Why It Works
- Blanching and peeling the pistachios rids them of their fibrous and woody-flavored skins, allowing their true flavor to shine.
- Gently drying and slowly toasting the pistachios creates a deep and nuanced pistachio flavor that isn't obscured by darker, roasted notes.
- A long, slow infusion gives the milk and cream a complex pistachio flavor.
- Amaros like Cynar help expand the aroma of pistachios, but liqueurs like Maraschino can lend a fresh note that complements the pistachio instead.
From blanching, peeling, and toasting the nuts to infusing them overnight with milk and cream, this pistachio ice cream is anything but quick or easy. Yet for those who want to make ice cream from fresh pistachios, not paste, the effort is well worth the reward—a silky-smooth ice cream with a nutty fragrance and rich pistachio flavor.
The Perfect Pistachio Flavor
In my quest for the best pistachio ice cream I ended up with this collection of pistachio recipes and technique guides. Starting with our guide to blanching and peeling pistachios, followed by a steady stream of recipes for everything from homemade pistachio paste and pistachio cake to pistachio whipped cream and a pistachio frangipane tart.
Why not paste for this ice cream? To start with, homemade pistachio paste is simply too coarse. If stirred into the base, it would produce an ice cream with an objectionably gritty texture. But if strained out, it would take a substantial portion of the flavorful dairy along with it, since the finely ground nuts are so absorbent.
While commercial pastes are smooth and silky enough to be incorporated into an ice cream base without straining, their quality and freshness may not be apparent until you've bought a jar to taste for yourself. Often, these pastes are quite oxidized, with a muddy brown color and a flavor that's less than fresh.
At least in my neck of the woods, pistachio paste is exclusively a mail-order item, while good quality pistachios are easy to find from local Greek and Indian grocery stores, as well as in specialty food shops and the bulk aisle of a particularly well-stocked supermarket.
Which brings us back to the idea of an ice cream made from whole pistachios, whose flavor and freshness are easy to assess when buying them raw in bulk. Good raw pistachios will look plump and green beneath their skins; they'll smell aromatic and fresh, with a firm (not crumbly) consistency when gently squeezed, and a rich pistachio flavor even prior to peeling and toasting.
Great pistachios will almost always be less expensive than an equally great pistachio paste, as its cost reflects the labor-intensive manufacturing process needed to blanch, peel, toast, and mill the nuts.
Of course, when buying whole, fresh pistachios, most of those chores fall to me, and I can't lie—peeling and blanching pistachios can be a real drag.
Fortunately, it's easy work that can be done while watching a movie or talking with a friend. Once you see (and smell!) the mountain of musty skins standing to the side of a gleaming pile of pistachios, you'll appreciate the necessity of this step, and the clarity of flavor it delivers. Plus, it gives me time to pull off a batch of quick toasted sugar, which pairs particularly well with pistachios.
After blanching and peeling, the pistachios will have a bright, fresh flavor that works nicely in certain applications, such as homemade pistachio paste, an ingredient that will often go on to be used in baked goods, where its flavor will develop a toasty quality in the oven.
But in an ice cream or gelato served at temperatures below freezing, the flavor of raw pistachios will seem muted, translating into something vegetal and dull, like wet lawn clippings. So in recipes like this one, pistachios benefit from being slowly toasted at low heat, both to drive off any water absorbed during the blanching process and to develop some nutty complexity.
Toasting the Pistachios
I do this by lightly coating the blanched and peeled pistachios with a little oil, preferably pistachio oil* since that gives me a chance to layer in more flavor, but neutral oils will get the job done.
*Look for pistachio oil with other salad oils on supermarket shelves, or pick up a bottle online. It's the key ingredient in our super easy pistachio cake, which will blow your mind when served warm with a scoop of pistachio ice cream on top.
I spread the lightly-oiled pistachios out on a parchment-lined half sheet pan, and toast them at 200°F (90°C) until they're firm and dry to the touch, with a faintly nutty aroma, and hints of pale gold and olive starting to develop amid the brighter green.
This can take anywhere from three to four hours, depending on the accuracy of the temperature dial on a given oven, as well as how much water the pistachios absorbed during the blanching process (a variable that is, in turn, influenced by both freshness and technique).
It takes time to develop a pistachio flavor that's bold and complex, so don't try to rush this step. When toasted at higher temperatures for a shorter period of time, the pistachios take on a pronounced roasted flavor that's dusty, dull, and generic, like stale white bread that's been toasted too long.
So please, after buying expensive, good pistachios, and all the work of blanching and peeling them, don't throw it all away by neglecting the pistachios while they're in the oven. Stir them often, to help them toast evenly, and to keep yourself abreast of their changes in texture and color. Don't keep toasting until they're baked to a crisp and dull brown; stop when they're firm, dry, and just a little golden, although still quite green all around.
