You may not think of mint ice cream as the kind of thing that tears people apart, but l'll tell you from experience: Precious few discussions of the flavor stay civil for long.
There are fresh mint leaf people and mint extract people. The former insist that great mint ice cream can only be made with real mint leaves steeped in milk and cream. The latter demand—nay, know—that the only acceptable mint chip is loaded with peppermint extract and hued a nuclear green. Try to please them both and you wind up with a Treaty of Versailles situation: Everyone's unhappy and looking into building some tanks.
Which side you fall on likely comes down to what version of mint chip you grew up with. More than most foods, our expectations for ice cream are fixed early and rarely change. So I'm about to dive deep into the makings of the perfect mint chip ice cream, but I need to get this out of the way: The stuff made with extract tastes like toothpaste to me. Sorry. I'll eat it, but I won't make it. If you refuse to take your mint any other way, here's some peppermint extract and green food coloring as parting gifts. Thanks for reading.
But if your crystalline vision of the perfect ice cream is a pale green scoop speckled with dark chocolate, redolent of the crisp, clean, subtly grassy aroma and taste of genuine spearmint leaf, step a little closer. My kitchen smells awesome right now.
Fresh mint leaves steeped in cream will never taste as powerful as the full-frontal assault of peppermint extract. But what they lack in force they make up with depth: a rounded sweetness and freshness cut by notes of grass. Your typical mint chip recipe, including those on this site, calls for bringing milk and cream to a simmer, tossing in some mint leaves, and letting them steep for a few hours before making ice cream as normal.
But is that the best way to do it? If you steep the leaves even longer, do you get a more powerful infusion? Would the mint taste more pure if I didn't heat it at all?
I tried all those options,* and I wish I had some conventional-wisdom-shattering conclusion to append to the headline of this story, but sometimes convention is the way to go. While dairy steeped with mint for two hours tastes noticeably more powerful than an hour-long steep, a base steeped with mint leaves overnight isn't any more minty. Actually, it's a little less mint-forward, and the color is a few shades paler than the shorter-steeped batch. Save yourself the steeping time.
If I'm steeping mint overnight, I'd actually rather not heat it at all. For one of my test batches, I stuck a fat bunch of mint leaves into milk and cream and rested the mess in the fridge overnight. The resulting ice cream is very light and delicate, with a pronounced butteriness and only a hint of mint. If you're looking for a delicate mint base, perhaps in a flavor that's taking on other ingredients, cold steeping is the way to go. But for mint chip, I'll stick to the two-hour hot steep.
I also tried blending fresh mint leaves into dairy, straining out the pulp, and making ice cream right away. The result was flavorful and definitely green, but the mint lost all its subtlety, and the violence of the blending brought unwelcome tannic and oxidized flavors to the mix.
Dark Side of the Scoop
Mint is only half of the mint chip equation. Just as important is the chocolate, which is why I always cringe when I see a mint chip recipe call for chocolate chips. We can do better.
It's not that chocolate chips are worthless; they just don't belong in mint chip, where you need the charged blast of dark chocolate to cut through the sweet cream and airy mint. Chocolate chips also turn unpleasantly waxy when frozen, thanks to the oils and stabilizers they're loaded with to keep them from melting into puddles in an oven—or your mouth.
So it's dark chocolate or bust. But even there we have choices: Do we cut the chocolate into fat chunks for bite or fine shavings so they fully integrate into the mint? These days, I prefer to take a cue from the Italians and split the difference.
Straciatella is Italian for "shreds," and in ice cream terms it means a drizzle of warm chocolate swirled into churning ice cream that sets into snappy ribbons which break into chips. With a mix of whisper-thin threads and thicker clumps that naturally form in the churn, straciatella offers the best variety of textures in a single scoop. Better yet, the chocolate itself melts in your mouth, velvety and soft rather than unpleasantly hard and crunchy, as often happens with frozen chocolate.
That trick is thanks to a teensy bit of neutral-flavored oil you add to the chocolate as it's melting, which, when the chocolate refreezes, lowers its melting point so the chips melt faster and smoother in your mouth. You could use cream or butter to the same effect, but oil delivers the cleanest texture while preserving the chocolate's intense bitterness. You'll want to drizzle the chocolate in during the last minute or two of churning. Add it earlier and the "chips" may streak and start blending into the ice cream for a murky brown scoop.
But as far as tricks go, that's all you need. Because great mint chip doesn't need fussing. It's the perfect ice cream flavor all on its own, mint leaves, dark chocolate, and all. Oh, and if you just can't bear to eat a mint chip that isn't bright green? There's nothing stopping you from adding a slug of food coloring right after your mint leaves.