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Jun 5, 2010 08:57 AM

Why did my panna cotta separate?

It separated into two distinct layers just as fat separates from water. The top layer was rich and fatty and the bottom layer was noticably lower fat. Never had this happen before.

The recipe was from Edward Giobbi and Eugenia Bone's Italian Family Dining. Unlike other panna cottas I have made, this recipe instructed you to cook the cream, milk, sugar, vanilla and dissolved gelatin "over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes..... until the mixture is just about to boil." Could the high heat do it? Should I try stirring as it cools or would that mess up the gelatinization?

BTW, it was delicious anyway with a layer of gelled pureed strawberries.

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  1. You used heavy cream and whole milk? You cooked the dissolved gelatin with the milk and cream? My go to calls for adding the softened gelatin after the liquids have just come to a simmer and the sugar is dissolved. It's possible your gelatin broke down with the higher heat, but usually when that happens, it just won't set, not separate into layers. Sugar also affects gelatin's ability to set; the more sugar, the softer the set. Stirring while cooling is not usually the technique, just combine, put into ramekins and chill. The separation is a bit of a mystery to me. Hopefully other posters that have had this happen/have some idea why this happened will weigh in.

    2 Replies
    1. re: bushwickgirl

      Yes, cream and whole milk. The gelatin was dissolved in a bit of hot water, then added to the milk and cream as they heated. Gel was firm, just in layers.

      1. re: Junie D

        I can't tell you why this happened, but I think perhaps the heat might do it and I can't see any reason to heat the gelatin with the milk and cream. When I make it, I just heat the cream and sugar in a small sauce pan to a simmer, pour the mixture into a small bowl where I've put the gelatin (with a little warm water) and stir until the gelatin is dissolved. Then it goes into the cups. I don't heat the gelatin at all. It's come out perfect every time I've done it this way. The recipe you have sounds overcomplicated.

    2. My best guess: You don't have a gelatin problem. You essentially created unhomogenized milk with this recipe and when you left it to cool, the cream did what cream does - it rose to the top.

      There's no reason I know of to add gelatin before getting the panna cotta up to temperature. That said, if the gelatin was damaged by the heat, I imagine it just wouldn't gel very well, not separate fat layers. What I'm wondering is why it happened with this batch and not others. Were you any slower in cooling down this panna cotta than with others you've made? Did you not stir the mixture as it came up to heat?

      I believe that an occasional vigorous stir as the gelatin begins to cool should solve your problem. Just until it's warm but not hot, then leave it alone to let it gel. This would give the cream less time to separate.

      Or you could just repeat the recipe, serve as is, and act like you meant for it to be layered all along.

      2 Replies
      1. re: cowboyardee

        It is a mystery to me. I had never made this recipe before, but how different can panna cotta recipes be? In the past I think I have used Mark Bittman's from How to Cook Everything.

        "repeat the recipe, serve as is, and act like you meant for it to be layered all along." YES!

        I am going to try it again, heating less and giving a stir during cooking.

        1. re: cowboyardee

          It sounds as though the milk and cream separated before the gelatin set. I wonder cooling it faster would help, so it sets before separating. Or maybe stirring once as it cools.

        2. I've had this happen too when I've combined milk and cream. I wonder if using half and half, which would be the equivalent, but is (I think) homogenized together, would be a fix? With half and half, the cream doesn't rise to the top, which is essentially what happened with your panna cotta.

          3 Replies
          1. re: ChristinaMason

            Interesting, I never make panna cotta with milk and heavy cream, either just light cream or half and half, maybe that's why I've never had this separating issue. I have a recipe where yogurt is added with the gelatin after the cream is heated with the sugar, and that's never separated, either.

            Anyway, it seems like the OP took it in stride. I always liked the "it's supposed to be that way" attitude.

            1. re: ChristinaMason

              That's another good thought. I've never mixed milk and cream for panna cotta. I use only cream!

            2. Many thanks all. I am going to try this recipe again, but it also occurred to me that my cream was rather old. It had been opened previously and was past it's expiration date by about two weeks, but smelled and tasted fine. I always consider expiration dates "recommendations"...... Anyway, it was kind of clotted on top - this is sounding really bad now - so my guess is my "mature" cream may have been a factor.

              3 Replies
              1. re: Junie D

                I kind of doubt it. If it smelled and tasted fine, that shouldn't have affected things. I think it's because you used milks of two different fat levels together. The fat rises to the top.

                Try making it with just cream or half and half, and I bet separation won't be an issue.

                1. re: ChristinaMason

                  I was just thinking about this Gourmet Magazine recipe for "Russian Cream" which we used for a dessert in a restaurant I worked in more than a few years ago, more like 30 years; a "panna cotta" made with sugar, heavy cream, sour cream, vanilla and gelatin. We chilled in in a wine glass and served it topped with a fresh raspberry puree. It was rich and creamy, a bit tangy and not too sweet.

                  I just found the recipe right here on Chow, and it appears to be the same as the one I used to make:


                  The post states the recipe thickens up like yogurt, but I found it be more the thickness of panna cotta, especially when allowed to set overnight. I made this a few times a week for at least two years and it never separated, and it kept for at least a few days.

                  1. re: bushwickgirl

                    Yes, the addition of sour cream sounds great. I used to make panna cotta with part cream, part buttermilk which also gave it a nice tang.

              2. I have made a recipe of half cream , half milk and sugar . Add the gelatine after cooking, no worries. Then made the same recipe but added pureed mango whilst heating and bingo, separation. You mentioned pureed strawberries in your separated version. Think it may be adding fruit at the heating stage that causes separation, maybe add fruit when mixture is cooling???