Essential flavors and the secrets to the best ice cream you'll ever make.
Close your eyes and think of ice cream. What do you see?
Depending on where you live, that answer's going to vary. A lot. Because the world of ice cream is far more diverse than most of us think. Think all ice cream is soft, scoopable, and creamy? Meet sliceable gelato and spumoni; tacky Turkish dondurma, which stretches like melted mozzarella; or Indian kulfi, painstakingly cooked for hours before it's frozen in popsicle molds.
This is a selective tour of the ice cream styles you'll find around the world, with a focus on all the different wonderful ways ice cream is made. We'll save ice cream desserts and novelties (sundaes, sandwiches, and the like) for another survey; instead, this tour is all about what really makes gelato different from ice cream, why Midwestern frozen custard is totally different from than how the FDA describes it, and how Thai street vendors are turning ice cream into finger food. Get ready to learn more about ice cream than you ever thought there was to know.
The Ice Cream Index
Hard Custard Ice Cream
For most Americans reading this guide, this is what you think of when you think of ice cream. It's made with a heavy amount of cream for richness, and eggs for flavor, creaminess, and texture control. Then it's frozen hard after churning to form neat scoops. And it offers an ideal balance of richness, chewiness, and lightness in a single scoop. If you're just starting to make your own ice cream, this is the style you'll find in most every ice cream book released for the American market, and it's what you're being served at most premium American ice cream shops.
If you listen to the FDA, this style of ice cream is called "frozen custard," and it requires a minimum of 10% butterfat and 1.4% egg yolk solids (which amounts to a couple egg yolks per quart). Most homemade recipes use way more butterfat and egg yolks than that, though, which is why homemade ice cream is so much richer than what you can buy in stores.
Let's be clear: Gelato is simply the Italian word for ice cream, and just as you'll find regional variation in American ice cream, gelato doesn't taste the same everywhere in Italy. (For instance, sometimes it's frozen into blocks and sliced like cake.) That said, gelato does tend to be different from American styles of ice cream. Namely, where American ice cream's more rich and fluffy, gelato is dense and intense. It's almost too dense to form into neat scoops, and it ripples and glides across the tongue.
Gelato owes that density to a few factors: a higher volume of milk than cream, which doesn't incorporate as much air during churning; a slower churn than ice cream to draw in even less air; fewer to no eggs to keep flavors pure; and a warmer serving temperature to deliver those flavors to your mouth even faster. All those differences mean it can be tricky to make gelato at home that doesn't freeze rock-solid; ice cream churns don't work like gelato machines, and our freezers are way too cold to serve gelato at the proper temperature. But remember, gelato's technically just ice cream, so if you want to serve some pistachio ice cream after a plate of pasta and call it gelato, not even the snobbiest of Italians can stand in your way.
New England Ice Cream
New England is the ice cream capital of the US, both for the density of its small-town ice cream shops and the generally excellent quality of ice cream you'll find there. Less well-known is that these shops are serving a style of ice cream all their own, which for lack of a better term I'm calling New England-style.
What does New England-style mean? Ice cream so chewy you have to bite it off the cone. It's made with less air than other commercial ice creams, so it's dense and barely melts even in direct sun. It has a subtle elastic quality, thanks in part to that density but also to added milk proteins, which makes it the perfect smooshable base for slapping onto a chilled marble slab, loading with crushed candy, cookies, and brownies, and folding together for the ultimate scoop of mix-ins. Yup, the marble slab and whole "mix-in" concept is a New England thing, developed by Steve Herrell at his eponymous shop Steve's in Somerville, MA.
Replicating New England ice cream at home is tricky, since home cooks can't adjust the amount of air that gets added to ice cream as it churns. But with a little kitchen science, and some consultation with the Herrell family, I've developed a copycat recipe that'll bring that Boston ice cream experience right to your kitchen.
