Here’s where we get to the fun part. Since I wanted to be really thorough when it comes to homemade ice cream, I started with an overview of ice cream makers. It turned out to be so long I decided to let it be its own post. Now it’s time to talk about homemade ice cream itself.
Let me just say right up front that I don’t like recipes. I think the creative part of me just balks at following a list of ingredients and directions. So I almost always change something. But, in this case, my experiments haven’t always worked out, and I want to share both those lessons as well as some successes.
What I’ve learned about making ice cream at home
I’ve learned that making this frozen dessert is a bit like baking in that you have to understand what makes a particular recipe work. Baking depends on using the right proportion of leaveners (yeast, etc.) to other ingredients like flour and sugar. You also have to understand how using cold butter vs. softened butter affects the outcome. Once you understand all of that, you’re ready to experiment without having to worry about flat cakes or biscuits.
Making ice cream: lessons from my successes and failures
The same is true for ice cream. You have to first understand how each ingredient affects the outcome. For that, let’s turn to Fine Cooking. While the quality of the site isn’t what it used to be, it’s still my go-to source for the science of cooking. And here’s their description of the science of ice cream. I strongly encourage you to read it!
While I have yet to make a batch that didn’t taste good, I’ve struggled with texture. Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to figure out. These are the biggest mistakes I’ve made:
- Using whole pieces of fruit: Even if you cut fruit into small pieces, it freezes separately from the ice cream, and you end up with little chunks of ice-covered fruit throughout. The solution is to either add the fruit right before serving (like stirring in a pint of blueberries) or to puree the fruit.
- Using too much fruit: I was in a tropical mood and pureed everything from fresh strawberries to frozen mango. What I didn’t do was look at the recipe to see how much puree to add. My ice cream ended up more like fruit-flavored ice.
- Not bringing the ice cream custard to something close to room temperature before putting it in your ice cream maker: Almost every recipe tells you to make an ice bath for cooling the custard mixture down quickly. I’ve always hated that task for some reason, so I usually stick the custard in the freezer instead. It works, but if you try to use it straight from the freezer, your ice cream maker is going to struggle. I’d recommend moving it to the refrigerator a few hours before you plan to churn it.
- Using too much or too little fat: Most recipes call for a mixture of milk and cream. We NEVER have milk here, because nobody drinks it and it goes bad quickly. But we always have half-and-half and heavy cream on hand for cooking, and they both last a long time (I’m sure it’s because of some preservatives that are infusing my body with alien DNA).
Things would probably be OK if I just substituted half-and-half for milk, but I tend to get carried away. The temptation to use sweetened condensed milk and mascarpone cheese almost always gets the best of me. And, while both are common ingredients, you have to get the overall fat content right. If you don’t, you end up with something that tastes delicious but coats your tongue in a layer of fat, which is not a pleasant sensation! (Trust me, I know this firsthand!)
Let’s look at some recipes
Now that I’ve aired all of my homemade ice cream sins, let’s take a look at some actual recipes. After that, I’ll share some substitution tips that have turned out well for me.
- Alton Brown’s vanilla ice cream: There’s usually not a whole lot of difference in these recipes, but I like this one because it doesn’t use my nemesis, the ice bath.
- Death by Chocolate from Delish. I was planning on making a batch of coffee ice cream today, but I may have to do this instead!
- Pumpkin ice cream with salted caramel sauce: You won’t find me joyfully Tweeting everyone I know when pumpkin spice makes its return to Starbucks. I’m not a fan. But I realize I’m in the minority, so I thought I’d include this recipe for those who count the days until pumpkin season arrives. And who doesn’t love salted caramel?
- Cream cheese ice cream: (Can you say that 5 times fast?) I may actually make this one today….so hard to decide! But if I do make it, I’ll substitute mascarpone cheese for at least some of the cream cheese. Good mix-in options would be chocolate chip cookie dough, sugar cookie dough, etc. (Yes, I realize there’s a theme!) Or you could use fresh fruit like blueberries or strawberries to make a yummy syrup for a topping.
