The Trouble With Strawberry Ice Cream: How to Nail the Trickiest Dessert

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The best strawberry ice cream in loaded with fresh strawberry flavor, not ice crystals. [Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

Strawberry ice cream is my white whale.

Truth be told, I'd rather eat strawberry sorbet instead. That recipe is awesome—it calls for four ingredients (one of which is optional), is dead simple to make, and, provided you're using great berries, is a stunner to look at and eat: deep scarlet, unbelievably aromatic, and as smooth as can be. I'd take it over strawberry ice cream any day.

But everyone—well, everyone but me that is—loves strawberry ice cream, and so every time I find a promising one, I give it a shot. And literally every time, I walk away disappointed.* Usually the ice cream is bland, with little to no taste of that lush berry blush, because the strawberries themselves were the giant, bitter, and tasteless Hulked-out kinds, or the recipe just doesn't use enough of them. Or the ice cream is crunchy with ice, because strawberries are one of the most watery fruits out there. Or it's made with berries cooked down to a jam to drive away excess moisture, resulting in an ice cream that is creamy, but completely lacks that bright, fresh twang that only uncooked strawberries can provide.

* Okay, there's one exception: Fany Gerson's strawberry sour cream helado from her popsicle business La Newyorkina. It's bright, juicy, and tangy in all the ways most strawberry ice creams never bother with. Icy? Yes, a little, but in a precise, rustic way that works.

In short, strawberry ice cream is the ice cream lover's conundrum. Make it so that the strawberries shine and you almost always lose the rich, creamy texture. (Even at the world's best ice cream shops, the strawberry is usually the iciest of the lot.) Focus on getting something creamy and ice-free, and in so doing miss out on all the fresh strawberry flavor.

I'm doing all this strawberry-ice-cream-bashing so you recognize exactly what I mean when I say the following: Today, after weeks of research, testing, and re-testing, the whale gets a harpoon in its eye. The following is a strawberry ice cream I earnestly enjoy. And if it satisfies me, the toughest of ice cream customers, I think you're going to go wild for it, because it finally brings together an ice cream that's both delightfully creamy and chock full of fresh berry flavor. Oh, and it has non-icy chunks of strawberries, too!

Getting there means chucking out some conventional wisdom, pissing off "natural" food faddists, and obeying some iron laws. But is the result worth it? Hell yes. I am, however, going to ask you to play by my rules, or at least hear them out.

The First Law of Strawberry Ice Cream: If Your Fruit's Not Great, Don't Bother

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There are many recipes for turning less-than-perfect fruit into something delicious. Cobbler and coffee cake are perfect for lesser specimens. Tarte tatin and upside down cake, with their caramelized syrup toppings, work great with underripe apples, pears, and pineapples. And any fruit can make a tasty shrub with a few supporting players.

But, when it comes to fresh fruit announcing itself through all of ice cream's butterfat and sugar, you need to break out the good stuff. That likely means hauling yourself out to a farmers market and spending more than you would at the grocery store for those tiny berries with jaw-dropping sweet fragrance. It means making strawberry ice cream if and only if those sterling fruits are in season, or if you have a great supply frozen somewhere.

Run-of-the-mill strawberries are simply too low on flavor and too high on water to make great-tasting ice cream. Even the best ice cream makers on earth can't fix that problem.

The Second Law of Strawberry Ice Cream: Don't Cook Them

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A fresh, ripe strawberry has a perfect balance of flavor: sweet yet tart, lush yet bright, fragrant yet ever so slightly bittersweet from the occasional crunch of seed. It doesn't need any futzing to taste great just the way it is.

Cook it, as many ice cream recipes call for to drive off water that freezes into ice, and you ruin that balance. Even careful, careful low-temperature simmering turns fresh berries into proto-jam that tastes cooked and dull, not as bright and fragrant as it should. Yes, cooking strawberries concentrates their flavor, but you lose all the delicacy and nuance in the process. The resulting ice cream comes out flat and boring, with no progression of flavor from start to finish.