When the toasted pistachios are cool enough to handle, give them a rough chop and combine them with milk and cream in a 3-quart saucier. If you're working with American pistachios, or Sicilian pistachios that are slightly past their prime but too good to toss, add a small sprig of rosemary and a thin strip of lime or orange zest into the pot. These aromatics contain a compound called alpha-Pinene, which is found in toasted pistachios. With subtle use, they can supplement the aromas that may be lacking in mild pistachios, and help the flavor pop.
With or without these "bonus" ingredients, bring the dairy to a simmer over medium heat, stirring frequently until the first bubbles appear and the cream begins to foam. Immediately take the saucier off heat, cover tightly, and set aside until cool to the touch. I'll typically refrigerate the pistachio-milk between 12 to 36 hours. For me, 24 hours is the sweet spot for both convenience and flavor, but you've got plenty of wiggle room either way.
This long-term, hot-to-cold infusion will pull out an incredibly complex pistachio flavor, so much so that you'll be able to strain the pistachios out altogether.
But don't feel like anything's going to waste! Because of that gentle toasting, those milk-soaked pistachios still have plenty of flavor left for making homemade pistachio paste, an ingredient that can go on to be used in recipes like triple-pistachio buns, pistachio whipped cream, and our pistachio frangipane tart! There are plenty of options, so don't fret about not using those milk-soaked pistachios here.
Making the Pistachio-Infused Custard
When the saucier is comfortable to touch, warm but not hot, it can be used to make the custard, without any pause to wash up. Just add in the sugar (preferably toasted), egg yolks, and salt, then whisk to combine. When smooth, whisk in the warm pistachio milk, as well.
I start the custard off over medium-low heat, stirring and scraping constantly with a flexible, heat-resistant spatula until it feels warm to the touch. After that, I can safely increase the heat to medium in order to cook the custard through, stirring and scraping all the while. Extreme precision isn't required for a step like this; I usually cook the custard until I can see visible wisps of steam rising up, but 165°F (74°C) is a safe target to aim for.
After straining, I like to add a splash of alcohol to both improve the consistency of the finished ice cream, and to serve as an aromatic. Many different types of spirits and liqueurs will work well, so let the options in your liqueur cabinet guide you, and don't feel compelled to spring for a bottle of something new.
Spirits with a stone fruit or citrus profile can mesh well with pistachio, like Maraschino or Cointreau, or you can opt for those with an overtly nutty profile, like Pistacchino or even Amaretto. I've also found that amaros work particularly well, as their herbaceous profile adds a nice sense of freshness when diluted into the base.
I've been happy with Cardamaro in that role, but Cynar is a standout option that works wonders for the flavor of pistachio.
If your liquor cabinet doesn't seem to have any good options, or if you abstain from alcohol, there's no need to add a thing. The ice cream may be a little harder straight from the freezer, and a touch less aromatic, but these aren't make-or-break details.
Another optional step for this ice cream—color correction. Purists may revolt at the notion of food coloring, but between the yellow-gold of the toasted nuts and rich orange color of egg yolks, this ice cream can't help but have a naturally beige to yellow hue.
It's a well established fact that we eat with our eyes, and I'm not above using a touch of food coloring. The idea isn't to dye the ice cream an artificial green, but to use a hint of blue (!) gel paste to neutralize the yellow tones that pistachios develop with toasting, so that the ice cream's color will better telegraph its flavor at a glance.
Skip this step if you like, or embrace the science of color correction with a light blue gel paste from a brand like Americolor. Color correction requires so little blue food coloring, you won't even use half a drop, just whatever little wisp you can smudge onto the edge of a whisk or spatula.
Be patient, and stir more than you think is necessary, to ensure the blue dye has fully dissolved into the base. Or skip this step altogether, and embrace the khaki vibe of the ice cream au naturel.
Chilling and Churning
The final step before churning is to chill the ice cream base to about 39°F (4°C), which can be done passively in the fridge or proactively over an ice water bath. (See our guide to the best ice cream machines for more information on which models we like to use.)
Churn the chilled base until the ice cream is fluffy, light, and wonderfully thick, with nothing runny or milkshake-like about it. Enjoy as soft-serve, or transfer to a chilled non-reactive container with a chilled flexible spatula, cover tightly, and freeze until firm enough to scoop.
Despite all the time and effort involved (which ranks high, even for me), this is absolutely one of my favorite ice creams, as smooth and aromatic as they come, with a true pistachio flavor that shines through in every bite.
It's wonderful when served all on its own, or as an à la mode component to the aforementioned pistachio cake or tart. It's also a bang-up combination with our no-churn blueberry ice cream, as its rich and nutty flavors are offset by the floral/fruity notes so well.