Now for my personal tips and tricks for homemade ice cream
Like I said, I’ve had some successes and some disasters. But if you’re up for a little experimentation as well as a failure or two, here are some of my tips and tricks:
- Always use real vanilla beans. And leave them in longer than the recipe says. Making ice cream at home gives you multiple chances to infuse it with real vanilla flavor. You can even cut open a pod, scrape out as many seeds as you can, and dump both into the carton of whipping cream (or half-and-half or milk) as soon as you get home from the store. Most recipes will tell you to add vanilla to the cream mixture while you’re heating it, but far too many say to take it out as soon as the cream is hot. That’s such a waste! I leave the pods in the mixture until it’s ready to churn. And no vanilla bean has ever been complicit in one of my failures. The worst thing that could happen would be that you don’t get all of it out before serving and someone ends up with a piece of vanilla bean in their dish. Pretend it’s a prize (kind of like baby Jesus in a King cake) and come up with something to give them, even if it’s just another scoop!
- Try to balance out the fat: If you’re going to use sweetened condensed milk or mascarpone cheese, substitute them for the heavy cream, not the milk. Otherwise you’d have way too much fat. And I don’t mean from a health perspective The truth is that the mouth feel is just too far off. And it gives you the feeling that it would never melt, even if you sat it in the sun. — on hot asphalt during a Memphis summer, with an egg frying on the pavement right beside it.
- If you want to use a flavored beverage, check its fat content to determine whether you should use it to replace the milk or the cream. I often use a Starbucks coffee drink in place of the milk, and that’s been my most successful recipe by far. You could also use protein shakes, Ensure, etc., for added flavor.
- Alcohol can make a great substitute: I’ve only tried it with cream liqueurs, so I don’t know what would happen if you used something like vodka. But using Kahlua in coffee ice cream and a key lime cream rum in fruit ice cream definitely “kicked it up a notch.” Again, watch the fat content. I think that, most of the time, you’d want to substitute cream liqueurs for the milk.
- Don’t add mix-ins until after churning: With most machines, it’ll be soft-serve consistency at this point, so it will be easy to stir. And it will keep ingredients like chocolate chips from melting — which is pretty important if you want vanilla ice cream with chocolate chips instead of chocolate ice cream. I’ve even stirred in Biscoff cream after churning, which gave me vanilla ice cream with Biscoff swirls rather than Biscoff ice cream. My one exception is chocolate-covered espresso beans. I use them much the same way as I use vanilla. I run them through the food processor and then add them to the cream at the very beginning of the cooking process. This gives them time to infuse every bit of the custard base with their strong flavor. And, for fruit-flavored ice cream, there’s always the option of mixing jam — from basic to luxury, like the raspberry-peach-champagne stuff I get from Fresh Market. That gives you high-intensity flavor without having to worry about ice crystals.
- Churning is not the last step: With most ice cream machines, the results will be at the soft-serve consistency after churning. And if that’s the way you want it, it’s ready to eat! But if you want a harder consistency, freeze it for several hours. When I was researching ice cream makers, a lot of people said they were disappointed in their machine because it only gave them soft serve. Blinding glimpse of the obvious: It’s ice cream: Put it in the freezer.
My main objective here was to give you the confidence to make ice cream at home, whether you follow a recipe (like my recipe for homemade almond ice cream) or wander off on your own. Just watch the fat ratio! If you’re going to make substitutions, try to do it with ingredients that have similar fat content. If you’re going to use sweetened condensed milk or mascarpone, for example, leave out the heavy cream, not the milk. If you’re going to use a cream liqueur, leave out the milk, not the heavy cream.
Finally, I’m going to leave you with something that makes giving ice cream your own personal touch seem easy: Fine Cooking’s guide to making your own ice cream recipes. It guides you step-by-step through deciding what to use and how to use it.
Now go have some fun! And if you come up with a great recipe for homemade ice cream, please share it in the comments!