Caramelized Banana and Buttermilk Panna Cotta – Vegetarian Panna Cotta Recipe

Banana Buttermilk Panna Cotta (unmolded)
Caramelized Banana and Buttermilk Panna Cotta

Panna cotta is a classic Italian dessert, traditionally made from cream and milk set with gelatin, which isn’t vegetarian. The gelatin is what makes it different from flan (set with eggs) or pudding (set with starch and sometimes eggs). The best panna cotta is ultra-creamy and just barely set – it should have a distinct wiggle to it. So the challenge in making a vegetarian panna cotta is to replace the gelatin with something that doesn’t make a brittle, crumbly, or over-firm gel.

Agar-agar might not seem like the ideal choice here, because indeed it does have a tendency to make brittle gels that fracture when you bite into them, rather than seeming to melt. That problem becomes worse at higher concentrations though, so I figured if I could give it some help by starting with an already thickish flavor-base, I could use a lot less agar. In this case, using buttermilk, cream, and caramelized banana puree worked like a treat – I was able to use only 0.2% agar by weight, which resulted in a completely creamy, wiggly, delicious panna cotta.
Banana Buttermilk Panna Cotta in GlassesSince I was making caramelized banana panna cotta, I figured a bourbon and brown sugar syrup would make a perfect flavor pairing. You could also try replacing the dairy products with coconut milk and cream for a tropical (and vegan) version, and then maybe you would use a mango sauce instead. (I haven’t tried any of that – please let me know if you do.)

The other big benefit of agar is that it is relatively easy to find; other good options such as a mixture of carrageenans are probably too much trouble for most folks to source. The agar brand I like best is Telephone – it comes in little packets that you can find at Asian groceries or here on Amazon. I find that this brand is completely flavorless, and the thickening strength is very reliable. If you try other brands, or agar flakes etc., you may have to experiment to find the equivalent amount.

Whenever you use agar (or any other thickener like xanthan gum etc.), it is important to disperse it before hydrating. The best technique is to whisk it in with sugar or another powdered ingredient, disperse it into a vortex of liquid in the blender, and only then do you heat it. If you try to heat it, which causes the powder to hydrate, before fully dispersing it, you’ll have a clumpy mess on your hands.

With panna cotta you have the choice of serving it in ramekins or unmolding it. Obviously ramekins are the safest choice, but if you want to unmold, it is best to use metal or silicone molds to aid in the release. Dipping the base of the mold in hot water for a few seconds before drying and inverting on a plate may aid in release.

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Caramelized Banana and Buttermilk Panna Cotta
Vegetarian, gluten-free and potentially kosher
For vegan, try coconut milk instead of the dairy products (untested)
Makes 6-8 servings

For the bourbon brown sugar syrup

  • 3/4 cup water
  • 3/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • 6 tablespoons good quality bourbon (Maker’s or better)
  1. Bring all ingredients to a simmer in a small saucepan. Simmer 5 minutes. Strain and reserve in refrigerator.
For the caramelized banana and buttermilk panna cotta
  • 3 overripe bananas, peeled (430 grams peeled weight)
  • 572 ml (2 cups) buttermilk
  • 236 ml (1 cup) heavy cream
  • 2.5 grams (1/2 teaspoon) pure vanilla extract
  • 2 grams salt
  • 75 grams brown sugar
  • 50 grams white sugar
  • 2 grams agar agar powder (I use Telephone brand – check if you need kosher, but other brands strength may vary)
  1. Gather 8 ramekins, pudding cups, or whatever you want to serve the panna cotta in onto a baking sheet that will fit in your refrigerator.
  2. Preheat oven to 400. Put bananas on a parchment line baking sheet and roast until very well browned and bubbling, about 30 minutes, mashing with a fork a couple of times throughout to expose more surface area.
  3. Put bananas, buttermilk, cream, vanilla, salt, and brown sugar in a blender and blend on high speed for 2 minutes.
  4. Whisk together white sugar and agar in a small bowl. With the blender on medium speed, remove the top and sprinkle the sugar-agar mix into the vortex. Put the cover back on and blend on high speed for 2 more minutes.
  5. Strain the mixture through your finest sieve into a saucepan. Heat at medium, whisking frequently until it comes to a simmer. Immediately remove from heat and transfer to the ramekins. Place on baking sheet and cover with tin foil. Refrigerate at least two hours.
  6. To serve, unmold if desired by dipping the ramekin base in hot water then drying and inverting onto a plate. Otherwise, you can serve directly in the ramekins. Drizzle about 2 tablespoons of the bourbon brown sugar syrup on each portion.
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Posted by Michael Natkin on Monday, October 22nd, 2012 in Desserts, Gluten-Free or modifiable, Recipes.

