Perfect Panna Cotta Recipe

panna cotta

Panna cotta is incredibly easy to make, and if it takes you more than five minutes to put it together, you’re doing something wrong. I’d made them before, but never realized what a fool-proof dessert it was until I saw my friend Judy Witts make them at one of her cooking classes in Florence.

Sometimes we Americans have a way of overdramatizing things, and make things harder than they actually are. But I saw Judy quickly put together this Panna Cotta at the beginning of her cooking class in no time flat, to be served a few hours later.

After we ate the fabulous meal which we’d all made together, she effortlessly unmolded them into bowls, and there was our dessert. I was pretty impressed.

gelatin granules

That’s the beauty of Tuscan cooking: it’s straightforward and almost effortless in its simplicity. “Spend more time shopping, and less time cooking” is Judy’s mantra.

Judy bypassed the traditional route and self-published her first cookbook, Secrets From My Tuscan Kitchen, which gave her the freedom to personalize each hand-written recipe. At the risk of using an over-used cliché (so I won’t ever do it again…but this time, it really is true)—it’s as if an Italian cook were in your kitchen, guiding you through the recipes.

pouring pannacotta panna cotta

If you want to cut the richness of Panna Cotta, you can swap out half-and-half for some, or all of the heavy cream. Because there’s no eggs or custard-making involved, you pretty much have a lot of leeway making panna cotta. I’m thinking of infusing some with lemon verbena, fresh mint, or even experimenting with white chocolate in the future. Especially with fresh cherry season right around the corner.

I served this batch of Panna Cotta with a huge pile of berries, very juicy and lightly-sweetened with a whisper of kirsch. But if it’s not the season, it’s good with a bit of honey drizzled over it, too. If you have some leftover Chianti, or another hearty red wine, you can make a deeply-flavored Red Wine Syrup and spoon it over the top. It’s amazing.

Panna Cotta

Eight servings

Adapted from Secrets From My Tuscan Kitchen by Judy Witts

I love this dessert and the great thing about Panna Cotta is that it demands to be made in advance. You can make them up to two days ahead and keep them well-covered and chilled.

For gelatin-related questions, read my Tips for Using Gelatin. You can find instructions for using sheet gelatin at the end of the recipe.

  • 4 cups (1l) heavy cream (or half-and-half)
  • 1/2 cup (100g) sugar
  • 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract, or 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
  • 2 packets powdered gelatin (about 4 1/2 teaspoons)
  • 6 tablespoons (90ml) cold water

1. Heat the heavy cream and sugar in a saucepan or microwave. Once the sugar is dissolved, remove from heat and stir in the vanilla extract.

(If using a vanilla bean, scrape the seeds from the bean into the cream and add the bean pod. Cover, and let infuse for 30 minutes. Remove the bean then rewarm the mixture before continuing.)

2. Lightly oil eight custard cups with a neutral-tasting oil.

3. Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water in a medium-sized bowl and let stand 5 to 10 minutes.

4. Pour the very warm Panna Cotta mixture over the gelatin and stir until the gelatin is completely dissolved.

5. Divide the Panna Cotta mixture into the prepared cups, then chill them until firm, which will take at least two hours but I let them stand at least four hours. (Judy told me American refrigerators are colder than European ones. )

If you’re pressed for time, pour the Panna Cotta mixture into wine goblets so you can serve them in the glasses, without unmolding.

6. Run a sharp knife around the edge of each Panna Cotta and unmold each onto a serving plate, and garnish as desired.

To make Panna Cotta with sheet gelatin: Soften 25g (approximately six sheets) in a liter of cold water for 5 to 10 minutes. Wring the sheets out and stir them into the warm Panna Cotta mixture in step # 4, until dissolved.

You can visit Judy at her website, Divina Cucina to learn more about her market tours and classes, and her blog, Over a Tuscan Stove.

124 comments

  • For those pescetarians out there, there is a kosher fish gelatin.

