In our party circles, I’ve become known as “the ice cream guy.” Few foods are as universally liked as ice cream – especially great ice cream. It took me a long time to get to this point, but now I’m ready to share my secrets.
In reality, like most tasty food, the key is to start with high quality ingredients. You can grill a steak perfectly, but if the meat isn’t fresh and tasty to begin with, you’ll never end up with a juicy, mouth-watering, steak on the dinner table.
Ice cream is exactly the same. You’re going to taste each ingredient because there are only a few ingredients in ice cream. So you only want use ingredients that taste really good! But I’m sure you know that. More likely, you’re reading this because you are having some of the same problems I have run into when making a batch – icy ice cream that lacks that depth of flavor that makes people really smile.
Back to Basics – the master recipe
A good ice cream base is truly simple, consisting of just four ingredients:
- Milk or half-and-half
- The primary flavor
Aside: For custard, or egg-yolk ice cream, you’re mixing in some egg yolks to alter the texture of the ice cream. I used to do this, but found that it simply wasn’t worth the effort, so this post covers non-custard ice cream. You can find numerous other articles around the web on how to make a custard.
The next secret to making great ice cream is to get the proper balance of the cream, milk and sugar, so let’s start there.
My master recipe is:
- 1 cup cream
- 2 to 3 cups whole milk
- 3/4 to 1 cup sugar (1/4 cup per cup of dairy)
- A pinch of salt
That’s it! If you start there, you are 90% of the way to making delicious, smooth and creamy ice cream. Let’s look at each ingredient, along with possible substitutions.
The Heavy Cream
Many great foods start with heavy cream. The milk fats provide a textural richness that people simply love. In most cases, if you reduce or remove those fats, your food becomes less and luscious. Sure, it can still taste good, but ice cream is a luxury, why skimp here and end up with an icy block that lacks the mouth-feel that people want?
One mistake that I’ve made is to add too much cream. When you do this, you can end up with chunks of butter, created during the churning, and an overly greasy mouth feel. So you want to stick with about 1/4 as much cream as milk. I’ve varied this from about 1/2 cup to a full cup with 3-4 cups milk and it still comes out delicious.
You can use different grades of milk. I’ve made ice cream substituting anything from half-and-half down to 2% milk, with great results. The more fat in the milk, the less cream you need. So, for example, I’ve made batches of ice cream with all half-and-half rather than a cream-milk combination. But generally, heavy cream plus whole milk yields the perfect balance of flavor and texture.
Aside: for lactose free ice cream, you can use Lactaid or an equivalent product in place of milk. I’m lactose intolerant and had largely given up ice cream before I started making my own. Nobody has ever commented on the flavor of my lactose-free ice creams, so this can be our little secret! You can also grind up a couple of lactase pills or use lactase drops, mixed in with the cream-milk mixture, allowing it to sit for a few hours before churning. Doing this has allowed me to eat ice cream with no unpleasant side effects.
Sugar is a remarkably important ingredient in ice cream. I’ve played with all sorts of substitutes and nothing has been as good as plain white sugar. Yes, you can use some brown sugar or honey if you want those flavors in your ice cream, but stick to white sugar in the proportion of about 1/4 cup sugar per cup of total dairy in order to achieve a scoopable, non-icy ice cream.
You may be tempted to reduce the sugar, but you’ll find the results less than satisfying. The sugar helps the consistency of the ice cream because it reduces the freezing point of the ingredients. If your ice cream turns into an unscoopable block when you freeze it, it’s quite likely that you’ve used too little sugar.
Many recipes call for the use of some corn syrup to help reduce the formation of ice crystals. While this is true, I find the flavor of corn syrup to be off-putting. You can experiment with it but I prefer to avoid it.
Aside: artificial sweeteners. In my quest to make the perfect batch of ice cream, I have tried to make a reduced calorie version. As noted above, too little sugar results in a very hard, and often icy, ice cream. The only substitute that I’ve had success with is Truvia Baking Blend. This is a mix of sugar and Truvia sweetener. You can replace 1/2 cup of the sugar in the recipe with 1/4 cup of Truvia Baking Blend without too many adverse effects. You’ll reduce the calorie count a little, and the consistency won’t be quite as good, but it more-or-less works.
Salt is a flavor enhancer. It also helps to reduce the freezing point of the mixture, which is good for consistency and reducing ice formation. You can leave it out, but it’s such a small amount that it’s unlikely to have any adverse dietary ramifications. A “generous pinch” is well under 1/2 gram (500mg) of salt and you’re making roughly 1kg of ice cream. So a standard 1/2 cup serving will have less than 50mg of salt.