Philadephia Ice Cream
Philadelphia ice cream—sometimes called New York ice cream, and other times American ice cream—has very little to do with the city of Philadelphia. (Or New York. Or America for that matter.) All it really means is an ice cream made without eggs, to distinguish it from "French" or "European"-style custard-based ice creams. Why the Philly name? James Beard theorized it was simply a way to class up the ice cream, as Philadelphia was an ice cream hot spot back in the 19th century.
Compared to egg-based ice creams, Philadelphia ice creams are lighter, fluffier, and melt more milky on the tongue. They tend to incorporate more air than custard ice creams, and because they lack egg yolks' stabilizing power, can turn icy fast. But if you're looking for a lightning-fast ice cream that tastes resoundingly of fresh milk and cream, one that doesn't have any fatty yolks to get in the way of your added flavorings, Philly is the way to go.
Midwestern Frozen Custard
Rumor has it "frozen custard" began in Coney Island in Brooklyn, but it's come to thrive in the Midwest at shops like Culver's, Kopp's, and Leon's. The Midwestern take on custard means something very specific: It's what happens when you take extra-rich ice cream and leave out all the air, then serve it fresh from the churn when it's so soft it can barely support its own weight. Midwestern custard is served in ploops, not scoops, and it's richer than any soft serve out there.
That richness is thanks to a high-fat and -egg base that's frozen through a special machine called a continuous churn. You pour base into one side, and the machine sends it down a pipe that freezes the custard to soft serve temperatures, then spits it out in one continuous stream. The machine works a little air into the custard, but way less than the fast-and-furious paddles of a standard ice cream maker. And the custard is ready fast—as soon as two minutes after the base gets poured in.
It's then served fresh, within a few hours of getting churned, to keep the custard at its soft and silky best. I prefer my custard plain, but there's no shame in ordering it as part of a concrete: custard + mix-ins blended like a milkshake, minus any of that pesky milk, for a "drink" you can eat with a spoon.
Frozen yogurt's developed a bad rep as that swirly, artificially enhanced soft serve swill from chains that sell dense, sugary toppings over a flavorless, not-at-all-tart yogurt-like substrate. But in my book, frozen yogurt is just ice cream made with yogurt instead of milk and cream. And making it couldn't be easier: Whisk together a quart of yogurt with a cup of sugar and churn. There's no reason frozen yogurt has to be served soft; let it harden in the freezer and it scoops exactly like ice cream. Of course, there's no reason to keep it that simple; fro-yo is ripe for fruity additions.
Purists may object to seeing sorbet included in a survey of ice cream styles, since by definition sorbet is a dairy-free frozen dessert. But it's an important member of the ice cream family.
Unlike ice cream, which derives its texture from a complicated combination of sugar, fat, protein, and air, sorbet's texture is nearly entirely dependent on the concentration of sugar and the type of sugar used to make it. (Okay, the fruit's fiber and pectin content plays an important role, too.) Sorbet is, in essence, a whipped sugar syrup that, as it freezes, become a network of tiny ice crystals enmeshed in a super-saturated sugar solution that's so dense it can never fully freeze. The science of how it works is fascinating stuff.
In recent years, some pastry chefs have been making "sorbets" out of dairy ingredients like yogurt and buttermilk: sherbet-like frozen desserts that are pretty much just some liquid dairy and sugar. Should we call them sorbet? Strictly speaking, maybe not, but in terms of texture, sorbet is probably the closest description.
Italian ices are the most famous "water ices," basically sorbets churned with less sugar so they develop a lighter and icier texture. They're either served in relatively warm display cases for easy scoopability, or frozen solid into cups for a customer to scrape away with a spoon. Italian ices made with dairy for a richer texture are called "cream ices."
Water ices like these are some of the world's oldest frozen desserts, but these days the New World (especially the Northeastern US) is their biggest home. The perfect companion to boardwalk fare or pizza from a slice joint, they're an essential part of Italian-American fast food culture, and the most famous brands command impressive loyalty even for sub-par, artificially flavored products. My favorite Italian ice spot remains the Lemon Ice King of Corona, where the lemon ices are still made the old-fashioned way: fresh-squeezed lemon juice, not industrial flavoring, because life is short and who has time for that mishegas? If only more of New York's vanishingly small Italian ice appreciators felt the same way.
