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Taste Your Way to the Perfect Fruit Sorbet

Fine Cooking Issue 46
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Refreshing, smooth, a blast of pure and distinct flavor—these are just a few ways to describe the perfect sorbet. Because of specific freezing properties, making your own fruit sorbet can be a bit intimidating, but by following your taste buds and a few very basic rules, you can easily create your own delicious sorbets.

A flavorful base means a great-tasting sorbet

The first and most important part of making a sorbet is to capture the distinct and fresh flavor of your main ingredient in a base that you can freeze. The base must be a liquid or a smooth purée. Happily, many sorbet ingredients, like citrus juices and other fruit juices, are already liquid and ready to go, but most fruits need to be puréed and strained to get a smooth consistency. In order to develop ultimate flavor and in some cases to destroy the enzymes that cause fruits to oxidize (turn brown), you may need to cook the fruit a bit before you purée it.

Fruits that oxidize, like bananas, apples, and stone fruits, should always be cooked to keep the base from browning. Citrus juices, melons, and tropical fruits such as mango and papaya should never be cooked because heat kills their flavor. For berries, cooking is optional; for instance, perfectly ripe strawberries can be puréed and used as is, or they can be warmed with a little sugar to pull out more of the juices. If the berries aren’t perfectly ripe, heat will enhance their flavor. If you’re ever in doubt, cook a small amount and compare the cooked version to the raw fruit.

As the fruit cooks, taste it often. If the fruit seems extremely sour or tart, stir in small amounts of sugar, but treat the sugar as though you were adding salt to a soup: Add it gradually, one spoonful at a time. Freezing dulls flavors just a bit, but essentially your sorbet will taste just like the base. If you have a great-tasting base, you’re well on your way to a perfect sorbet.

Most fruits need a little heat and sugar to taste their best in a sorbet

Barely cover the bottom of a pot with water, add your fruit, and sprinkle with a little sugar. Set the pot over low heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the fruit is very flavorful (this should take no longer than 30 minutes). Taste frequently.
When you’re happy with the flavor, purée the base in a food processor or a blender. Pass the purée through a fine sieve to remove any seeds or pulp. The base should be no thicker than heavy cream; add a little water to thin it if necessary. Chill well before freezing.

Sugar content determines texture

The concentration of sugar in the base affects not only flavor but also the texture of the finished sorbet. Too much sugar inhibits the base from freezing, while too little sugar results in a hard, icy sorbet.  

Fortunately, there’s a great low-tech tool for checking sugar density: an egg. When you place a fresh egg (still in the shell) in a sorbet base with the correct sugar density, the egg should float, and the exposed portion of the shell should be about the size of a dime. If any more or less of the shell is exposed, you’ll know you need to adjust the base.

Keep in mind that the egg is simply a guide and that taste is still the most important factor. If the egg doesn’t exactly show the size of a dime but the flavor is to your liking, go ahead and freeze your sorbet.

Tips for making sorbet

• Always use fresh, clean, ripe fruits to make sorbet.
• Alcohol can be added to sorbet, but keep it to a minimum. If alcohol makes up more than 3% of the base, the sorbet won’t freeze properly.
• If the base needs more sugar, make a simple syrup (by boiling together equal parts by volume of sugar and water until dissolved); let it cool before adding it to the base.
• If the sugar density seems perfect when using the egg test but the sorbet tastes overly sweet, lemon juice will cut the sweetness. Lemon also enhances many fruit flavors.
• If the base tastes perfectly sweet but the egg sinks, add light corn syrup. It tastes less sweet than sugar, so it will raise the egg without increasing the sweetness as much as sugar would. Corn syrup also promotes smoothness.

Constant motion makes a smooth sorbet

The constant motion of an ice-cream maker keeps sorbet smooth during freezing. As the base comes into contact with a frozen surface, a blade or dasher sweeps through to refine the ice crystals and create the smooth texture we like. There are many types of ice-cream makers, electric and manual. Most of them work well for sorbet, even the old-fashioned tin canister that sits inside a wooden barrel packed with salted ice can make a beautiful sorbet. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for using your particular machine.

For the smoothest texture, freeze the sorbet base the same day you plan to serve it. Without chemical preservatives, sorbet can become too firm if kept frozen for long periods. The great thing about sorbet, though, is that you can thaw it, adjust the flavor, and refreeze it in an ice-cream machine as many times as you want until you get it the way you like it.

Use an egg to check sugar density

Wash and dry an egg in the shell and float it in your base. If the exposed shell is bigger than a dime, there’s probably too much sugar in the base. Add a little water or more fruit purée to reduce the concentration of sugar. If the egg sinks or less than a dime’s worth of shell shows, there isn’t enough sugar in the base. Whisk in simple syrup, sugar, or corn syrup and continue to check with the egg.


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