October 11, 2011

Pistachio Gelato

Everyone has, at some time, been served a sauce so overthickened with starch that it turned as gluey as wallpaper paste. The flavor is usually even worse than the texture because the gluey starch inhibits flavor release, which is how the flavor chemicals get to your taste buds.

Cooks today have much better alternatives: modern hydrocolloids, which are powders that set or thicken when mixed with water. Traditional starches and gelatin are hydrocolloids, but now stores have begun to carry many other hydrocolloids that are even more useful, such as agar, carrageenan, locust bean gum, and xanthan gum.

Both agar and carrageenan are extracts made from seaweed. If you have ever played with seaweed on the beach, you’ve noted its rubbery and gel-like consistency. Agar has been used in Japanese cooking for a thousand years, but has only just become popular in Western cuisines. Carrageenan is named for a small Irish fishing village, where they have traditionally made a pudding by boiling seaweed in sweetened milk. Locust bean gum is made from the seedpods of carob, which you can find sold as a chocolate substitute in most any health food store. Perhaps the most flexible modern hydrocolloid is xanthan gum, which is made by fermenting a natural bacteria, in much the same way that vinegar and yeast are made.

These modern hydrocolloids, and others like them, have many advantages over gelatin and traditional starches. They work at a wider range of pH and temperature. They perform better when reheating. They can make gels that don’t weep. And they work at very small concentrations. When thickening with xanthan gum, for example, we typically add just 0.1-0.2 g for every 100 g of liquid, and when making a solid gel, we usually use about 0.5 g for every 100 g of liquid. The trickiest part of using these ingredients is often measuring out such small weights precisely! But because the amounts are so small, they don’t interfere with the taste of the final dish nearly as much as conventional starches do.

In this recipe for gelato, we exploit yet another advantage of hydrocolloids: the way they affect the size of the ice crystals in ice cream or sorbet as it freezes. The size of the crystals is the biggest factor in the texture and consistency of an ice cream or sorbet; generally speaking, the smaller, the better.

Finally, hydrocolloids are often called stabilizers because they help foods stabilize at a good consistency without too much added fat or sugar (we’ve assembled a useful table of emulsion stabilizers that summarizes the properties and uses of each one–you can find it below). In our pistachio gelato, the nuts themselves are the only source of fat. But to get the texture just right, a little bit of carrageenan goes a long way.

Nathan Myhrvold, coauthor of Modernist Cuisine and Modernist Cuisine at Home

Recipe Tags

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Emulsion Table

Since publishing MC, we have made the gelato numerous times at The Cooking Lab for VIP dinners, demonstrations, and visitors. Based on that experience, Sam Fahey-Burke, one of our culinary researchers, hit upon an alternative way to make the gelato. The video demonstrates his method, in which he first disperses the hydrocolloids, salt and sugar into water and heats to 60 °C / 140 °F. Only then does he add the pistachio butter and oil. Homogenization, seasoning, and churning proceed as described in the recipe above.

Both procedures work well, but Sam finds it easier to disperse the hydrocolloids properly using this modified approach. We encourage you to try the recipe both ways and see whether you find one easier or tastier than the other.

Hydrocolloids have joined spices as part of the repertoire of a Modernist chef. The we prefer pistachios, any kind of nut will work for this gelato. Whatever you use, you will still get all of the intense nutty flavor. If you are making your own pistachio butter, we have found that passing the nuts four times through a colloid mill gives the best results. A quenelle scoop adds dramatic flair to this delicious dessert.

Additional Tips

  • You can use any kind of nut butter for this recipe, as long as it is made from 100% pure nuts.
  • To make your own pistachio butter, press the pistachios through a colloid mill multiple times. We find that four passes yields the best consistency.
  • Alternatively, use store-bought pistachio butter. Next to our own, we like PreGel's Pistachio Sicilia Pistachio Paste best. You can also find pistachio oil at specialty gourmet stores or online. We have used Castelmurow and LeBlanc brands.
  • Use a handheld blender or rotor-stator homogenizer to disperse the hydrocolloids completely.
  • It's okay to omit the polysorbate 80 and the glycerol monostearate. We often do!
  • If you will be using a Pacojet, it is not necessary to add the locust bean gum, although the recipe works fine with the gum included.
  • If you do not own a Pacojet, try using a regular front-loading ice-cream maker or a gelatiera. Although the results will not be quite as smooth because the Pacojet releases less air into the gelato, the taste will still be delicious!
  • Before putting the gelato base in the freezer to set, cool it by resting the bowl in an ice bath for about 20 minutes; stir the bath couple of minutes. Prechilling the base allows the temperature in the freezer to stay closer to its set point, so the base freezes more evenly.
  • We like to serve this gelato over Amarena cherries soaked in brandy. Cherries pair well with nutty desserts like this one because they yield the same aromatic benzaldehyde flavors that are found in many nuts.
  • To scoop out a quenelle of gelato, first soak your spoon in warm or hot water. Lightly dry it, so as not to get any water in the gelato, which will freeze and form seed ice crystals. Slide the edge of the spoon across the surface of the gelato, curve the spoon around and press down to form an ovoid shape.