Most people I know stopped eating sherbet when their parents stopped making them go to church socials. But if you're willing to put the past behind you and forget that tub of the rainbow stuff, it's time to accept that sherbet can be amazing.
The FDA mandates that for a frozen dessert to call itself sherbet, it needs between one and two percent milk solids. For home recipes, that means about equal amounts of dairy and another liquid, such as juice, fruit, or even tea or soda. For me, the hallmark of sherbet is its texture: smooth, less fatty than ice cream but more substantial than sorbet. Sherbet's a little demure, watery in a good way that tastes clean and refreshing but still full-flavored. There are times when ice cream is too rich but you still want some dairy to mellow out fruit's bite. These are your sherbet times.
Modern ice cream technology has been around for over a hundred years, but soft serve only dates back to the early-mid-20th century. Some say Carvel was America's first soft serve operation, while others point to Dairy Queen. But the soft serve machine didn't reach its peak until the '50s and '60s, when new technologies allowed for better aeration and churning of liquid bases.
What is soft serve exactly? A low-butterfat base (three to six percent as opposed to ice cream's 10 to 20), mainly made of milk, sugar, and some common stabilizers (but usually not eggs), that's kept continually cool, then rapidly mixed with air to form a light foam right at the point of service. Soft serve tends to contain more air than typical hard ice cream, which helps give the swirl its characteristic lightness. But the best soft serve isn't completely loaded with air, so it feels dense on the tongue and melts slowly on your cone.
Because of the specialized technology involved, making soft serve like the ice cream truck is tricky, but there are definitely ways to hack it at home.
This now-archaic term still holds nostalgic appeal for many long-time ice cream lovers. Ice milk is basically hard ice cream with less than 10% butterfat, but unlike sherbet, it's mostly dairy-based and often less sweet. Sold as a budget ice cream offering, superlative flavor and creamy texture aren't ice milk's strong points, but its slightly flaky, milky snow-cone qualities have their own unique appeal.
In 1994, the FDA gave manufacturers permission to label ice milk as "low-fat ice cream," which not only meant the end of the ice milk name, but also that unique texture. Low-fat ice cream is pumped full of stabilizers to imitate full-fat ice cream's creamier body, which means old-fashioned ice milk is now decidedly a thing of the past.
Semifreddo is a frozen dessert you can slice. It (glory be!) doesn't require an ice cream maker. And it might be even easier to make than ice cream (which, yes, is really easy). But what exactly is it?
In simplest terms, it's part ice cream, part mousse, mixed together into an airy cloud, then frozen solid in a mold. The dessert gets its richness from a stirred custard or batch of sweetened cream, either of which sometimes get a jolt of flavor from melted chocolate or puréed fruit or nuts. That's then lightened by a whipped meringue of raw egg whites and sugar, for a fluffy substance that retains its shape but doesn't quite freeze solid. Like a soufflé, it's paradoxically light and rich. And in historical terms, it's the O.G. ice cream cake.
In India, the ice cream of choice is kulfi, a dense dessert frozen in molds rather than churned in an ice cream maker. It's made with milk cooked for hours on the stove with sugar, nuts, and/or spices until it turns thick, syrupy, and heavily perfumed, then hardened into popsicle shapes and eaten on sticks.
I mean it about cooking for hours, and for traditional kulfi, there's no rushing that process. Slow simmering and constant stirring is the key to caramelizing sugars and browning milk proteins for the dessert's signature flavor. Some cooks take shortcuts with heavy cream or cans of already reduced condensed milk, but both of those approaches make for a kulfi that's too slickly fatty on the tongue or cloyingly sweet. Kulfi's sweet stuff to be sure, but its milk-heavy base means that, even when reduced, it should feel refreshing and clean, not heavy.
