Get the Inside Scoop on the World's Favorite Sweet Treat
“You scream, I scream, we all scream for ice cream!” That's the refrain from the famous Howard Johnson song that came out in 1927. That may seem like a long time ago, but ice cream has been popular much longer than that. The world has been screaming for it for centuries… but few know the real answer to the question “how is ice cream made?”
Part of the widespread love for ice cream stems from just how much variety you can get out of the dessert.
In its original form, ice cream's major ingredients are milk, cream, and sugar. After that, people start adding all kinds of other stuff to the silky treat.
And just like everybody has their own favorite color, everybody also has a favorite ice cream flavor (or four!)
Maybe yours is one of the big three: vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry.
Maybe you prefer mint chocolate chip?
Cookies 'n cream?
Or maybe you like to live dangerously and order the most unusual thing on the menu. Maybe you go for Lavender? Turmeric? How about bacon ice cream?
Maybe you could really go for a nice churro ice cream sandwich.
We have too many options already! And we haven't even got into the topic of toppings…
The possibilities may not technically be endless, but there are literally millions of ways you can eat ice cream. You're not likely to run out of choices any time soon.
But how is ice cream made? Where did it come from? (And how hard is it to make our own at home?)
Everybody Wants Some
Right now, as you read this very article, roughly 90% of American households have a carton of ice cream sitting in their freezers. And not just that, but that carton probably won't stay up there for very long…
The typical American eats about 48 pints per year. That's a lot of cones!
Of course, it's nothing compared to New Zealand, which leads the world in ice cream consumption. In New Zealand, the average person goes through 60 pints every year.
So, okay, obviously ice cream is a popular dessert choice. It's creamy, it's refreshing, and you can change around the flavors and servings to fit your mood or the weather (it's no accident that National Ice Cream Month is July!).
You can sprinkle peanuts or marshmallows on top. Put chocolate syrup on vanilla (the most popular topping / flavor combo).
The delicious treat is a staple at sports events, birthday parties, holidays, and it's just fantastic on a hot summer day. Because ice cream needs to stay frozen, we think of it as a modern dessert. But there are stories about versions of ice cream that go back hundreds and possibly thousands of years…
Ice, Ice, Baby
So back in the day (WAY back in the day), ice cream was basically just ice. In the years BC, there were stories of people eating sweetened snow. They'd take it and mix it up with various sweet toppings.
Honey was one of the main choices back then, and this mixture is said to have been a favorite treat of Alexander the Great (he probably got thirsty during that whole “trying to conquer the world” thing). The Roman Emperor Nero is also said to have been a fan of the chilled concoction, routinely sending his servants into the mountains to fetch him snow.
But although these iced desserts were known to the ancients, the development of ice cream was hindered by a lack of refrigeration equipment. (There's only so much you can do if you can't keep your frozen dessert… well, frozen.)
The Chinese Emperors of the Tang Dynasty used to eat a dessert of frozen milk and ice. Marco Polo encountered their strange delicacy during his travels, and brought stories back to Europe.
In the Middle East, the practice of consuming frozen ices with ingredients like lavender, rosewater, and sugar became popular. Those floral flavors are still common in many countries today.
During the European Renaissance, techniques were developed for freezing food. People still didn't have industrial freezers, but they got good enough that the aristocrats of the 17th century were able to enjoy it. The first recipe from 1665 proves that they were chowing down on something we'd recognize as ice cream… or as they called it “icy cream.”
How is Ice Cream Made Now?
It was during the 1800s that ice cream really took off and became accessible to everyone, not just the rich. Although at that point people knew how to make ice cream, they still were unable to store and transport it cheaply.
This meant that only the very rich could afford to eat it.
During the industrial revolution, this all started to change. Many people still didn't have personal refrigerators or freezers in their homes, but restaurants and ice cream parlors could afford to keep them as a source of business.
In addition, the industrial revolution in the U.S. brought changes to the way food was moved from one place to the other. The rise of trains meant that there were faster transportation options to move ingredients farther and more quickly.
In 1851, a Baltimore milk merchant named Jacob Fussell became the first to manufacture ice cream on a large scale. In 1874, the first soda shops began opening up, driven by the popularity of the “ice cream soda.” Ice cream had arrived in the mainstream market, and it would only become more popular as time went on.
