If there’s a food that brings more universal joy to the world than ice cream, I’ve yet to find it. Frankly, I’m not sure I’d want to.
Whether you eat it in a bowl or a cone, on a hot summer afternoon or by the midnight light of the refrigerator, ice cream is almost guaranteed to bring a smile to your face. But what about making it yourself? Does the idea of homemade, from-scratch ice cream fill you with radiant happiness?
If it doesn’t, it should.
Roll your shopping cart down the freezer aisle these days and you’re likely to find a flavor or six that suits your particular taste, mood and diet. But when you make your own, you get a perfect match.
Start with flavors and ingredients you are drawn to, suggests Jeni Britton Bauer, the two-time cookbook author and founder of cult chain Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. Then mine your personal experiences for inspiration.
“It’s so much fun to tell your stories through ice cream,” says Bauer, who has looked to childhood favorites, in-season produce and even music and color (Lemon Yellow Camaro, anyone?) for ideas.
You might love the idea of churning out your own custom flavors, but even Bauer knows the prospect can be daunting. I’m here to help. So let’s take a deep breath, chill out and get to it.
Let’s take a quick look at the basic components of ice cream and why they matter:
The major players
Fat. A great ice cream owes its smooth, creamy mouthfeel to fat, which helps keep ice crystals small. As Bauer explains, fat is also extraordinarily effective at carrying flavors, so when ice cream melts in your mouth, you are hit with the taste of your ingredients.
Typically, the bulk of that fat comes from heavy cream — it is ice cream, after all — but other contributors might be milk, half-and-half, buttermilk and even cheese, depending on the flavor. The less fat there is in dairy, the more water there is and therefore more risk of ice, so keep that in mind when the urge to tweak a recipe strikes.
Sugar. Here’s another ingredient that’s critical to managing the mix. Sugar attracts water, lowering the temperature at which ice forms and thus reducing the presence of ice crystals. Too much sugar and your ice cream will be soup; too little and it will be rock hard.
You can further work sugar in your favor by using a liquid sugar, such as honey, golden syrup or glucose, for especially smooth results. Bauer employs some corn syrup (it’s less sweet than sugar!), but don’t use it for more than a quarter of your total sugar, unless you want to be drinking your ice cream.
Water. As Bauer says, water is with you or against you when you make ice cream. It works in your favor when it bonds with the proteins, starches, sugars and fats in the mix, and against you when it breaks free, turning your ice cream icy or, worse, soggy.
Air. When ice cream is churned, the goal is to not only freeze it but to incorporate air for optimal texture. To create ice cream that is neither too dense nor too fluffy, you have to get just the right amount of air in.
As David Lebovitz notes in his veritable bible, “The Perfect Scoop,” ice cream churned at home will be denser and freeze harder than store-bought varieties made with more powerful machines. All that means is you’ll likely need to give your ice cream 5 to 10 minutes to soften on the counter before scooping. Not a bad price to pay for a superior result.
Keys to success
The recipes accompanying this article will walk you step-by-step through the process (I promise you’ll be surprised by how quickly a base comes together), but here are some tips to ensure it goes as smoothly as possible:
Chill. “Everything has to be cold at all times,” says Rose Levy Beranbaum, the baking-cookbook author whose new book, “Rose’s Ice Cream Bliss,” comes out next year. That applies throughout the entire process, because the faster you freeze, churn and store your ice cream, the smaller the ice crystals will be.
Freeze the canister for your countertop ice cream maker for the time recommended by the manufacturer, and ensure the base is thoroughly chilled, to around 40 degrees. Pre-freeze your storage containers, lids and solid mix-ins. And once the ice cream is out of the machine, work quickly to pack the ice cream so it doesn’t melt.
Store it properly. Airtight is the way to go. Keep out unwanted odors and humidity by packing the ice cream into a container and covering the surface with parchment paper, then a secure lid. Place it in the coldest part of your freezer (not the door), ideally surrounded by plenty of other frozen foods that will insulate it from the whims of the defrost cycle.
“The worst thing you can do for the longevity of your ice cream is sneaking a tablespoon of it every night,” says Victoria Lai, the lawyer-turned-ice cream entrepreneur behind the Washington chain Ice Cream Jubilee. Doing so constantly exposes the ice cream to the temperature shock of many trips in and out of the freezer.
And, as if you needed encouraging, eat your homemade ice cream sooner than later. After a few weeks, its flavor and texture can begin to suffer.
Make it your own. Let’s move on to the really fun part: designing your own flavors. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Even if it’s not a total success, you can file it away as a learning experience that will still probably taste very good.
“Just open up your freezer to your friends and they will come running over,” Lai says.
Flavoring the base
There are a multitude of ways you can add flavor directly to the base.
Extracts. A little goes a long way. Add up to a tablespoon of extract per quart of ice cream just before freezing so the flavors aren’t cooked off on the stove top.
Alcohol. It’s easy to overdo. Too much will make your ice cream smell and taste like a bar, and it can hinder freezing, leaving the ice cream too soft. Don’t go over ¼ cup, especially with higher-proof liquors such as bourbon, and if you’re really unsure how much you’ll like, add in ½-teaspoon increments, tasting as you go. For my Kahlua-flavored ice cream, I suggest a range of 2 to 4 tablespoons, the higher end of which pleased my cocktail-loving colleagues.
Fruit. Adding it to an ice cream base can be tricky. Chunks will freeze solid, and purees can be too diluted by the dairy. Cooking can help concentrate flavors and drive off some of the water that could make things icy. Try cooking with a bit of sugar.
After numerous rounds of testing for my peach ice cream recipe, I got the best result by reducing the fruit in a saucepan until it was pretty pulpy and pureeing it with freeze-dried peaches for extra oomph. A cup of strained puree was about as much as I could add to the base without it being too much for the machine.
Lebovitz says his ideal amount of mix-ins is 1½ to 2 cups per quart of churned ice cream. Really, the possibilities are endless, from cookies and cake to candy and nuts. Ice cream is never fully frozen, so take into account that many ingredients will dissolve or soften in it.
Sometimes the pieces are very small or need to be frozen, as when pouring in melted chocolate to freeze into little freckles in the last few minutes of churning. But most of the time, mix-ins should be layered in as you pack the ice cream to keep them distinct (when it comes to sauces) and from jamming up the machine (when it comes to solid additions). Whatever you add, try to save some for the very top layer as a preview of what’s inside.
A few types of mix-ins to consider:
Saucy. Try ripples of chocolate sauce, swirls of fruit sauce and pockets of dulce de leche or caramel.
Crunchy. Go as mainstream or eclectic as you like. My new favorite is crumbled amaretti cookies, which get ever so slightly chewy but retain plenty of texture when embedded in my peach ice cream.
A close second: graham crackers toasted in butter, which you’ll find in my S’Mores Ice Cream.