Here’s the scoop on sorbets: pure flavor. In this case, they are the flavors of summer, including berries, melons and stone fruits so ripe that they’re almost dripping with juice.
OK, a sorbet’s iciness on a hot day is worth reporting, too, and its texture can make the difference between an easy-to-scoop sorbet with a melting velvetiness or something that needs to be attacked with an ice pick.
Sorbets “blend the unadorned flavor of intense life with a startling, lifeless cold,” notes Harold McGee in “The Curious Cook” (Macmillan). Known for getting to the very bottom of a recipe, Mr. McGee offers formulas for three dozen fruits frozen in several styles and levels of sweetness.
He admits he went after his “Comprehensive Theory of Ices” with paper, pencil, hydrometer, thermometer, tables of chemical and biochemical data, and computer. He also tends to the history of sorbet, which should perhaps be the Italian word “sorbetto,” since it was the Italians who introduced it to the French.
Not that curious or ambitious a cook? Well, here’s what is good to know.
Although a sherbet, like ice cream, usually contains some dairy ingredients, sorbets are generally made of two basic ingredients: fruit puree or juice (for flavor) and sugar (for texture). Ingredients such as water, citrus juice, sweeteners (honey, preserves), herbs, and liqueurs can be added at will (and with adjustments to sugar amounts) to influence both flavor and texture.
Mr. McGee assumed that fruit flavor intensity is prized and that the coldness of an ice would diminish a fruit’s flavor. He further guessed that water would diminish flavor. What he found was that the addition of water can make the flavor elusive and subtle, and in some fruits, this actually emphasizes the fruit perfume.
“Straight [the fruit is] too much like itself, its flavor merely coarsened and simplified by the cold,” he writes. “If so, then water might help by interposing a certain distance, leaving the fruit flavor more remote and reduced to its essence.” Like the game of playing hard to get, this might appeal to some tastes, but purists may prefer, well, pure fruit.
Lovers of pure fruit sorbet might also argue that another advantage to using undiluted puree is the velvety texture that results, plus the fact that puree sorbets are less apt to separate when thawed.
Because it lowers the freezing temperature, sugar is the key to controlling the texture of sorbets. Shirley Corriher, who, like Mr. McGee, writes about the science of food for the nonscientific reader, says the No. 1 priority for texture in a sorbet is the sugar concentration.
In her book “Cookwise” (William Morrow), she writes: “When a mixture of fruit juice or puree, sugar and flavoring freezes, some of the water in the fruit-sugar syrup freezes into pure ice crystals. The fruit-sugar syrup left behind becomes more and more concentrated.
“Since sugar lowers the freezing point of a liquid, as the syrup becomes more concentrated its freezing point gets lower and lower, so that you have some syrup left unfrozen at freezer temperature.
“So if you want to be able to scoop the ice, the initial mixture has to have enough sugar to leave some syrup at freezer temperature.”
A bit of lemon juice is often added to sorbet recipes to offset the sweetness of the necessary concentration of sugar.
Adding a liqueur, honey and preserves with pectin (or even working with a fruit with a high pectin content) produces a softer ice because these ingredients lower the freezing temperature. If this is done, the amount of sugar should be reduced, or the result may be a slushy sorbet.
Pectin has a particular advantage, according to Miss Corriher, in that it is a huge molecule that grabs water and forms soft gels. Whether from fruit alone or from fruit preserves, pectin produces a wonderful, smooth, creamy ice with fine crystals.
If a lot of pectin is present when small ice crystals begin to melt in a serving dish, the pectin simply holds the water in a soft gel. But with too much pectin, Miss Corriher warns, the sorbet will set like jelly and “the sensuous feeling of cold melting into nothingness will be lost.” Preserves also add good, concentrated fruit flavor. They can be swapped tablespoon for tablespoon for some of the sugar in a sorbet recipe.
It would be nice if there were a simple formula that worked for all fruit sorbets, but because fruits vary in sugar content, pectin and acidity, that just isn’t possible.
Nonetheless, the curious can turn to Mr. McGee. In his book, we can find all sorts of delicious detail, including his contention that cooking the fruit-sugar mixture to dissolve the sugar (as many recipes direct) is outdated and unnecessary.
