Come summer, my freezer is stocked with pints of ice cream. While it almost always hits the spot, these days, I find myself craving a granita. Something about the idea of fluffy, crunchy pile of flavored ice feels particularly refreshing, more accommodating to a mid-day cool-down snack or an it’s-so-hot-out-I-don’t-even-want-to-eat dessert.
Granita is the Italian version of shaved ice — not entirely dissimilar, but also very distinct from, Filipino halo-halo, New Orleans sno-balls, Japanese kakigori, and Hawaiian shave ice. From Puerto Rico to India to Mexico, you can find variations of shaved ice, all equally delicious (yes, it’s 85 degrees outside as I’m typing this).
Granita itself is incredibly easy to make at home, requiring mostly an abundance of fruit and time. There are, of course, tons of recipes out there (and even this non-recipe, which I love for riffing when I’m looking to use up farmers market hauls on the decline).
But for a (slightly!) more scientific understanding — and for techniques that apply whether you’re following an officially tested recipe or winging it with what you have — I spoke with Michelle Polzine, the owner and chef of San Francisco’s 20th Century Cafe. Her debut cookbook, Baking at the 20th Century Cafe, came out last year, and features two granita recipes (one tangerine, one coffee). Still, her thinking about the sweet goes beyond exact flavors and measurements.
There are, Polzine says, different approaches to granita, and all are equally valid. Still, the tips she lays out here for a successful granita are both smart and useful, even if you’re following step-by-step instructions.
The Choice of Fruit Matters (But You Really Can Do Almost Anything)
Melons, berries, stone fruits, even cucumbers and tomatoes — they’re all fair game. “What you need to watch for is how much fiber is in the fruit,” Polzine says. Fiber makes things thicker, which is why it’s great for sorbet. But when you want smooth ice particles to form, aim for a smoother liquid to start with. If you are making granita out of, say, watermelon or cucumber, neither of which is a particular fibrous specimen, you can puree them directly. If you’ve picked something like peaches or tomatoes, what you’re really after is the juice. Literally: you want to squeeze the heck out of them and then strain them through a strainer or cheesecloth. (Heads up: You may need to add some water to those more concentrated fruits once they’re juiced, too.) Across the board, the more pure the liquid, the better the finished product will be.
Sugar Is More Than a Sweetener
“Sugar is a freezing disruptor,” Polzine explains. It stops your granita from solidifying in one rock-hard mass. (Imagine scraping an ice sculpture; there’s a reason you need heavy-duty tools for that.) Similar to alcohol, which is also a common addition to granita, sugar disrupts the freezing process, and is necessary to achieve perfect flakes.
Sometimes you’ll find recipes that tell you to make a simple syrup, but Polzine prefers to add the sugar directly to the fruit puree or liquid instead of heating it up to dissolve. Even once it’s cooled, simple syrup changes the structure of the liquid as it freezes, making it harder to achieve perfect flaky consistency. “Again, with sorbet, I make a simple syrup because I want the final product to be super smooth,” she says. “With a granita, I want the sugar crystals still present so that it stays fluffy.”
A Fluffy Texture Also Comes Down to the Perfect Scrape
When making granita, the main thing you’re doing is controlling crystallization. Mid-way through the freeze, once it reaches a slushy consistency, Polzine recommends stirring with a whisk, instead of using the traditionally-recommended fork tines. Either will work, but a whisk breaks up the forming ice particularly well. If you nail the timing, you really only need to stir it once, she says.
Add Salt, and Maybe an Acid
Like pretty much all desserts (and, you know, every other food), granita benefits from salt. Without it, the final product will taste flat. “I think of it almost like salting pasta water,” Polzine says. It creates a backbone that balances the flavors of the fruit, ultimately letting them — and the granita’s sweetness — come to the forefront. Acid is also an important component. Sometimes, of course, you’ll have a naturally acidic fruit. Other times you’ll want to add citrus to the mix. Again, it’s all about balance.
Fruit Is Great, But So Are Herbs
Herbs are the sleeper hit of the summer — they’re abundant, generally more affordable than fruit, and also a great option for granita. “I love the idea of a lemon verbena granita, or a mint one,” says Polzine. To infuse the flavor of herbs into a granita, you first steep them in boiling water, and then add sugar after the water has cooled. Polzine suggests serving an herb granita with fresh fruit, and maybe some fresh herbs as a garnish, a layering of flavors that makes a particularly decadent dessert.