During World War II, American soldiers were occasionally sent shipments of ice cream by the military, as is was seen as a good way of keeping up morale. The army divisions moved from place to place, and the GIs wound up introducing ice cream to corners of the world that hadn't seen it before.
Ice cream has gone on to become enormously popular all across the world, manufactured in huge factories and small shops alike.
It's even spawned a whole host of cousins and imitators…
All the Cool Kids are Doing It
So ok, if that's ice cream… what about ice cream's BFFs? Sherbet? Soft serve? Sorbet?
Sadly, there are more kinds of frozen desserts than we will probably ever get to in one lifetime.
But that won't stop us from trying! Here are a few of our favorites.
Soft serve hails from the 1930s in the US of A. It's essentially ice cream that hasn't been subjected to the hardening process (more on that in a bit). Soft serve is a perfect partner for a waffle cone on a hot day.
The first thing about sorbet: it's not technically ice cream. It's got ice… but no cream. In fact, sorbet doesn't have dairy in it at all.
Fruit, water flavoring, and sugar are all mixed together to create this icy treat. People who are lactose intolerant or who have other dietary restriction regarding dairy often gravitate toward this option, as they may need to avoid ice cream or gelato.
These tiny pellets of ice cream, called the “ice cream of the future,” were created in 1988 by Curt Jones. Jones froze ice cream using liquid nitrogen, but the challenge with this particular variety is in storage: they need to be kept at -40 degrees Fahrenheit. That's really cold.
Also not technically ice cream... but still tasty. Frozen yogurt (or “Froyo”) hit the market in the 1980s and was an instant hit as a healthier alternative to ice cream. It's still loaded with sugar in most cases, but it's lower in fat and has its own devoted fan base.
Sherbet is a low-fat, high-sugar variant of the classic treat. When sherbet is made, the main difference is that it uses milk that's just 1% or 2% instead of whole milk. As a result, it acquires a more icy texture (more water in the mixture means more ice in the final product).
Now, ice cream is a global phenomenon. Up next, we'll take a quick look at the many varieties of ice cream that have popped up all over the world.
Around the World in 80 Flavors
Ice cream has been adopted by many cultures, each with their unique culinary traditions. Combining the local cooking style with the wide appeal of ice cream has resulted in some ingenious concoctions.
Gelato is what the Italians came up with when they encountered ice cream for the first time. It's the same basic idea; they just use a little less cream and sugar, and a little more milk. The process also winds up stirring in less air, which means that the end product has a higher density.
Gelato is celebrated for its intense flavors. Because the proportions call for less cream and sugar, the sweetness and fat content are toned down. This means the flavor of the other ingredients is what gets highlighted. So fantastic ingredients (whether we're talking about fruit, chocolate, or pistachio) are vital in making quality gelato.
Rolled Ice Cream (Thailand)
Cooked on a very hot surface, rolled ice cream is essentially “stir-fried” so it can then hold its shape when it gets rolled up.
Snow Cream (Taiwan)
In Taiwan, the popular method of serving ice cream comes from taking large blocks of ice cream and then shaving off very thin strips. The result is a dessert that's light, but has a powerful flavor.
India's take on ice cream is similar to frozen custard. Dense and melts slowly. Unlike many types of ice cream, kulfi is often less sweet, and will often have floral flavors.
Granita has more in common with sorbet than with ice cream (or its Italian neighbor gelato). Granita is non-dairy and semi-frozen. But while sorbet is typically fruit-flavored, granita often uses traditional Italian and Sicilian components: coffee and almond are the go-to flavors here.
Booza (Syria, Israel, Jordan)
It's possible you've recently seen ads for “stretchy ice cream” that's served in a bowl and very flavorful, almost like cookie dough. Booza has been around for five hundred years, but the recipe is gaining popularity in the modern US for its novelty and its taste.
Dondurma is unusual in that it uses a binding agent called salep flour. The salep, in conjunction with mastic, results in ice cream that is thick and elastic, much like booza. Ice cream vendors in Turkey have turned Dondurma's peculiar texture into an entire act: they're famous for their sleight-of-hand pranks.
Mochi is ice cream rolled into balls and wrapped in a rice dough. The result is easy to eat and very addictive. Because of its portability, this is one foreign variety that has caught on in the USA as well, although some of the flavors (red bean, green tea) are still very Japanese.