Kulfi's flavors run the gamut of the South Asian sweets canon: pistachio, rosewater, mango, even saffron. And as far as I'm concerned, it's the tastiest and most refreshing dessert from the subcontinent.
If you want to see creamy ice cream pushed to its limits, head to Turkey, where the frozen treat of choice is an ice cream as stretchy as melted mozzarella and as chewy as taffy. Moustachioed men at street stalls twirl dondurma on long staffs and play sugar cone keepaway with customers before handing them an ice cream so elastic that dentists could use it to take tooth casts.
Dondurma owes its stretchiness to salep, a wild orchid root native to Turkey that's so rare and prized that the government has banned exporting it. Ground into a fine powder, the salep functions as an elastic hydrocolloid, letting the ice cream flex to as much as a foot or two in the air. Since salep is illegal to export, the only ways to make dondurma outside Turkey are by knowing a smuggler or hacking together an ersatz version with other hydrocolloids. Food mad scientist Dave Arnold did just that, making an ice cream that's not only texturally identical to dondurma, but also heat-resistant enough to fry.
The 'ice cream of the future" dates back a mere 28 years, when an Illinois grad student got the idea to flash-freeze little droplets of liquid ice cream base in liquid nitrogen to make tiny pearls of ultra-creamy ice cream. The dots became a hit at mass venues like malls and sports stadiums but have never made it into the consumer market in retail shops or grocery stores.
In part that's because Dippin' Dots require exceptionally cold temperatures to remain hard, separate, and dot-like—below -40°F, which is lower than most grocery and all home freezers could ever hope to maintain. Combine those logistical issues with poor sales and growth and a batch of bankruptcy, and Dippin' Dots will likely be the ice cream of the past-retrofuture soon. Tennis matches are gonna miss out.
Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream
Less a distinct style and more an ice cream innovation, liquid nitrogen-frozen ice cream is one of the latest developments in ice cream technology. Well-executed, it offers restaurants and bakeries enormous freedom: No need for a giant, five-figure ice cream machine, just buy a stand mixer and a tank of LN2!
The premise is simple: whip ice cream base in a mixer while pouring in liquid nitrogen to immediately freeze the base while it aerates. The faster an ice cream churns, the smaller its ice crystals, and the creamier it'll be. And sure enough, once you taste enough ice cream, you can identify LN2-churned ice cream by its texture. It's typically served right away, not stored for later scooping, so it's soft and plush, but solid enough to form into scoops. Since it freezes so smooth, ice cream makers can get away with using lower butterfat bases for the same ice-free texture.
The execution is more complicated; liquid nitrogen freezes so quickly the ice cream can harden in uneven chunks, which is why at San Francisco's Smitten, the company developed special double-helical mixing paddles that move through the ice cream more evenly than any stand mixer whisk.
Depending on which side of the Atlantic you call home, spumoni can mean very different things. In Italy, it's traditionally a semifreddo-like molded dessert, while in the US it's more ice cream-like and scoopable. Spumoni has two main distinguishing characteristics: the inclusion of nuts and/or candied fruit, and the tendency to layer different flavors, Neapolitan-style, into a single batch. That may mean vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry; or cherry and pistachio with vanilla or chocolate; or—most common in the US—pistachio, almond cream, and chocolate. Spumoni tends to fall somewhere between Italian cream ice and American ice cream: creamier than water or cream ice but not as substantial as a thick custard base.
I Tim Pad
One of the coolest new street snacks in Thailand is i tim pad, a made-to-order ice cream that's not churned, but quick-frozen on a frozen metal disc (effectively a lo-fi antigriddle). In just a couple minutes, liquid base freezes into a thin pancake of solid ice cream, bolstered with whatever mix-ins you ask for (crushed Oreos are common).
The theatrics really begin when the stall owner scrapes the ice cream off the metal plate with a paint-scraper, creating perfect hollow cylinders of ice cream that are then stacked vertically in a cup. Toppings like whipped cream and chocolate sauce come after, but I'd go with a light hand. There's no better opportunity for an ice cream finger food.