Berry Sorbet /

How to make sorbet without a recipe

At the sadly-now-closed COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts in Napa, where I worked as a culinary instructor, we did an every-Friday program called the Taste of COPIA Lunch. For several years, every lunch ended with sorbet, which means, over time, we made a lot of sorbet.

And when I say “we,” I really mean Brigid Callinan, COPIA’s then-Culinary Programs Manager and the uncontested Sorbet Queen. Brigid had previously been the pastry chef at Mustards Grill and co-wrote the award-winning “Mustards Grill Napa Valley Cookbook” with Cindy Pawlcyn, so she knows a thing or two about delicious desserts. (Nowadays, Brigid teaches cooking to the US Coast Guard and works with her friend Lenny Rice Moonsammy at Good Food Source.)

With fresh fruit from COPIA’s gardens, Brigid made strawberry sorbet and peach sorbet. She made persimmon and apple sorbets. And sorbets from plums, blueberries, and honeydew. Week after glorious week, COPIA guests enjoyed all manner of sweet, smooth, bright, and tangy sorbets, thanks to the incredible fruit that the garden provided – and Brigid’s incredible talents.

One summer, however, the Sorbet Queen decided to take a vacation. And so she passed the spatula and taught me to make sorbet in her stead.

She started by telling me to use only the best fruit I could find and to cut off anything with the slightest bit of bruise or over ripeness, pointing out that the fruit wasn’t going to get any better by virtue of becoming sorbet. (In the COPIA gardens, it wasn’t a challenge to find great fruit, but now I only use peak-of-season stuff from the farmers’ market.)

Brigid showed me how to combine the pureed fruit with simple syrup, and how to magically use a whole, clean, raw egg to test my balance of the two. She taught me how to add acidity – lemon or lime juice – to add crisp dimension and complexity to the sweetness. And she taught me how to use the industrial ice cream maker down the hall at Julia’s Kitchen restaurant, so I could make gallons of great sorbet at a time.

When Brigid returned from vacation and tasted the fruits of my labor, she was so pleased that she dubbed me the Sorbet Princess.

To this day, thanks to Brigid, I make some of the best sorbet ever, like the absolutely amazing batch of Marion blackberry sorbet pictured here.

And now, with Brigid’s method spelled out below, so can you. Referring to yourselves as Lords and Ladies of Sorbet is entirely optional.

How to make sorbet without a recipe

  1. Make a batch of simple syrup: Mix equal parts sugar and water, heat them together, stirring occasionally until the sugar dissolves, then thoroughly cool. You’ll need about a cup of simple syrup per pound of fruit.
  2. Prepare your fruit: Start with really good, ripe fruit that’s juicy and aromatic. Cut the fruit into chunks, discarding any rotten or bruised parts.
  3. Some fruits are best if they’re cooked first, including blueberries, huckleberries, pears, cranberries, apples, some plums, and rhubarb. To cook, place the fruit in a large pot with a bit of water on medium-high heat. Cook until the fruit is very soft, then thoroughly cool.
  4. Once your fruit is ready, puree it in a food processor, then strain it through a medium-mesh sieve.
  5. Combine the fruit puree with the simple syrup to taste.
  6. Check the balance with the egg test: Carefully place a clean, raw egg (in the shell) into your sorbet base so that it floats to the surface. If the amount of shell that’s showing is about the size of a nickel, your balance of fruit and sugar is correct and it will yield a sorbet that’s neither too soft or too hard once it’s frozen. If the egg is sitting lower, showing a dime-size or smaller, add more simple syrup. If it’s floating too high, showing the size of a quarter or more, add more fruit puree or water.
  7. Now taste. Notice how it’s sweet, but syrupy so, a little cloying? Add lemon or lime juice until the sorbet base tastes sweet but also crisp and clean, typically about a tablespoon per pound of fruit.
  8. Add salt to taste. Make your sorbet base very assertive – once it’s frozen, the flavor will be less intense.
  9. Thoroughly chill your finished sorbet base, then freeze according to your ice cream maker’s manufacturer’s instructions.

(If you absolutely can’t stand not having a recipe, here’s one for Berry Sorbet.)

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