Photo via Flickr member purits
Is there any delight as singular as dreamy, creamy ice cream? Whether it’s served in a cone or a cup, ice cream is a treat that immediately evokes images of summer, but is delicious year round. And no matter what flavor is your favorite, there’s one thing most people will agree on: the creamier, the better.
What makes “creamy” ice cream?
So what’s the secret to the “creamy” factor in ice cream? First and foremost, fat–but there’s more to the story than that. Here’s an explanation of the different factors that affect the “creaminess” of ice cream.
A key factor in ice cream’s creaminess is the dairy: cream, but often milk or half and half are included as well. The fat content is a contributor to the texture of your ice cream: the higher, the creamier your end result. The range of milk fat used in ice cream can actually have a pretty dramatic range, from 10 percent to 16 percent or so. Many premium ice creams will hover around 15 percent.
While not present in every ice cream recipe, egg yolks appear often in ice cream, and add increased creaminess. How do they do it? Not only do they add more fat to the mix, but they are a natural emulsifier, which means that they can bind fat and water together to form a creamy union.
Photo via CakeSpy
Believe it or not, a lot of what gives a creamy texture to ice cream is…well, air. Teeny tiny air bubbles, and lots of them, actually make the ice cream far smoother once it hits your mouth. Think: soft serve ice cream. An ice cream company will have a large, industrial machine which can incorporate significant amounts of air in a fairly short time, which is how they will often get a smooth, even texture in their ice cream.
Churning and chilling
One of the major impediments to creaminess is the formation of ice crystals in your ice cream. Sure, a few ice crystals at the top of an old carton is common, but if the ice cream has ice crystals throughout, it’s just distracting. Churning is necessary to discourage the formation of ice crystals. Constant churning and chilling will make the water in ice cream form teeny tiny ice crystals rather than more substantial ones. The movement of the crystals helps them from attaching and becoming larger.
The fact that ice cream’s creaminess relies not only on ingredients, but on method, opens the door to creating creamy “ice cream” with even non-dairy alternatives. Some common ones include coconut, soy, and rice. Typically, while the recipes will not include dairy, they will follow the same general process of making ice cream, including churning and freezing to prevent ice crystals from forming. In my opinion, coconut in particular works well for non-dairy ice cream because its fat content gives it an extra-creamy texture. However, the one drawback about coconut ice cream is that even if it’s flavored, it retains a strong coconut flavor. This could be a good or bad thing depending on your thoughts about coconut. More mild flavors like soy ice cream or “rice” cream can be flavored in a greater variety of ways.
Fruit can be used to make “ice cream” as well. Bananas in particular yield an amazingly creamy, rich-tasting and naturally sweet result when frozen and then blended until a completely smooth, pureed state is reached.
Making creamy ice cream at home
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Tools: Do you need an ice cream maker?
Short answer? No, you do not need an ice cream maker to make ice cream. But to make really creamy ice cream, your results will be far more reliable and it will require far less work if you do have an ice cream maker.
An ice cream maker is an appliance which can help you make small batches of ice cream (or gelato) at home. There are a few different types of machines, from fancy self-cooling electric machines to electric machines with a detachable freezer bowl, to manual hand-crank machines. Machines will have different individual instructions, but typically you will pour your ingredients into the machine’s chamber, and basically, it will worry about the churning and cooling for you.
In spite of the ease which an ice cream maker brings to the process, they can take up a lot of space and can be quite expensive, with fancier models running over $200.
My suggestion is that you try out making ice cream without a machine at first, so that you can get a feel for the method and for how to compose flavors. While it’s not difficult to do, it does require some vigilance: if you don’t mix vigorously or regularly enough, your ice cream may form crystals and have a slightly grainy texture.
If you realize that ice cream making is a passion, you can pick up a machine to take your interest to the next level.
Ice cream without an ice cream machine
Makes 6 servings
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
- 3/4 cup half and half
- 1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Place the first five ingredients in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly to discourage scorching.
Continue to cook until the temperature has reached 160 degrees F. Remove from heat, stir in the vanilla, and transfer to an ice bath.
While the cream mixture chills, place a stainless steel bowl (fairly shallow) or baking pan in the freezer to chill.
Note: If you had an ice cream maker, you’d put the mixture in now and follow the manufacturer’s directions.
Once the mixture has cooled, gently pour it into the cold pan. Take care that no drops of water from the bottom of the pan get in the mixture.
Place the pan in the freezer for 20 minutes. Remove the pan. Chances are, it has begun to “set” along the sides a little bit. Use a spatula to loosen the edges, and a whisk to break up the partially set ice cream. Stir for about a minute, as vigorously as possible without making the mixture fly. You don’t have to worry about over-stirring.
Return the mixture to the freezer. Repeat the removing and stirring procedure every 20 minutes for 6 cycles. The mixture will be slightly thicker every time. If at any point it is too thick, place the mixture in the refrigerator to soften slightly before stirring.
If you’d like to stir in any flavorings, add them in on the last stirring cycle. Return to the freezer to completely chill and set. Be sure to cover it or transfer to a container for storing in the freezer.
Examples of some delicious ice cream variations
Now that you know how to make ice cream, here are some inspiring ideas for mix-ins and flavors to try.
Bubblegum ice cream
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Bubblegum ice cream is a childhood classic and easy to make: just stir in candy coated bubblegum.
Carrot cake ice cream
Photo via Flickr member joyosity
Why not stir in some carrot cake mixings to create a one of a kind gourmet treat? This version features rum-soaked raisins and candied carrots, and is bound to make for a memorable ice cream experience.
Pumpkin ice cream
Photo via CakeSpy
Most popular in the fall, this treat is delicious all year long: stir in pumpkin, a bit of sugar, and some pumpkin pie spice and you’ve got a creamy treat with earthy undertones.
Corn ice cream
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Sweet corn puree can add an intriguing flavor to your ice cream; perfect for hot summer days.
Raspberry ice cream
Photo via Flickr member ralphandjenny
Raspberries not only contribute a lovely color to your ice cream, but it makes for extra fancy ice cream sandwiches.
Have you ever made ice cream?