During a typical Sicilian summer, the temperature starts to soar as soon as the sun rises. That’s why the islanders’ favorite way to wake up is also a means of cooling down: An icy dish of granita alongside fresh brioche col tuppo is a traditional breakfast. Many take their morning scoop coffee-flavored; others opt for a pistachio-, almond-, or fruit-based version (lemon, mulberry, and peach are popular) piled with whipped cream and washed down with a shot of espresso. I can’t think of a better way to start the day.
No matter when you choose to indulge (granita is also enjoyed as an afternoon snack), one of the best things about this frozen treat is that it comes together with very little effort, and no special equipment is required. Just blend the flavor base with sugar and water, pour it into a shallow baking dish, and freeze. Periodically scrape the mixture with a fork as it chills to encourage the formation of finer, thinner icy flakes with each successive scraping, and there you have it.
I find the rich jewel tones and intense fruitiness of berry granita especially alluring, so I decided to pursue that type, aiming for almost fluffy ice crystals that would cling to the palate for a chilling pause before melting to reveal the bold, sweet flavor locked within.
To produce that texture, it helped to distinguish between granita and another type of fruit ice, sorbet. While granita and sorbet both descend from the ancient Arabic sharbat (see “Granita’s Cool Backstory”) and have nearly identical ingredient lists, they feature dramatically different textures. A well‑made granita is light, airy, and crystalline, whereas sorbet tends to be dense and smooth, almost creamy.
Granita’s Cool Backstory
Granita dates back to when Arabs occupied Sicily (827–902 CE) and introduced locals to sharbat, an iced drink made with fruit juice or rose water. How did they produce ice in ancient (prerefrigeration) southern Italy? Documents dating to the 11th century paint the picture. Laborers called nivaroli gathered winter snow from the island’s mountain peaks and stored it in neviere, shallow caves and depressions dotted throughout the landscape. The workers beat the snow with shovels to compact it and then covered it with hay, leaves, and dirt as insulation. When summer arrived, they used pickaxes to divide the ice into large blocks and then carted it daily down the mountains to be grated and drizzled with fruit juices and syrups. Over time, sharbat gave birth to granita (“grana” means “grainy”), which was made by freezing a mix of sugar, water, and fruit (or other flavorings) so that the ice was flavored throughout, not just doused in syrup.
There are two reasons for the contrast. First, sorbet is churned in an ice cream maker, the constant agitation of which prevents large ice flakes from forming. Second, sorbet contains less liquid and more sugar, which contributes to a finer, softer texture. Sugar depresses the freezing point of water, which means that the more sugar you use, the more water will stay in liquid form after churning and freezing, translating to fewer ice crystals and a softer consistency.
A Chilling Evolution
After an hour in the freezer, the edges of the puree will be frozen and the center slushy. Use a fork to scrape the edges, and then stir the icy crystals into the middle of the mixture before returning it to the freezer. Repeat the scraping and stirring process every 30 minutes to 1 hour until the crystals are uniformly light and fluffy, 2 to 3 hours longer.
Cold as Ice
Determining just the right amount of sugar, then, would be the key to a properly crystalline granita. I found that 1 cup of water was sufficient to blend 1 pound of fresh strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, or blackberries (or a combination thereof) into a pourable puree. From there, I prepared two separate batches, adding 3 tablespoons of sugar (the smallest amount I’d seen in recipes) to one puree and 1 cup (the highest amount I’d found) to the other. I passed each one through a fine-mesh strainer to capture any errant bits of skin or seeds; poured them into baking dishes; and froze them, scraping with a fork every hour or so for 3 hours.
The differences were dramatic. The low-sugar batch froze so solidly that it was difficult to scrape, and when flakes did form, they were large, chunky, and dense. As I had anticipated, the high-sugar batch never fully solidified, remaining slushy and syrupy. In subsequent tests, I adjusted the amount of sugar until I achieved a pleasantly sweet taste and an elegantly flaky consistency, ultimately landing on 1/2 cup.
Using Sugar to Control Texture
As I developed my granita recipe, I found that the more sugar that was dissolved in the water, the harder it became for the water to turn into ice. That’s because as the granita dips below 32 degrees, some water freezes solid, while the sugar remains dissolved in the liquid water. As more water freezes, the sugar concentration in the remaining syrup will increase, making it less and less able to solidify. A half-cup of sugar was the sweet spot, producing a treat that was delicate and flaky, not soupy or solid.
The sugar level and delicate, crystalline structure of my granita were now spot-on, but the flavor lacked oomph. A pinch of salt pulled the flavor into focus, and substituting ¼ cup of lemon juice for an equal amount of the water brightened the berries, helping them taste like better versions of themselves.
With my base recipe set, I found a few tips to guarantee success. First, it’s important to use a 13 by 9-inch vessel so that the puree settles in a thin layer (about ¼ inch deep) and freezes efficiently. Second, many recipes call for a metal baking pan, as it allows for slightly faster freezing, but I recommend using a glass dish because it won’t scratch when raked with a fork. Glass also provides better insulation from the counter during scraping, creating more of a time buffer before the granita starts to melt. Speaking of scraping, waiting a full hour for the edges to freeze before the first scraping is vital—after that, scrape every 30 minutes to 1 hour until the granita is flaky throughout.
For a purist’s take, enjoy your beautifully flaky granita unadorned. Or have fun with personalizations: A small amount of chopped fresh mint, grated ginger, or lemon zest adds aromatic intrigue. For a posh vibe, layer granita and unsweetened whipped cream in a martini glass. To feel like you’re on an Italian vacation, serve a scoop scattered with fresh berries and splashed with prosecco or drizzled with your favorite liqueur.
Granita Is Customizable
Use your favorite berry (or a combination) and jazz it up with fresh mint, lemon, or ginger, if you like. From left to right: raspberry, blackberry, strawberry, and blueberry. (See the recipe for creative garnish ideas.)