?

Yes, just use 20 grams of agar agar powder in place of the gelatin and plant based dairy options in place of the heavy cream and whole milk. I suggest using full fat coconut cream as a substitute for the heavy cream and your favorite plant based milk like almond milk or coconut milk as a substitute for the whole milk. The vegan version will set perfectly, but it may be a tad less firm than traditional panna cotta recipes, yet still amazingly delicious.

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.

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