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Essential flavors and the secrets to the best ice cream you'll ever make.
True story: In the past few months, I've tried—and failed—to visit the city of Boston twice. Both times the snow has turned me away, because trying to visit 50 restaurants in four days with over a foot of snow on the ground just isn't a good idea.
So I've been sitting on my hands with a list of a dozen ice cream shops to visit, shops I had a perverse interest in seeing during this brutal winter. I wanted to witness firsthand just how far New England's famed obsession with ice cream would go. Would the storefronts be boarded up, with Ned Stark's stern face and the text "Winter Has Come" plastered on the doors? Or would I find them open and bustling, full of ice cream fanatics who, come hell or high snow drift, couldn't be driven away from their favorite scoops?
Boston people: Please tell me what you know. I, left to my own devices, stayed in the kitchen with my ice cream maker. If I couldn't bring myself to Boston, I'd bring Boston to me.
Meet New England-Style Ice Cream
The city of Boston is not alone in its love of ice cream. All of New England is similarly obsessed. This is, after all, the birthplace of Ben & Jerry's, Emack & Bolio's, and Hood. And you don't have to go far in the region to find any number of small family scoop shops that draw crowds even in the coldest months of the year. Those shops are almost uniformly great, serving enormous helpings of classic, no-nonsense flavors piled high and festooned with candy pieces and hot fudge sauce. If you seek the archetypical American ice cream-shop experience, New England takes care of you better than anywhere else.
Less documented is the fact that New England has developed its own style of ice cream. I'm not talking about Philly ice cream, sometimes called New England ice cream (and other times New York ice cream!). I'm referring to the ice cream that Jeni Britton Bauer, of Columbus-based Jeni's Ice Cream, describes as "dense and chewy."
Kenji, our resident part-time New Englander, puts New England ice cream thusly:
[It's] dense, ultra-rich, ultra-creamy ice cream that is sticky, stretchy, and chewy, almost like taffy. Ice cream you can bite with your teeth and stretch away from the cone, pulling off a bit at a time, letting it slowly melt in your mouth with not a hint of iciness or wateriness. Ice cream that you have to really eat, not just lick. Ice cream that's so dense and creamy that you can polish off an entire cone before it even thinks of beginning to drip onto your hands.
New England ice cream is also famous for all the non-ice cream stuff that goes into it. You know: candy bars, brownies, chocolate ribbons, salty pretzels—anything you can smash and smoosh into a scoop of ice cream.
If you remember the good old days of Ben & Jerry's before their pints lined every supermarket's freezer aisle, you know what I'm talking about. But the real progenitor of adding a bunch of "stuff" to dense, chewy ice cream is a guy named Steve Herrell, who in 1973 opened Steve's Ice Cream in Somerville, MA. Steve's was the first shop to slap your ice cream on a frigid marble slab, fold all kinds of stuff into it, and pile it high on an ice cream cone. Many shops followed in Steve's footsteps, and Cold Stone Creamery made its name by picking up on the marble slab idea.
Steve Herrell sold his company in 1977 (the Steve's brand is now a Brooklyn-based ice cream company doing its own more trendy thing), then in 1980 opened Herrell's in nearby Northampton, MA, and later a scoop shop in Huntington, NY. He's now retired, but present-day Herrell's is pretty much the same stuff as past-day Steve's, which is to say delightfully dense and chewy. This is the ice cream I wanted to make at home.
It turned out doing so was trickier than I thought. Psh, I thought, I'm an ice cream pro by now. This should be a piece of cake à la mode. But New Englanders have reason to be obsessive about their ice cream. Getting it right—really, really right—is no easy task, and doing so took just about every ice cream trick in my book.
Is it worth it? I'd say so. And if you want to know how to take full control of your ice cream recipes—to manipulate their components to create exactly the kind of ice cream you want—this post has some tips for you.
The Secrets of Chew
I've made a lot of ice cream in my day. Plush, voluptuous Midwestern frozen custard. Light and fluffy eggless Philly ice cream. A buttery and elegant egg- and Scotch-enhanced classic vanilla. But nothing like dense, chewy New England ice cream.
