It was the first few days of vegan month and Ed Levine was not doing well. Today, halfway through his 28-day vegan diet, he has a good handle on things, but Ed's first few days of pork, dairy, and egg deprivation hit him hard. You could see it in his eyes.
I know that look because Ed and I have something in common: we both consider a spoonful of ice cream or two to be a totally reasonable midday snack, and when there's none to be had, those 4 p.m. hunger pangs hurt something bad.
Something had to be done, so I decided it was time to tackle the white whale of ice cream-making: totally vegan ice cream that doesn't suck.
The Problem With Most Vegan Ice Cream
Most vegan ice cream isn't very good for a few reasons. Any putz can cook dairy and eggs together and make something reasonably good. But vegan ice cream takes more technique and ingredient knowledge, and considering the captive audience for vegan packaged food, there's not enough pressure to make a premium vegan ice cream. The result? Ice cream that's watery, thin, and often flavorless. No thanks.
Home recipes can be just as bad. They treat lean almond milk like full-fat cream, rely on starches to fill the place of egg custards, or just don't have enough fat to make creamy ice cream. The result may be something tasty and sorbet-like but not rich and creamy—ingredients like soy, almond, or rice milk just don't have enough fat to behave like real ice cream. You may also have seen recipes that call for freezing bananas and puréeing them in a food processor for a product that's "just like ice cream." It's not—I've tried it many times, and every time I do it tastes like frozen baby food.
Foolproof Coconut Ice Cream
For a basic ice cream base that you can use in lieu of most dairy-based recipes, your best bet is coconut milk. Yes, ice cream made with it does taste coconutty, but I'd rather have a coconut-flavored ice cream with great texture than a neutral-flavored ice cream base that's icy and crunchy. And you'd be surprised at just how many flavors coconut pairs well with: vanilla, chocolate, coffee, mint, and caramel are all coconut-compatible, as are many fruit flavors.
Coconut milk isn't fatty enough on its own to make super-creamy ice cream. Some recipes attempt to get around this by cooking coconut milk into a custard with a starch like cornstarch or tapioca. To my taste, starch-thickened ice creams behave more like frozen pudding than ice cream. They're creamy, but in a, well, starchy kind of way that reminds me of off-brand packaged ice cream.
I prefer to add fat in the form of coconut cream, which is a product similar to coconut milk except it's made with about double the amount of coconut. You can find it in Asian groceries and online, though don't confuse it with cream of coconut, a heavily sweetened coconut product that's best left for blender drinks, or creamed coconut, a thick coconut paste. To make a quart of ice cream, use one can of coconut cream and another of coconut milk.
There's another problem with coconut milk ice creams—they can get grainy. When I asked why on Twitter, Dana Cree, the pastry chef of Blackbird in Chicago and the writer behind pastry science blog The Pastry Department, explained that "coconut fat isn't homogenized like butterfat in dairy. Sometimes it coalesces in the machine and feels grainy." Little blobs of un-emulsified coconut fat will only grow under agitation from an ice cream maker, and once they do, you can't get rid of them.
Cree also gave me a solution: heat up your ice cream base until it comes to a simmer—hot enough to melt any fat blobs—then (carefully!) blend it for about 30 seconds. The ice cream will be noticeably creamier without a trace of graininess.
All that's left is sweetening the ice cream. Some vegans avoid white sugar because certain kinds are processed with bone char. Fortunately you can substitute raw turinado sugar (like Sugar in the Raw) cup for cup in ice cream recipes, and it adds a nice subtle molasses flavor that plays well with coconut. But I also use some corn syrup in my coconut ice cream. As we've seen before, liquid sugars like corn syrup drastically improve a sorbet's texture, and corn syrup here adds that final touch of plush richness that makes this ice cream a dead ringer for the dairy-based stuff.
From there you can flavor the ice cream however you like. For vanilla, add vanilla extract and, for extra credit, a bit of whiskey. For chocolate, whisk in some cocoa powder. For coffee or mint, steep your coffee grounds or mint leaves just like you would in a dairy-based ice cream. The chocolate recipe included here may be my favorite vegan ice cream to date—it tastes like a first class chocolate-covered coconut macaroon.
More Vegan Ice Cream Bases
Milk and cream have a neutral flavor profile that takes well to other ingredients. Avocados, nuts, bananas, and other common vegan ice cream bases generally don't. Most packaged vegan ice cream manufacturers seem to view this as a bug, not a feature, and they do everything they can to neutralize those ingredients' natural flavors.
"The recipes here are all about making ingredients like avocado and banana taste more like themselves."
I prefer to take advantage of them, and the recipes here are all about making ingredients like avocado and banana taste more like themselves, with little enhancements from corn syrup or coconut oil to make the texture that much better. It goes to show just how rewarding a vegan diet can be: when you have to cut certain foods out of your diet, you're forced to get creative with alternatives, and the very mental work of that creativity may set you on the path to something surprisingly delicious. No dairy required.