How is Ice Cream Made? The Basic Steps
Now, whether ice cream is made in industrial-level factories or small-batch and artisanal shops, most traditional ice cream varieties follow the same basic formula:
• Blend your milk, cream, and sugar; also any eggs (optional) or additives (also optional).
• Get your mixture to an ideal consistency.
• Introduce air to the mixture and chill it at the same time.
• Add flavorings when/as needed.
• Freeze and store.
Ok, so once we actually get to the factory with all these modern techniques, how is ice cream made?
Let's follow the process from start to finish…
How Is Ice Cream Made? Step One: Gather the Ingredients
Let's say we own an ice cream factory. We're going to make the most common style of ice cream on the market: the ice cream that gets packed up into cartons and shipped to nearly every grocery store (and home) in the country.
The first thing we'd do is identify what ingredients we need. Most ice cream will use whole milk, cream, and sugar.
Low-fat ice creams might use skim milk or less cream in order to lower the fat content. This will often create a more watery and icy product as higher water content creates more ice crystals.
After our dairy and sugar products, the ingredients we pick will really depend on the TYPE of ice cream that we're making.
If we're making regular old vanilla ice cream, we'll eventually need vanilla, too. But if we're whipping up a batch of French vanilla, we'll be adding egg yolks (the egg is what makes it French).
Whatever ingredients we choose, the basic “secret” to making ice cream is that it is stirred and chilled at the same time.
This is a pretty unusual culinary technique when you think about it. And it's revealed in the ice cream mixing process…
How Is Ice Cream Made? Step Two: Blending
The milk, cream, and sugar are all added together. Sometimes in an industrial setting, the mixture will not yet be sanitized, as it's more sanitary to do that once it's all been blended together.
At this point, additives will often be included in the mixture. The most common additives are guar gum, locust bean gum, or carrageenan. These substances help control the formation of crystals.
In a large factory, huge vats containing cream, milk, and sugar will stir the mixture while automated temperature gauges keep close tabs on the chilling process. This basic blend is usually kept just above freezing, at about 36 degrees Fahrenheit.
How Is Ice Cream Made? Step Three: Pasteurization
Once the cream, milk, and sugar are mixed together, they are funneled into a pasteurization machine. This machine contains metal plates or rods. They heat the mixture to about 180 degrees Fahrenheit, long enough to sanitize the mixture, kill any bacteria, and activate the additive that will give the ice cream its proper texture…
How Is Ice Cream Made? Step Four: Homogenization
The next step that's part of the industrial process is called homogenization.
Now that the hot mixture is germ-free, the next goal is to get it to have the right consistency.
A high-pressure machine called a homogenizer takes the mixture and pushes it through a narrow tube, which breaks up any large fats that may have existed in the cream or milk. Now the whole blend has a consistent, uniform texture.
Who knew making ice cream took this much work?
How Is Ice Cream Made? Step Five: Cooling
The homogenized mixture goes back into the pasteurizer machine… but this time, the mixture is getting chilled.
It gets cooled back down to its original temperature of 36 degrees Fahrenheit, which is just high enough that it won't freeze. This process takes several hours.
How Is Ice Cream Made? Step Six: Flavor
Now the flavoring is added to the ice cream. Usually, at the industrial level, this is done by adding a highly concentrated chemical mixture. So if you are making vanilla ice cream, you're often going to use a liquid concentrate.
Next up: the real magic of making ice cream… the freezing process.
How Is Ice Cream Made? Step Seven: Freezing
Have you ever wondered why ice cream doesn't freeze very well the second time around?
Hypothetically, let's say you're eating ice cream out of a carton (not that we've ever done this…) And let's also say that maybe you get distracted, set the carton down for an hour, and it melts.
And if you put that carton back in the freezer? Something weird happens. It doesn't go back to being like it was. It freezes, but it freezes differently.
At first, it was fluffy and creamy. Then it was a melty puddle. But when you freeze it back, that doesn't make it fluffy again. It becomes a block of ice.
That's because this next step adds lots and lots of air to the process. It whips up the ice cream so that it will freeze solid, while containing enough air bubbles to keep it from turning into actual ice.
If everything is done properly, the ice cream will retain its unique shape as long as it stays frozen. But it has to stay that way––if its temperature rises above freezing, it will lose the physical structure that gives it its creamy texture.
If we've already mixed and homogenized it properly, we should be able to avoid the formation of sugar crystals or ice crystals.