So I hit up one of the country's foremost experts on the subject: Judy Herrell, the current owner of Herrell's. How, exactly, do Herrell's and shops like it get their ice cream so dense and chewy?
"You have to churn it very slowly. The faster you go, the more air is whipped into the ice cream." In the ice cream business, that extra air pumped in during churning is called overrun, and the more overrun you bring to an ice cream, the lighter and airier it'll feel on the tongue. That's a fine thing, and ice cream needs some overrun to not taste heavy, but when it comes to my ersatz Herrell's ice cream, my goal is to keep that overrun as low as possible.
Steve mechanically altered his ice cream machine so it churns slower and brings less air into the ice cream. Judy won't say exactly how—it's a company secret—but to replicate the effect at home, her advice is to use an old fashioned hand-cranked bucket-style ice cream machine that allows you to control the churning speed. There's even a published recipe to make your own Herrell's vanilla.
But I, like almost every ice cream maker-owning American these days, don't own a hand-cranked machine. And on motorized machines, there's no way to alter the churn speed at all. I was going to need other ways of reducing overrun and adding some chew to my ice cream.
The Elements of [New England] Style
If I couldn't mess with my churn speed, I could alter my recipe. So I asked Judy what goes into the Herrell's ice cream base. It's pretty simple: a 14% butterfat dairy mix with sugar, flavorings, and some stabilizers (repeat after me: there is nothing wrong with stabilizers). When you translate that into a home recipe, you get about equal parts milk and cream with a fair amount of sugar. In every part of that formula, there's an opportunity to optimize ingredients and technique to get as dense and chewy an ice cream as possible.
Dense and Chewy Ice Cream Element #1: Butterfat
You can whip cream but you can't whip milk. The science of why is surprisingly complex and cool, but the big answer comes down to fat—heavy cream is a whopping 37% butterfat while whole milk is just over 3%. Part of the churning process is whipping air into a mixture that's full of cream, and the more cream you add to your ice cream base, the lighter and more aerated it'll be.
My typical ice cream base calls for two parts cream to one part milk for a balance of buttery richness and an elegant airy lightness. That extra fat also makes for an ice cream that's less likely to turn icy in your freezer in a few days. But in this case, the less air, the better, so I've cut down to a ratio like Herrell's—equal parts cream and milk. Any less cream and it will start feeling icy.
Dense and Chewy Ice Cream Element #2: Protein
Ice cream high in protein, even if it's packed full of air, feels dense and chewy in your mouth. That's why ice cream manufacturers often add non-fat milk powder (i.e. powdered protein) to their recipes. Protein also makes for a less icy ice cream; extra molecular "stuff" floating in your dairy mix physically obstructs the growth of large, crunchy ice crystals.
I toyed around with a few protein options before settling on two: evaporated milk and egg yolks. The milk powder you can buy in supermarkets made for a great chewy texture, but it also brought lots of distracting "cooked" flavors and a slight chalkiness to the base. Canned evaporated milk—whole milk with only half the water—has a far higher protein-to-water ratio than fresh milk, and once diluted with cream, tastes pretty close to fresh.
There's another big source of protein in ice cream: egg yolks, the more, the better for the creamiest, chewiest, most stable texture. This recipe calls for eight egg yolks per quart. They bring a definite custardy taste to the ice cream, but after testing out smaller amounts, I found eight brings the best balance of flavor and chew.
Dense and Chewy Ice Cream Element #3: Sugar
This kind of chewy ice cream needs a fair amount of sugar to keep it soft and smooshable, but the kind of sugar matters just as much as the amount. Sucrose, a.k.a. table sugar, is just one option for the enterprising ice cream maker; glucose, maltose, and fructose are all alterna-sugars with different freezing properties.
You can get very, very geeky about the sugars in your ice cream, and if you wanna play it that way, do like I do and get some atomized glucose to keep in your cupboard at all times.