  1. sophia April 4, 2013 Reply

    I would like to make this at home- I sell sorbet and ice pops locally- I often use different types of gums in my sorbets such as xanthan and guar….I feel l do much better with the guar as I cannot get the measurement of the xanthan right (I am working on 1- 1.5 quart measurements)… I use less then 1/8 of a teaspoon of guar per 1-2 quarts. I have no been heating it however, and wonder if that would also make a difference- one I havent explored.

    I also have just gotten my hands on some locust bean gum to play around with- Im not sure if I need to, however.

    Can you please let me know how I can make the pistachio butter with a regular food processor? Also, would you kindly provide me with measurements of your recipe in cups/teaspoons as opposed to grams?

    I hope you dont mind my asking, but I have been dying to try a dairy free pistachio forever and this looks like it could be a great recipe. I bought raw unroasted pistachios from my local turkish grocer.

    Hope you can help!

    • Judy April 4, 2013 Reply

      Hi Sophia,

      Unfortunately, we don’t have the conversions for this recipe, which first appeared in Modernist Cuisine. We did, however, adapt it for Modernist Cuisine at Home, in which we used both xanthan gum and tapioca starch. We also included a few variations, including P.B. & J. Gelato, which you can find here: http://modcuisine.wpengine.com/recipes/p-b-j-gelato/

      Xanthan gum is pretty tricky to measure because it’s such a small amount, so even in the recipe I just linked to, there is no volumetric conversion. You will need to use a gram scale (which only cost about $10).

      As for making pistachio butter in the food processor, I don’t think it will work. You’ll want to either buy pistachio butter or use a colloid mill.

      Hope that helps!

      • Michael May 1, 2013 Reply

        Hi Sophia,

        No offense to Nadia, but my Ninja worked pretty well. Ninja kind of a cross between a blender and food processor.

        The trick is to keep at it, blending for 15 second intervals, wiping the nuts off the sides and repeating – at least 6 or 7 times. The first few times it just looked like crumbles but i stuck with it and like magic wound up w/a paste-not silky smooth but good enough for a terrific (and beautiful green) modernist gelato. It worked even better on Hazelnuts, in part i think because i’d roasted them a bit first. Well worth the trouble.

        Happy cooking.

      • Caleb January 31, 2014 Reply

        For something as minute as Xanthan gum I use my Smart Weigh JDS20 Jewel Digital Scale 20g x 0.001g for ultimate accuracy at only $20 on Amazon not a bad deal.

  2. Nadia April 26, 2013 Reply

    A Pacojet is out of my price range for now, unfortunately. What, would you say, is the absolute best icecream machine for the home chef? XO. Nadia

    • Judy April 26, 2013 Reply

      Hi Nadia,

      That greatly depends on your price range and what features you are looking for.

  3. Nadia May 5, 2013 Reply

    Hi Judy,

    Less than $1000. Reasonably small. Stainless steel/non-toxic parts. Durable. As for bowl freeze VS built-in refridgerator, it’s hard for me to say which I’d prefer as this will be my first ever ice cream machine. I’m likely to use it about once per week.

    • Judy May 6, 2013 Reply

      Hi Nadia,

      Under $1000 is still a pretty wide range. I don’t know of any for the home that are quite that expensive, but in the $200-700 range, there are many to choose from. Gaggia Gelatiera, Cuinart, DeLonghi, and Lello all make home models in that price range.

  4. Andre May 10, 2013 Reply

    Would it be possible to make the pistachio butter in a pacojet, maybee blend loosely first then freeze with a liquid then pacotize??

    • Sam Fahey-Burke May 15, 2013 Reply

      Hi Andre,

      This is definitely possible. There’s actually a note in MC about making nut butters in a Pacojet.

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