  • from ivu.org

    Kosher gelatin can be made with fish bones, and/or beef skins. Contrary to assumptions, it is also considered kosher to use it with dairy products. Kosher law is very complex and the bones and hides used in gelatin production are considered pareve. The general meaning of pareve refers to foods that are neither milk nor meat, and many people assume this means that the product is vegetarian. However, OU pareve certified ingredients can have animal products, such as fish, eggs, and gelatin, in them.
    “Kosher Gelatin Marshmallows: Glatt Kosher and ‘OU-Pareve’,” an article that appeared in Kashrus Magazine, explains the distinctions. A quote from the article is as follows:
    “…since the gelatin product is from hides or bones – not real flesh – and has undergone such significant changes, it is no longer considered ‘fleishig’ (meat) but ‘pareve’, and can be eaten with dairy products.”

    I’m a diplomat serving in Israel and now know a LOT more about kosher than I’ve ever needed too! ;-)

  • I have been a strict vegetarian for over 25 years. I have just had a lovely meal at a beautiful restaurant and asked for the pannacotta dessert but inquired what pannacotta was exactly and whether it was some sort of meat-based jelly as I didn’t understand. I didn’t ask outright if it contained gelatin (I usually do ask that for any dish which I suspect may contain gelatin). The waitress returned saying it was OK for me to eat BUT I think she misunderstood exactly what I meant. I think for the first time in 20 years I have eaten a gelatin dish now!

    I would love to trial a pannacotta recipe that was veggie.

    Vegetarians will not eat anything from the slaughtered animal, fish or bird or well anything that has been killed. We do eat dairy food but there is the argument that the bull calf has to be killed for the cow to continue being a machine to produce milk for humans so I TRY cutting down on milk as much as possible and having soya instead. Cows’ milk is not healthy for us – read “The China Study”.

  • Great recipe!! the REAL Panna Cotta is made this way!!! Very easy and nothing else to add…

  • Hi, I heard people who have made panna cotta, that it splits into two distinct layers. Why does this happen and how to make sure it doesn’t happen, before I try to make it? Thank you in advance.

  • @LC. Hey, yeah I had that problem the first two times i made panna cotta but most recently I tried prechilling the mixture in an icebath to about 50 degrees F and it worked out great.

  • I just made this. It was ridiculously easy…and turned out perfectly! It was also the first time I used gelatin sheets…they worked beautifully. I used 10% organic dairy cream, and no problems. I can’t wait to try out some variations. thanks!

  • David, I made your recipe with a pure coconut milk variation, and it rocks!! I served it with sweet pickled guava and lilikoi syrup (passion fruit)….but now I’m afraid to even call it panna cotta, perhaps it’s too tropical, unless you’re feelin’ the Hawaiian/Italian Fusion movement that I’ve stumbled accross….;)

  • Bradford: That’s a great idea and glad it worked. I love passion fruit, although folks should make sure not to use it to flavor the panna cotta (since it contains an enzyme that will prevent gelatin from setting), and to put it over the top, like you did. I actually like the seeds of the lilikoi! Thanks for sharing your success story and variation..

  • @Kristen, there is a traditional Hawaiian desert named Haupia that is a coconut milk panna cotta of sorts only it uses corn starch insted of gelatin.

  • Thank you for the recipe! I used agar-agar instead of gelatin and came out as well.

  • I wanted to pass on a little trick I found in my morning paper one day. If traveling with the panna cotta, try putting them in to small jam jars. I use the short wide ones (more room for toppings:) I set up a few small bowls with different fruits, chocolate and nuts. Great for BBQ’s and potlucks!

  • I love Judy’s Divina Cucina site! I have been using it as a resource for recipes since I moved back from Florence myself. I didn’t even realize that she also had a blog or a cookbook out. Thank you so much for featuring her!

  • I just tried a kaffir lime and ginger panna cotta with a jalapeno syrup – it was divine :)
    For anyone near Auckland, NZ this can be had at the Leigh Sawmill Cafe which is about 1.5 hours north of Auckland.

