5 Ice Cream Myths That Need to Disappear

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Make enough ice cream and you start to hear the same questions over and over. What's the best ice cream maker for someone on a budget? (This guy.) What's the difference between gelato and ice cream? (It's complicated.) What's your favorite ice cream flavor? (Black sesame orange.)

You also start to see the same bad advice repeated again and again. Advice that makes it all that much harder to convince home cooks that yes, homemade ice cream is absolutely worth making, and way easier than most people think.

The way I see it, while ice cream technology has certainly advanced in the past few hundred years, the basic recipes geared toward the home cook are pretty much what they've always been, without much new testing or critical inquiry. That means old myths about making ice cream have never been questioned, and newly fashionable fancy foodists are spouting a lot of nonsense with no one holding them accountable.

Today we put those myths to bed.

Myth #1: You Have to Scald Your Dairy

Almost every custard-based ice cream recipe out there calls for heating milk and cream to a simmer before adding it to a mix of egg yolks and sugar. But they never say why. The truth is, unless you're steeping something to infuse its flavor into the dairy, like vanilla beans or mint leaves, the only thing scalding dairy on your stovetop gets you is the risk of a boil-over. It's a great step in a recipe when you have someone else to clean your kitchen.

Yes, scalding impacts dairy's composition, altering proteins and milk sugars. But take a look at the word "pasteurized" on your carton of cream. In the U.S., virtually all dairy we buy is pasteurized, which means it's already been heated (you could even say scalded!) to between 145 and 280°F. Bringing your dairy to a simmer at home does nothing that hasn't already happened at the manufacturing plant.

If you're not steeping some flavor in your dairy, you can go ahead and combine your eggs, sugar, and dairy all in one pot, then slowly bring the whole thing to a simmer. Faster, easier, and way less fussy.

Myth #1a: You Have to Temper Your Eggs

Related to the scalded dairy, here's a step you'll find right afterward in those recipes: "Pour one third of scalded dairy into egg yolk mixture, whisking rapidly to prevent eggs from curdling. Then pour the egg-dairy mixture into remaining hot dairy while whisking rapidly." Whew! That's tedious to write, let alone do on the stove, dripping cream everywhere while you fumble with a whisk, a ladle, and a pot handle. And it's one more step you can avoid entirely.

If you're scalding your dairy, that tempering step is helpful since it reduces the risk that the eggs will scramble when poured into the hot dairy. But since we've just established that you don't need to do the scalding step, there's no need to temper your eggs either; just add cold milk and cream to yolks and sugar, and bring the temperature up gradually over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon or whisk every minute or so. But what if you did scald your dairy to infuse it with vanilla or mint? Well, after an hour or two of steeping time, that dairy's lost enough heat that you can add it directly to your eggs without any risk of curdling, provided you stir rapidly while doing so. No harm done.

Myth #2: You Have to Age Ice Cream Base Overnight

In most ice cream recipes, after you make your custard, you chill it in the fridge overnight and churn it the next day. The colder an ice cream base is when you start churning, the faster it'll harden, leading to a creamy texture with tiny ice crystals rather than larger, coarser ones. But some take the point a step further, saying that "aging" ice cream base overnight develops the ice cream's flavor and improves its texture. So do you really need to age a base, or is merely cooling it down sufficient?

In my tests, I've seen no advantage to aging ice cream base versus just chilling it in an ice bath, at least for recipes geared toward home cooks with domestic (as opposed to professional) churning machines. Yes, it's important to chill a base thoroughly before churning, but blind tasters didn't reveal any preference for longer-aged bases, and didn't notice any significant flavor or texture development.

In other words, chilling your ice cream base in an ice bath for a few hours until it reaches 40°F is just as good as spending eight hours chilling it in the fridge. There's no harm to aging your base, but unless you're a pro ice cream maker working with esoteric stabilizing ingredients or a $20,000 ice cream churn, you likely won't see any big bonus for your extra time.

Myth #3: Amazing Ice Cream Needs Amazing Eggs and Dairy

There's a tired cliché in aspirational food writing where we're told that if we want to cook like the Barefoot Contessa, we need the best of everything. Beatific butter. College-educated cream. "Good vanilla," a term that haunts the dreams of every Ina fan.

The cliché is often true. But sometimes it's not. "Better" eggs don't necessarily taste better. Neither does vanilla in all cases. The same goes for farm-fresh milk and cream.

I've run the taste tests, and when tasters don't know they're tasting expensive premium dairy from celebrated local farms, they don't think the resulting ice cream tastes any better. They do notice a slight improvement in texture, but that may be due to the higher butterfat content of some premium milk and cream compared to the supermarket stuff, which you can easily work around by using a higher butterfat base. Anyone who tells you that you need amazing, farm-fresh milk and cream to make great ice cream should subject themselves to the same test.

Which isn't to say there aren't extremely subtle differences that may indeed matter to you. Or that there aren't other totally valid reasons to bypass the commodity dairy industry. But when it comes to flavor, the cheap stuff does just fine.

Myth #4: Stabilizers Make Bad Ice Cream

Stabilizers don't make bad ice cream. People make bad ice cream, both with and without ice cream stabilizers. More pointedly, many of the self-professed experts who say their ice cream is superior because they don't use stabilizers are often the ones whose products have room for improvement.

An ice cream stabilizer is simply an ingredient that improves the texture and consistency of ice cream or sorbet. It may do so by emulsifying a base's fat, sugar, water, and/or protein, or by making an ice cream less prone to melt and refreeze with harsh ice crystals. Manufacturers frequently add guar gum, xanthan gum, or carageenan to make their ice cream more, well, stable, as it moves from factory to truck to grocery store to your freezer to your spoon. And some of the best ice cream I've ever eaten has been stabilized.

Yes, overuse stabilizers and you get bad ice cream: slick and gummy, with a sticky texture on the tongue and a tacky finish. But make your ice cream without any stabilizers and you risk a product that melts fast and refreezes icy and crunchy—just as bad.

Home cooks aren't typically shlepping their ice creams great distances on refrigerated trucks, so we don't need to worry as much about stabilizers as big companies. But you'd be amazed at what a little corn syrup or glucose can do to improve the creaminess and stability of your ice cream or sorbet (especially considering the freeze-thaw cycles of most home freezers). Like anything else, stabilizers are simply a tool to be used responsibly.

Myth #5: Alcohol Makes Ice Cream Less Icy

One of the most common problems home ice cream makers face is ice cream that freezes rock solid. The answer usually lies with too much water or not enough sugar, fat, or air in the mix, but one of the most common solutions recipe writers offer is to add a shot of alcohol to the recipe. Alcohol lowers ice cream's freezing point, making for a softer, more scoopable finished product. But if your ice cream is turning out icy, booze won't do a thing to help. It may even make your ice cream worse.

The painful truth is this: Lowering an ice cream's freezing point means you also lower its melting point, so a boozy ice cream will melt faster in your mouth, in a bowl, and even in a freezer than a non-boozy one. Freezers cycle on and off, and over time, even with ideal storage, ice cream will melt and refreeze in your freezer, slowly turning icier with every cycle. By lowering ice cream's melting point, you make a less stable ice cream with more pronounced ice crystals.

In other words, don't treat alcohol like a stabilizer to reduce iciness. Consider it a de-stabilizer with interesting freezing properties and the power to add incredible flavor to your ice cream. That's still a valuable thing for consenting adults.