At one stage of testing I tried a hybrid approach: macerating cut berries with sugar, then reducing the resulting juice into a thick syrup to add to puréed berries (a notion I cribbed from Daniel's tomato sauce recipe). Here, in its limited capacity, a cooked component complemented rather than overwhelmed the berries' bright flavor. But it was a ton of work, tasted only a little better than a fully uncooked base, and didn't make for any big improvements in texture. So: uncooked it is.

The Third Law of Strawberry Ice Cream: Keep the Base Light

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Even with the best strawberries, a strawberry ice cream can be undone by a base that's too rich. I'm normally a fan of custard ice creams loaded with egg yolks, which add stability, creaminess, de-icing power, and a pleasant custardy flavor. But all that richness stands at odds with the bright lightness of strawberries, and a custard base can easily dominate the taste of fruit.

Instead, I stick to eggless "Philadelphia"-style bases for many fruit ice creams. But even then you have to be careful. On one attempt, I tried something similar to this Gourmet recipe, which is little more than strawberry purée mixed with heavy cream for maximum butterfat (and thus creaminess). It was pure strawberries and cream alright, awesomely fresh and rich, but in the absence of emulsifying egg yolks, all the butterfat combined poorly with the water-based strawberry juice, leaving a buttery aftertaste and film on your tongue and spoon—literally the butter churning out of the ice cream.

Half and half makes for a more moderate butterfat content, letting the strawberries shine without the buttery film, but it's so lean that the ice cream winds up tasting more like sherbet than ice cream: more milky than creamy, and not rich enough to feel like deliciously bad-for-you ice cream.

What's the solution then? My old friend corn syrup, which has the remarkable ability to add body and plushness to sorbet and ice cream without detracting from the base's flavor. Combining it with half and half and raw strawberry purée makes for a rich and creamy but flavor-forward ice cream that melts clean but still feels rich and hefty on the tongue. And it also helps cut down on the telltale strawberry iciness—my final lower-butterfat, corn-syrup-enriched ice cream is actually creamier than my all-cream version.

What's that? Your delicate, natural-food-loving tongue won't touch anything made with that disgusting industrial sweetener? You'd rather use agave or maple or honey instead? Sorry, bucko. It's corn syrup or bust in this one, unless you have some dextrose handy. Don't worry, it won't bite or make you dissolve into a puddle of illness. It's not even the high-fructose kind.

The Fourth Law of Strawberry Ice Cream: No Icy Mix-ins

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Follow the three laws above and you'll get a strawberry ice cream I'd call close to perfect: big on berry flavor but decidedly creamy and free of ice. If you don't like chunks in your ice cream, stop now and go make some. But for some people, strawberry ice cream just isn't strawberry ice cream until there are little bits of strawberry inside.

Almost every time though, those chunks are little balls of ice, crunchy and unpleasant to eat. Some get around this by cooking their strawberries, or using jam, but after spending weeks on a base that nails the fresh-yet-creamy strawberry conundrum, I'm not about to blow it with cooked-tasting fruit (see the Second Law).

Instead, I prefer macerating tiny bits of fresh fruit in a combination of sugar and alcohol. After a few hours, the sugar drives water out of the fruit, making room for sugar and booze (you can use vodka, but I'm partial to Cointreau here), both of which lower the fruit's freezing point. Add enough sugar—so much that you still have some undissolved particles after a few hours of soaking—and those berries will stay pretty darn soft even when fully frozen. As a bonus, you'll end up with some mildly boozy strawberry syrup just waiting to get shaken into a daiquiri.

The TL;DR

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Whew! That's a lot of ground. But it's all fairly simple in the end. If you're looking for the abbreviated version of the above, here's what you need to know to ace your very own strawberry ice cream:

  • Use great strawberries, and don't cook them.
  • Steer clear of eggs for fresher flavor, and use a combination of half and half and corn syrup for creaminess and body.
  • Cut your mix-ins small and soak them in more sugar and booze than they can stand.

It all seems so simple now, but that's how hindsight goes. For now I'm taking a step back from my years of strawberry-hunting madness, my frustration over bland, icy ice creams, and all the near-miss efforts I made along the way.

Sometimes the whale eats you. But sometimes, every once in a while, you get to eat the whale. And this one's all pretty in pink.