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Essential flavors and the secrets to the best ice cream you'll ever make.
There's a reason high-end ice cream shops can make better ice cream than we can: they have better machines and access to exotic emulsifiers and stabilizers. Against all that, what's a home cook to do?
But there's one area where we have an advantage over the pros: scale. We don't need to worry about the logistics and cost of making 10 gallons of each ice-cream batch. Most of us just churn a quart at a time. And that affords us way more freedom than the pros.
Take, for instance, nuts. My go-to way of bringing extra nutty flavor to ice cream is to steep them right into the ice cream base—suddenly that butter pecan recipe, which before was just vanilla ice cream with some nuts in it, actually tastes deeply of pecans. Simple as that, right?
But when I ask pro ice cream pals if they've ever done such a thing, they say something to the effect of, "No, that sounds great, but there's no way we could do it at our shop." For one, when you're making 10 gallons of ice cream at a time, the amount of nuts needed for steeping gets pricy. But just as important, pro ice cream shops often use the same basic base for several flavors. Toasting, steeping, and straining 10 gallons' worth of pecans for their recipes increases production time and ups labor costs, a deal-breaker in the cutthroat world of professional ice cream scooping.
All of which is to say that this is a little trick that you can use but the pros can't. And lucky for us, on home-cooking scales, it couldn't be easier—or tastier.
Why Do It?
Your typical nutty ice cream is a very different beast. I'm talking about all the peanut butter ice creams you see, or dense, rich pistachio gelato made with prime pistachio paste. Instead of infusing nuts into ice cream base, why not just purée them into a paste for the nuttiest ice cream possible?
Sometimes you want that brash approach, the Captain James T. Kirk sucker punch of ice-cream flavors. But other times you need a little dulcet-toned Picard soliloquizing, something to inspire, not walk all over you. Some ice creams call for a gentler touch—deep nutty richness, sure, but not the heavy, chewy texture a nut butter would bring.
I've collected five ice creams to show how effective such a trick can be, some overtly nutty, others that use nuts as a fine accent, like this rice-, cinnamon, and almond-inflected horchata ice cream. (For extra credit, check out this dark chocolate ice cream that applies the same principle to cocoa nibs for an extra roasted, fruity bite.)
The Nuts and Bolts
Infusing nuts into ice cream is easy, but there are a few things to know about getting the most out of them. The nuts you infuse into your ice cream base take on a soft, sapped-of-life quality that makes them unsuitable for using as mix-ins later on. That in turn means somewhat higher ingredient costs, so it's worth knowing how to use them right.
When it comes to amounts, two to four ounces per quart of ice cream is the optimal range: less for a subtle nutty tinge and more for a bigger wallop of nut flavor. You'll get the most out of your nuts by toasting them first (the microwave is great for this), which makes their aromas and flavors more volatile; that is, ready to jump ship from their nutty prisons and into your ice cream base.
As for how much time, I've tested infusion times of one, two, four, and nearly 24 hours. The outcomes all taste pretty similar, so one or two hours of steeping time is plenty. Surface area, however, does matter; finely chopped nuts release more flavor than whole versions, so for best results, toast your nuts, chop them into small bits, and steep them in dairy for a couple hours before straining them out and proceeding as normal.
You can apply this technique to the five recipes below or to any of your favorites. Some nuts leach a nominal amount of liquid out of your pot, but not enough to make a difference, so whether you're making vanilla, chocolate, or pistachio pumpkin praline, you can bring the nutty verve all the pros wish they could do at work.