  • This was my second time preparing it and serving it. It turned out delicious and I could serve it every day if it wasn’t so high calorie, but I could settle for once a week. Thanks for the Perfect Recipe!

  • Wow. Lots of great comments that will help in my case. Apparently, your recipe is NOT fool proof, as I fooled with it a bit, and my panna cotti proved to be the exceptions. I tried this recipe 3 ways in 2 days. First of all, wanted to use a vegetarian gelling agent, but the one I found at my closest Whole Foods was not adequate (it was a flavorless jello-type powder, and was not quite consistent). Next time, will try agar agar or actual gelatin (don’t know the replacement measurement for agar agar, but if anyone knows it, please tell me!)

    I was inspired by a local spice shop owner to try flavoring with fennel pollen. Am still needing to play with the amount for right flavor, and to keep the vanilla from arguing with the fennel pollen! Pretty close to figuring that one out. The other flavor option I went with was lavender, in the form of a lavender sugar. Nice, but needed to add a bit more plain sugar, as well. In the future, will strain out the fennel pollen, but no need to strain lavender bits in this case, as already ground quite a bit. Sooo, it’s back to the beginning for me. These were my first attempts at panna cotta, and I was disappointed at how it turned out! But, the plum compote I spooned on top, using fresh plums from my tree out back, was divine.

  • This Panna Cotta is truly awesome. I wanted to make an asian type dessert, so used half coconut milk and half cream, served it with a pineapple lemongrass soup and a thin slice of pineapple that was char grilled with some brown sugar. Yummy! And you are right, it’s super simple to make! Love it. Thank you again :-)

    Just one question, is there a trick to unmolding the panna cotta? It came out mostly ok…except my top wasnt quite as smooth as the one in your picture…

  • I tried it and it turned out lovely! Tasted awesome! very smooth and silky! However while cooling a layer of oil/fat formed at the top. Is this common? How do I get a a pure white panna cotta as shown in the picture?
    Thank you!

  • I just have tasted my first panna cotta a few times ago, and I hardly can forget about it! It was amazing, and I’ve been craving to taste another one! And so I ended up searching up on Google and I found this recipe and this seems easy and perfect!
    I can’t wait to make it in my kitchen :)

  • Love this recipe. I add some Frangelico (ads a hint of hazelnut flavour).

  • This recipe was fabulous and super quick to whip up. We’re making quick work of eating the panna cotta too. Thank you!!!

  • Dear David,

    Thank you for posting this recipe! I think I have found my basic panna cotta recipe to start experiments with! It was simple to make and set beautifully.

    I didnt have time to risk ugly moulds so I set them in japanese tea cups. And since I didnt need it to hold shape, I took a deep breathe and scaled back the gelatin by a teaspoon so it was more softly set. For me the sweet spot texture is slightly shy of being able to hold shape, a very wobbly thing with a slight ‘bounce’ when you cut through with your spoon :)

    I tried it with your recommended red wine syrup mixed with some plums i sliced and cooked in a dash of balsamic v. plus generous honey and sugar because my plums werent sweet enough and I was stingy with the sugar when I made your syrup. (I also had to peel off the plum skins when I was done because it was giving off a bitter taste)

    I had not tried reducing red wine with sugar before and the heady aroma was such a delight, and cooking pure cream that came out of a box that said “creme excellence” gosh… all together this was one of those dishes that pleases your senses so much as you work through it, and the end result was great too… thanks!!

  • Oooh I forgot to add a tip to encourage anyone nervous like me with gelatin or grainy textures… add a step in to strain your liquids before pouring into your moulds. Its your insurance to a smooth silky texture!

  • Panna cotta is an okay dessert when flavored well (but then again anything that is 90% fat and 10% sugar will taste good). However, if someone serves it to me I know that they only spent 5 minutes making dessert. Not very impressive.