“You can stir the sugar into cold water just about as fast as you can over heat, and you don’t have to wait for it to cool down again,” he says.
“Apparently, the purpose of boiling the syrup was to remove impurities found in 19th-century sugar. So it may be that boiling is just an outdated relic of a bygone era.”
The texture and flavor of certain fruits, such as rhubarb and plums, may benefit from some heating, and recipes with herbs or spices will benefit from heating and some steeping time to bring out their full flavors.
Serving a less-sweet sorbet as a palate refresher between courses has also seen its day. In an interview in the 1930s, Escoffier lamented, “Sadly, since the bad habit of smoking during the meal has been taken up, the cigarette has dethroned the sorbet.”
Although sherbets and ice cream improve in flavor and texture with a certain amount of aging before and after freezing, sorbets are best served straight from the ice cream maker. Stored more than a few hours in a freezer, they form larger ice crystals, become harder to scoop, and require some sitting time at room temperature or in the microwave before they are ready to be served.
If the sorbet is softer than you want after about 20 minutes of churning, place it in the freezer for another 20 minutes or until it is as hard as desired.
Leftover sorbet that has lost its appeal can be reprocessed in an ice cream maker or blended, with a complementary liqueur added to restore the texture and rejuvenate the flavor.
For dessert, sorbets can be presented simply as is or garnished with fruit pieces, served in a pool of sauce or with pretty purchased cookies.
Sorbets can also be transformed into tonics. Try scooping some of the blackberry sorbet (recipe follows) into a tall glass of sparkling apple cider or berry soda, add some strawberry balsamic sorbet to a flute of prosecco, or give the plum cardamom sorbet a dousing with ginger ale.
If you aren’t into dealing with blenders, ice cream makers and such, you can still present a flavorful and showy summer dessert by purchasing several flavors of sorbet in contrasting colors and layering them. No need for a formal recipe.
Simply soften purchased sorbet until spreadable, then spread it in an even layer in a loaf pan lined with plastic wrap. Place in the freezer until firm. Repeat layering with other flavors in the same manner. When firm, turn out of pan and cut into 3/4-inch slices.
1 pounds blackberries, rinsed
1 cups sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Process blackberries in blender until pureed. Pass through fine strainer into a bowl, pressing with back of large spoon or spatula to extract as much juice as possible. You should have 2 cups puree. Discard solids.
Whisk 2 cups water and the sugar and lemon juice into puree. Cover and chill until cold, about 2 hours. Freeze in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s directions. Serve immediately, or transfer to airtight container and freeze until firm as desired.
Makes about 5 cups.
Plum cardamom sorbet
2 pounds Italian prune plums, halved and pitted
11/4 cups sugar
6 cardamom pods
2 tablespoons lemon juice
In large saucepan, combine prune plums, sugar, cardamom pods and lemon juice.
Cook over medium heat, stirring, until plums release their liquid and mixture comes to a simmer. Simmer, stirring, 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand 15 minutes.
Remove cardamom pods from plum mixture and discard. In blender, puree plum mixture in 2 batches.
Pass through fine sieve into bowl, pressing with back of large spoon or spatula to extract as much liquid as possible.
Chill until cold, about 2 hours. Freeze in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s directions.
Serve immediately, or transfer to airtight container, and freeze until firm as desired.
Makes about 5 cups.
Strawberry balsamic sorbet
6 cups strawberries, rinsed and stemmed
1 cup brown sugar, packed
cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup high-quality balsamic vinegar
In blender, process strawberries, brown and granulated sugars, and vinegar until pureed. Pass mixture through fine sieve, pressing with back of large spoon or spatula to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard solids.
Chill about 2 hours. Freeze in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s directions. Serve immediately, or transfer to airtight container and freeze until firm as desired.
Makes about 5 cups.
Cantaloupe anisette sorbet
6 cups cubed cantaloupe
11/4 cups sugar
3 tablespoons anisette liqueur
In blender, process cantaloupe, sugar and anisette liqueur until pureed. Chill about 2 hours.
Freeze in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s directions. Serve immediately, or transfer to airtight container and freeze until firm as desired.
Makes about 5 cups.