When I was younger, making ice cream at home involved kids taking turns cranking the handle on the ice cream maker which had to be prepped with ice and salt. All the work invariably resulted in a far too small portion for each of the children who participated in the process….but oh, it tasted good.
The satisfaction in making homemade ice cream with friends while sitting around a backyard pool may be lost, but the pleasure in eating homemade ice cream is not. Below are some tips on improving the texture of your homemade ice cream.
The best ice cream has small ice crystals. These occur when the ice cream mixture moves from solid to liquid as quickly as possible. That’s why using liquid nitrogen makes such fine ice cream. Most of us don’t have that option. What we can do to speed the process is to make sure everything is as cold as possible when we start the process. I take all freezable bits of the ice cream maker including the paddles, lids and freezing drums and stick them in the freezer. I also take all the ingredients and chill them down as much as I can. This includes putting the liquid mix in the back of the fridge and letting it sit until it’s as cold as possible. I pull it out at the very last possible minute to put it into the ice cream maker. I also put all the solid items I might be adding to my ice cream – cookie dough, nuts, candies – in the freezer. I lay those solid items out in a single layer on a cookie sheet. I make sure they are the size I want them.
I prefer custard style (French style) ice creams. These recipes include eggs and involve heating all ingredients. They make a very rich and satisfying dessert. These are the ones that benefit most from the aging process. There are lots of theories about what happens during this process – fats redistributing, sugars becoming fully hydrated, etc. Whatever the reason, it is clear that giving the mix time to chill and age is an important step in making the best tasting ice cream. You can chill and age for as little as four hours, but I recommend doing it overnight. The flavors are simply better then.
Once I’m done making it, I will bring the temp down as quickly as I can by putting the pot I was cooking in in a bowl filled with ice water. I will stir the mix. Once the mix is cooled, I will put it into a container to store in the fridge. By bringing the temperature down quickly, I avoid letting ingredients risk developing bacteria by sitting at an unsafe temperature too long. I also make it easier for my fridge to bring down the temp of the mix. Putting a quart of hot liquid into a refrigerator heats up the whole space and warms up surrounding foods.
The other kind of ice cream mix is called American or Philadelphia or New York style ice cream. Unlike custards, American-style ice cream contains no egg yolks and does not require cooking. These recipes are based purely on cream and sugar. They can be quite delicious and delicate in flavor. Despite using very few ingredients. Because the sugar does not melt as well in cold liquid, I recommend using a fine sugar or even simple syrup in these recipes to help prevent graininess. While this mix does not need the aging process, it too benefits from starting out as cold as possible when it hits the churn.
No matter whether you prefer custard or Philadelphia ice cream style, if the ice cream is not churned fast enough, larger ice crystals can develop. Large ice crystals are a bad thing. They make the ice cream feel less pleasant in the mouth and they do not deliver flavor as well. Faster churning will also get more air into the mix which can help prevent the mix from freezing too hard later when stored. To guarantee faster churning, keep all the pieces of the ice cream maker as cold as possible for as long as possible. To help with this, I will handle the cold items while wearing gloves or oven mitts. This prevents transfering my body heat to the pieces I worked so hard to chill. Once everything is together and the machine is churning, I then pour in the very cold, chilled and aged ice cream mixture.
If you are trying to make a more diet-friendly version of ice cream and you choose to use milk with a lower fat content, remember that you will change the texture and the amount of sugar required to get the same flavor. Fat’s lower freezing temperature helps give ice cream a smoother texture. Fat is also a carrier of flavor. Less fat will mean that you will have to find other ways to bring out the flavor of your ingredients. This is a tough balancing act. If you’re looking to reduce your fat intake, consider sorbets or granitas made with juices and wines..
To help prevent the ice cream from freezing too solid, a little alcohol can be added to the mixture because alcohol will not freeze at the temperature of other ingredients. In general, I recommend using a tablespoon or two of vodka per quart. Be sure to use a vodka that has a neutral taste. Many of the cheaper vodkas have not been properly processed and taste like one imagines jet fuel tastes. If I am making an ice cream with a flavor that I can match out of my liquor cabinet, I will use a coordinating liqueor towards that end. Amaretto for almond or vanilla, Kahlua for coffee or chocolate, Triple Sec for orange or lemon, Chambord for berry flavors, etc. Aside from keeping the ice cream from freezing too hard, this addition also helps to bump up the flavor as alcohol (like fat) is a good carrier of flavors. Remember that the flavoring ingredients in alcohol are volatile compounds. To get the most flavor out of them, add them along with extracts after the mix has cooled.
The ice cream will come out of the churn in a soft-serve state. It is perfectly acceptable to eat at this point. I prefer mine a little more frozen. In any case, when the mixture has thickened and is hard to stir, remove it from the ice cream maker. If you are going to freeze it further, transfer it to a freezer container. It is at this point that you can add in the solid frozen bits.
There are two schools of thought when using fresh fruit in ice cream. One is to freeze perfectly ripe pieces of fruit in bite sized bits and stir in like other solid additions. This is very pretty. The other school of thought is that you should take your ripe fruit and sprinkle it lightly with sugar, then crush with a potato masher or the back of a slotted spoon. This will help to release the most flavor from the fruit. I like to use a mix of both whole fruit bits and fruit mash. This gives me the beauty of the whole fruit and the intensity of the flavor of the mashed. All of this gets folded in at the soft serve stage.
Once you’ve got everything in a freezer container, put a piece of plastic wrap or waxed paper right down on the surface of the ice cream to prevent it absorbing odors from other items in the freezer. Freeze til the consistency you like. If it’s too hard, let it sit out for 5 or 10 minutes before serving. If you have leftovers, remember to store with plastic wrap on top.
I recommend making small batches to prevent left overs as nothing tastes as good as fresh ice cream.