At the industrial level, the ice cream reaches 36 degrees Fahrenheit and then is chilled further. It goes from “cool” to “frozen” in a special freezer that shoots it full of air at the same time.
If there are any last ingredients to add (usually things like strawberry pieces, chocolate chips… anything solid) that happens right after this step.
Then it's all put into the cartons that we see when we go to the grocery store…
How Is Ice Cream Made? Step Eight: Packaging
At this point, the ice cream is frozen, but it's still pretty soft. It's essentially like soft-serve ice cream. That makes it easy to pour into the cartons.
The cartons get moved along a conveyer belt and sealed up so that they will stay safe.
How Is Ice Cream Made? Step Nine: Hardening
The ice cream is now frozen even further… the cartons are subjected to blasts of very cold air that turns the ice cream inside to -10 degrees Fahrenheit. They need to stay well below freezing so that they don't risk melting even a little bit.
Once the ice cream is really, really cold, it's time to send it on its way…
How Is Ice Cream Made? Step Ten: Shipping
The cartons are loaded onto refrigerated trucks, and make the trek to the grocery store. They need to be kept cold every step of the way, until they arrive safe and sound at the store.
And eventually, reach their final destination…
…your dining room table.
Ahh… that's better.
Home-Made Goodness: Ice Cream Step-By-Step
Let's see if we can give the factory folks a run for their money. Time to make our own!
Just like with the factory, we want to blend our ingredients, get a good consistency, add air and chill simultaneously, and store it properly. At home, we generally have more limited tools, but we can still do a bunch in a regular kitchen.
Most home-made ice cream will fall into one of two approaches. You can make it using a plastic bag and ice to mix it up. Or you can get an electric ice cream maker that will take care of that for you… or if you can get the manual type with a churn, which is a method much like the way the first ice cream was made in the 1600s.
Bag Method (Very Easy for Beginners)
This method is super easy and won't need you to go out and buy any fancy equipment. If you have your ingredients, some strong plastic bags (get the kind with a zipper), and some ice, you are good to go.
2 plastic ziplock bags
2 Cups Half-and-Half
1/4 Cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
Lots of crushed Ice
1 Cup Rock Salt
(If you don't have Half-and-Half, use 1/2 cup of cream and 1 1/2 cup of whole milk)
Step One - Blending
Blend the half-and-half, vanilla, and sugar in one bag and seal it up tightly.
Step Two - Make Your Machine
Take the other bag and add ice and rock salt (you can use other salt if you don't have rock salt. It helps bring the temperature down).
Step Three - Shake It!
Put the bag with the cream inside the bag with the ice. Make sure the cream bag stays sealed! Wrap it up tightly and shake until the cream starts to solidify.
The great thing is you can add whatever ingredients or flavors you like. You can shake it longer if you want a more solid ice cream, or less if you want something softer.
(Here's an example of the method, if you want the visual step-by-step…)
If you use an ice cream maker, the underlying idea is the same. You just have the machine do the actual work of stirring the air into the mixture.
So now you've got your favorite flavor all whipped up… how do you serve it?
Ice Cream Cup
Sure, you could use the easy method and just put it in a cup. But if you do that, we recommend you drown it in extra goodies. Make your own sundae and do it right. Chocolate syrup, toppings, and a cherry on top.
Side note: the sundae was invented because certain cities had decreed that ice cream sodas were sinful, and too indulgent to be eaten on Sundays. So inventive ice cream lovers came up with… something equally sinful?
We don't understand it either; we just know it's good.
According to legend, ice cream cones were invented at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. As the story goes, the enormous crowds that year caused an ice cream vendor to run out of cups…
When the vendor asked a nearby waffle-maker if he could help out, the waffle-maker whipped up a few hard waffle shells that could hold ice cream… accidentally creating the ice cream cone in the process.
Of course, that may just be a legend. But there's no denying that the cone has become a constant companion to ice cream and the go-to method for serving it on a hot summer day.
The Latest Scoop
From the ballpark to the grocery store to the retro parlor, ice cream is here to stay. We may never run out of all the flavors and varieties that exist, but isn't that just as well?
And maybe that's the key to ice cream's popularity. Its versatility is a constant reminder of that oft-quoted saying: “variety is the spice of life.”
It means there's always another chance to say “oh, hey… I haven't tried THAT before…”
And you know what? We're okay with that.
Stay cool, friends...