Not placing a special online order just to make some ice cream? I don't blame you. Especially since one of the best sugars to make plush, dense, and chewy ice cream is right in the supermarket: corn syrup.
Yup, plain old corn syrup (please, please, no HFCS laments here). As I've shown again and again, corn syrup is more viscous and less sweet than a syrup of sucrose and water, and its adds a plush, chewy body to any ice cream or sorbet you make with it. Also, since it's only a third as sweet as sucrose, you can use more of it for a softer, creamier ice cream without turning the end result too sweet. I tested an all-sucrose ice cream against one finished with corn syrup, and the latter's extra chewiness and subtler sweetness won hands down.
Dense and Chewy Ice Cream Element #4: Stabilizers
I was getting close. Real close. But the recipe wasn't quite right. The ice cream churned up dense and creamy, but it wasn't quite as chewy as I wanted. So I got back on the horn with Judy and strategized.
We tossed around a lot of industry-ish options—tapioca syrup, fast-freezing with dry ice, that sort of thing—but this is a recipe I wanted everyone to make at home, even if they didn't have access to exotic pastry ingredients.
The answer came in the form of a stabilizer, one that's now commonly available in health food stores and many supermarkets: arrowroot starch, a flavorless powder refined from a tuber. It works miracles as a thickener in pie filling—even better than cornstarch in many cases—and it's a common ice cream stabilizer. Not only does it make for less icy ice cream, but it also adds a nice thick body to the base. It was just what I needed to push my recipe over the edge into decidedly chewy territory.
Dense and Chewy Ice Cream Element #5: The Churning Challenge
Pretty much every ice cream recipe on earth includes the line, "churn according to manufacturer's instructions," an infuriatingly vague string of text that recipe writers (me too) use because it covers every possible ice cream machine out there. It really means is, "churn until the ice cream feels like solid soft serve and isn't runny like a poached egg."
For this recipe, you need to be more precise than that. Generally, the final few minutes of churning, when the ice cream goes from soft and velvety to lighter, thicker, and more pillowy, is where a good amount of the ice cream's overrun comes from. This is when the ice cream behaves most like whipped cream, drinking in air until it's almost cloud-like.
For this ice cream, we don't want to let it get to that stage. As soon as your ice cream starts looking and feeling solid and firm—a spoon pressed across the top should leave a clean impression that doesn't collapse—stop the churn. This is the best way to control overrun in a home ice cream machine.
The downside of doing so is a warmer ice cream that melts faster as you transfer it from churn to container to freezer. Ice cream that melts and re-freezes will always be icier than before, so get that ice cream into a freezer as fast as possible. Don't worry too much, though—one of the reasons this ice cream is stabilized with lots of eggs, evaporated milk, corn syrup, and arrowroot is to keep it creamy and stable as it hardens in the freezer.
Dense and Chewy Ice Cream Element #6: Freezing
We're in the home stretch, but if you want to maximize the effectiveness of your low-overrun churn, you need your ice cream to freeze as fast as possible to minimize the growth of those ice crystals. Unfortunately, home freezers, which maintain a temperature between 10 and 20°F, are pretty much the worst devices for hardening ice cream. The Herrell's folks drop their freshly churned ice cream into a super-cold freezer that brings the temperature down to 30 or 40° below 0 for the creamiest ice cream possible. Us come cooks have to improvise.
I have a whole post on how best to store ice cream in your freezer, so here's the highlight reel: Store your ice cream in a wide, flat container (I love this one) that will expose more ice cream to freezer air and chill it quickly and evenly. Keep your ice cream in the back and bottom of your freezer, ideally underneath other well-frozen stuff, as a fuller freezer stays cold better. Lastly, don't go opening that freezer door. Every time you do so, you're letting in a flood of warm air that slows down freezing and makes for icier ice cream.
And then, eventually, after all that, you'll have ice cream. The richest, densest, chewiest ice cream you can make in your home kitchen, ready to get slapped on a marble slab and smashed together with all manner of cookies, brownies, and candy chunks.
So, do they let New Yorkers get honorary New Englander cards?