I use fresh vanilla bean, purchased from Nuts.com, in almost all my ice creams. This is one of those ingredients that, due to its expense, many people leave out. But you’ll regret it if you do. Real, high quality vanilla is absolutely delicious. It’s like extra virgin olive oil. You pay for the good stuff and regret it if you don’t.
By expensive, I mean several dollars per bean. Added to the cost of the other ingredients, that means each quart of ice cream cost about $6-$8. This is why your homemade ice cream will taste so much better than store-bought. Even ice cream parlors can’t afford to use this level of quality ingredients so their flavor suffers. But you’re trying to make great ice cream so use the good stuff.
If you don’t have a vanilla bean handy, substitute 1 tsp of vanilla extract. It won’t be as good, but if you’re not making a “pure” vanilla ice cream, you can get away with the extract. Just remember to add the extract at the end, after you’ve steeped the ice cream, or the alcohol in the extract will boil off.
Here’s a handy video on how to use a vanilla bean
If you’ve ever read the ingredients on most commercial ice creams, you’ve undoubtedly seen Xanthan gum. It’s one of those ingredients that people often malign, thinking it’s some sort of nasty chemical compound. In reality, it’s a natural substance that helps to greatly improve the creaminess of ice creams. I’ve used it frequently in my ice creams, and it really works well to yield a wonderful, creamy texture.
If you stick to my master recipe, with 1 cup of cream and 3 cups milk, you won’t need to use Xanthan gum to achieve a good texture. But if you reduce the amount of cream, or eliminate it entirely, you’ll want to use Xanthan gum. Trust me, it works. Use about 1 tablespoon per quart of dairy. You can experiment with more or less. Too much and you’ll find the texture gets too “slimy.” Too little and it may get icy.
Another thickener that’s becoming popular in ice cream making is arrow root. It serves the same purpose as Xanthan gum, resulting in fewer ice crystals and a creamier texture.
Unlike Xanthan gum, arrow root activates upon heating, so you’ll have to cook your mixture until it thickens. Be careful – if you heat it too much, it loses its thickening ability, so you want to remove the mixture from heat as soon as it thickens.
If you do use a thickener, whisk it into about 1/4 cup of the cold dairy before heating or it may clump.
“Cooking” the ice cream
Most of the time, I heat my ice cream mixture in a saucepan until just about boiling. This melts sugar completely and activates any thickener. (see note above about arrow root – don’t overheat or it loses it’s ability to thicken).
If you’re using a vanilla bean, leave the split bean in the hot mixture for about an hour after you’ve brought it to a near-boil then turned off the heat. Stir periodically. This helps extract the most flavor from the pod.
If you’re not using a vanilla bean, or any other ingredient (like arrow root) that need to be heated, you can actually just put all the ingredients into a blender and whip it up. Be careful to go easy with the blending or you’ll turn the cream into butter. You also want to let it sit for a while, pulsing periodically until all the sugar dissolves, or you’ll end up with icy ice cream. I’ve used this technique many times for a quick batch of ice cream that doesn’t require chilling before churning.
Chilling the ice cream prior to churning
You’ll be tempted to skip this step, but make sure you do it. After heating or mixing the ice cream, float the bowl in a bath of ice water. You want to chill it quickly. Lots of crushed ice and some water in a large pot works well. Then place your bowl in this, nestled carefully so it doesn’t spill or get water in it. You also want to place a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the mixture to help minimize skin formation. This isn’t absolutely necessary, since the skin gets broken up during the churning process, but can leave chunks of skin, like pudding, in your ice cream.
Aside: pour the hot mixture into a metal mixing bowl for best cooling. Do not place your hot saucepan directly into the ice bath or you can damage it due to the heat shock. A separate bowl works better too because it’s already at room temperature whereas the pot is very hot, so placing the mix in a bowl helps expedite the cooling process.
While cooling, stir it occasionally to help distribute the chill throughout the mix. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll forget it for an hour or two and discover it when your partner asks you why there’s a bowl of ice on the counter…
Keep chilling it in the ice bath until it feels cold. Then place it in the fridge until it’s truly cold. This step is especially important if you’re using an ice cream maker that uses a canister that you freeze as opposed to a self contained ice cream maker that has a chilling unit built-in. It’s best to leave it in the fridge overnight. If you don’t chill it enough, your ice cream maker will have a hard time cooling it enough to turn it into ice cream. It is also said that inadequate chilling leads to icy ice cream because there is more time for ice crystals to form.