16 Responses to “Caramelized Banana and Buttermilk Panna Cotta – Vegetarian Panna Cotta Recipe”

  1. Reply
    October 22, 2012 at 7:45 am #

    REALLY excited to get this email today! I’ve been vegetarian for upwards of 20 years now, and one of the few things I miss is panna cotta so I’m thrilled. (Incidentally, one of the few others is bacon, so I’m looking forward to trying out the butternut squash “bacon” in Dirt Candy, which I picked up this weekend.) Thanks. 🙂

  2. Reply
    October 22, 2012 at 10:30 am #

    I know that Eden makes a kosher agar agar. How to determine strength? I’ve always wanted to try panna cotta but the kosher gelatin thing is a challenge. And using the fish gelatin powder (no sheets as far as I know) gives off a slightly fishy smell…

    • Reply
      October 23, 2012 at 11:12 am #

      Hey Elizabeth – if you can’t use the Telephone brand that I’ve tested with, you’ll probably just have to make a test batch and then adjust. You could start with a half batch. It is very helpful to have a scale that can measure in tenths of a gram to calibrate ingredients like this that are used in very small quantities.

  3. Reply
    October 22, 2012 at 11:05 am #

    It looks so good! I love banana desserts.

  4. Reply
    October 22, 2012 at 9:46 pm #

    It’s got to have that perfect wiggle. A lot of things are like that. Or so my husband says.

  5. Reply
    October 23, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

    What a delightful recipe for panna cotta. I regularly use an “agar-agar” bar for my Filipino and Asian desserts. Filipinos call it “gulaman”. It is available in Asian groceries, by the Philippine aisle. You must have seen this already, it is a long, rectangle bar measuring about 10 inches. I boil a cup of water and then tear the gulaman/ agar-agar bar by hand, then throw it in the boiling pot. It melts in a few quick minutes, then I pour it in a glass container to firm up. It firms up quickly, sometimes even while still hot. I’ve cooked with gulaman ever since I first started helping in the kitchen as a child. I add a few tablespoons per bar to sweeten it for desserts. But thanks for sharing this recipe, Michael!

    • Reply
      October 23, 2012 at 12:17 pm #

      Hey Betty Ann – Indeed, I know well the agar bars you mean. Personally I prefer the powder because the gel strength is very predictable and I can adjust it down to tenths of a gram as needed, but the bars are a fine option as well – especially for firm gels where the precise texture isn’t as critical as it might be for panna cotta.

  6. Reply
    October 23, 2012 at 7:18 pm #

    I am learning how to cook. This sounds advance for first-time cooks. LOL Anyone in the Washington DC area can assist me with preparing this dish? LOL

  7. Reply
    October 24, 2012 at 9:20 am #

    This is great! I’m always looking for new vegetarian desserts, as my mother is pretty strict about it. I’m going to have to try this, especially love the bourbon sauce.

  8. Reply
    October 25, 2012 at 9:22 am #

    I got to taste this luscious dessert last night at a class Michael was teaching here in Austin at Whole Foods Market. I am not a big fan of Panna Cotta but this was delicious and I loved the Bourbon sauce!

  9. Reply
    October 26, 2012 at 11:55 am #

    I love the flavor combination! While I’ve made panna cotta, I’ve never used agar – must try! Thanks for the tips.

  10. Reply
    October 31, 2012 at 10:16 am #

    Awesome! Thrilled to see this “vegetarian” panna cotta. Not many come egg-less.
    Agar agar makes such lovely desserts possible for people like me.
    I’m sure the caramelized banana flavor must have been as exotic as it sounds!

  11. Reply
    November 29, 2012 at 8:21 pm #

    Beautiful photo and lovely recipe!

  12. Reply
    May 15, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

    This appears to be what they call Flan in Spanish country’s such as Mexico. I never considered trying it with Bourbon. I grew up in Kentucky so I consider myself a Bourbon aficionado. Id suggest Woodford Reserve if you can find it, its silky smoth and goes great with deserts.

    • Reply
      May 15, 2013 at 5:01 pm #

      I’m a Kentucky boy too, nice to hear from a homey! The main difference is that flan is set with eggs, traditional panna cotta is set with gelatin, and this variation is set with agar. No argument from me on Woodford Reserve, definitely tasty stuff.

  13. Reply
    June 21, 2018 at 6:10 am #


    Thank you for the recipe, just wanted to share that I often combine cornstarch and agar agar to get a not too gelly like texture for some flan or custards to replace eggs.

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