Ice cream makers
If you get serious about making ice cream at home, you’ll want to buy one of these: a Lello 4080 Musso Lussino ice cream maker. Yes, it’s a splurge, but I never got really great ice cream from one of those freezer canister setups. I tried the highly rated Cuisinart Ice-21 unit and the Breville Bia500XL attachment for my mixer and, while they worked, neither yielded a truly smooth ice cream that I would be comfortable bringing to a dinner party. The Lello, on the other hand, yields quart after quart of amazing, creamy ice cream.
In addition, I’m lazy, and with the Lello, I don’t have to chill the ingredients as much before churning. I’ve even taken the hot mixture and churned it directly! Usually though, I do allow it to chill for about an hour in an ice bath before churning. The other advantage to the Lello is that you can churn batch after batch without waiting for the canister to chill in the freezer.
One word of warning about the Lello – while the unit is industrial strength, I’ve had its switches fail on me. For a unit this expensive, I’m surprised by this issue. Fortunately, I was able to purchase replacement switches at an electronics distributor and do the repairs myself. But a typical consumer would have to pack up this massive unit and ship it back for repairs. So be warned! While I love the Lello, I consider this lack of reliability to be unacceptable.
Other ingredient notes
Matcha green tea
I started making ice cream largely because Evy loves green tea ice cream, and most restaurant green tea ice cream just isn’t very good. As it turns out, the secret to AWESOME green tea ice cream is high quality matcha. Unfortunately, great matcha is obscenely expensive. But if you want the best, you have to pay for it. I order mine directly from Japan because I simply wasn’t satisfied with most of the domestically available Matcha in the U.S.
My source is O-cha.com and they’re excellent. I’ve tried varieties from the $12 to the $50 containers (each of which makes 2-3 batches of ice cream!) and have found all or the organic matcha they sell to yield delicious ice cream. So start with the $12, even this is better than any matcha that I’ve bought elsewhere.
Aside: matcha is extremely difficult to mix! I’ve whisked till my arm got sore and tried bamboo whisks made for the purpose. Nothing works well in my ice cream making. So I make all my matcha ice cream in the blender. Just put the milk, sugar and salt in the blender with the matcha and blend until it’s thoroughly mixed. Then add the cream and blend a little more. You can then churn right away for nearly instant gratification!
Chocolate ice cream
Perhaps my most popular flavors are my chocolate ice cream and chocolate sorbet. The secret? Really good chocolate, of course! I only use Pernigotti Italian cocoa power, purchased from ChefShop.com. Once you’ve tasted this, you’ll be spoiled for others. It’s really worth it if you make any chocolate desserts.
Here’s my secret dark chocolate sorbet recipe. The coffee and Frangelico really add a great complexity. You can reduce the sugar slightly but if you reduce it too much, the sorbet will freeze hard. This is great for those who want a dairy-free solution. You can leave out the bittersweet chocolate and up the cocoa to 1 cup if you don’t want to risk any dairy.
Sorbet (water) version
- 2 1/2 cups water
- 2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (Pernigotti if available)
- 3/4 cup light brown sugar
- 1/2 cup white sugar or 1/4 cup Truvia baking blend
- 4 oz. bittersweet chocolate
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- (optional) 1 tbsp Frangelico hazlenut liquor or Kahlua
- (optional) 1 tbsp very finely ground coffee beans or espresso powder
- (optional) 1/4 tsp kosher salt
- 3 cups whole milk or Lactaid 1% chocolate milk
- 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder. 1 cup if using regular, non-chocolate milk
- 4 oz. bittersweet chocolate
- 1/2 cup sugar or 1/4 cup Truvia baking blend
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- (optional) 1 tbsp Frangelico and/or 1 tbsp Kahlua
- (optional) 1 tbsp very finely ground coffee beans or espresso powder
- (optional) 1/4 tsp kosher salt
- (optional) 1/2 tbsp xanthan gum for creaminess (as per above notes)
You can adjust the dairy in this recipe. Often, I’ll make this with 1 cup cream, 2 to 3 cups milk for a very creamy ice cream. The alcohols and coffee are purely optional but I’ve found them to add an excellent flavor to the ice cream, elevating it above plain chocolate. And the xanthan gum is optional but adds an extra creaminess.
One of my all-time most popular ice creams is habanero-chocolate. The dairy cuts the heat, so it doesn’t linger, but the habanero gives a complex kick to the flavor that people love. Even those who can be squeamish with spicy things like this.
Take a habanero pepper and pierce it with a knife. Then steep it in the hot ice cream mix for about an hour. Enough heat will leak out of the pepper to flavor the entire batch. Do NOT cut the pepper or it will add too much heat. You’ll want to taste the mix as it steeps to determine just how hot you want it. Then remove the pepper, put it in s ziploc and freeze it. You can use it several times in this way.