And if you were to decide on a batch of homemade waffle cones, be sure to use that roasted pistachio oil in the batter!
9 ounces best-quality whole, raw pistachios (shy 2 cups; 255g) (see notes)
About 1 teaspoon roasted pistachio oil, or a neutral oil like vegetable or grapeseed
16 ounces whole milk (about 2 cups; 455g)
10 ounces heavy cream (about 1 1/4 cups; 285g)
6 ounces plain or toasted sugar (preferred) (about 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons; 170g)
4 ounces egg yolk (about 1/2 cup; 115g)
Heaping 1/4 teaspoon (1.5g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt, or more to taste; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
1/2 ounce Cynar, Cardamaro, or a similar amaro, or Serravinci's Pistacchino, maraschino, or almond liqueur (about 1 tablespoon; 15g)
Blue gel paste, such as Americolor, optional
Preparing the Pistachios: Blanch and peel the pistachios, then drizzle lightly with pistachio oil. Toss to evenly coat with oil, spread over a parchment-lined half sheet pan, and place in a cold oven. Preheat to 200°F (90°C), and dry the pistachios until they feel firm to the touch and rather hard, with a golden hue just beginning to develop here and there, about 3 hours. The timing of this process can vary dramatically depending on the accuracy of a given oven, and how much water the pistachios were able to absorb during the blanching phase, among other factors, such as freshness. The idea is to slowly and gently drive off their moisture and develop a delicately toasted flavor, rather than one that is dark or robust. Everything about the flavor of the ice cream hinges on this step, so keep a close eye on them.
After toasting, cool the pistachios and then roughly chop. Combine with the milk and cream in a 3-quart saucier, and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring from time to time, then cover and cool to room temperature off heat. Once cool, refrigerate overnight, or up to 36 hours.
Return the chilled pistachio-infused dairy to a simmer, then strain through a mesh sieve into a large bowl. The pistachios can be used as a 1:1 substitution for the pistachios called for in our pistachio paste, but they will not be used further in this recipe.
Let the 3-quart saucier cool until safe to touch (no need to wash), then add the toasted sugar, egg yolks, and salt, and whisk to combine. When smooth, add the warm pistachio-infused dairy and whisk gently to combine.
Cook over medium-low heat, stirring and scraping constantly with a flexible, heat-resistant spatula until warm to the touch, then increase heat to medium. Continue stirring and scraping until thickened and steaming hot, or around 165°F (74°C), although precision is not required in a recipe like this. Strain the ice cream base into a non-reactive container, then whisk in the Cynar, or other liqueur.
Color Correction, optional: Depending on the natural color of the pistachios, as well as the degree of browning developed in the toasting phase, and the intensity of the color of the yolks, the color of the ice cream base can range from army green to khaki, or outright yellow. This is perfectly normal, if not what's traditionally expected. If desired, the warm tone imparted by the toasted pistachios and egg yolks can be neutralized with a minute amount of blue gel paste. Place a single drop onto the edge of a knife, then dip the top of a whisk or spatula into the gel. Whisk or stir the base to disperse the color, and repeat as needed, stirring patiently between each addition to ensure the full color has developed. Use caution, as excess dye will produce a decidedly artificial color.
Cover and refrigerate the base until no warmer than 39°F (4°C), or cool to the same temperature in an ice bath; the time required will vary considerably depending on the technique, as well as the container style. Churn in an ice cream maker until thick, with a texture like soft-serve. Meanwhile, place a 1-quart container and flexible spatula in the freezer. When ice cream looks thick and light, shut off the machine and, using the chilled spatula, scrape ice cream into the prepared container. Enjoy as soft-serve, or cover with plastic pressed directly against surface of ice cream, then close lid and freeze until firm. In an airtight container, with the surface of the ice cream protected by a sheet of plastic, the ice cream will keep for up to one month in the freezer.
3-quart stainless steel saucier, non-reactive sieve, stainless steel mixing bowl, ice cream maker, non-reactive, freezer-safe container
The exact character of this ice cream will vary depending on both the type and freshness of the pistachios involved. Sicilian pistachios are highly prized by gelato makers and pastry chefs, driving up their price per pound, and they provide the strongest, most iconic pistachio flavor and color. American pistachios are more affordable, with a milder flavor and color that tends toward beige, but these deficiencies can be punched up with a few food-science hacks (see below). In either case, be wary of dusty pistachios that look past their prime or those that feel mealy after blanching, as well as pistachios with a price tag that seems too good to be true.
If the pistachios have a weak flavor, or seem less than fresh, as evidenced by a mealy texture in the peeling phase, add a 1 1/4-inch sprig of rosemary (about 0.35g) and a 3/4- by 1/4-inch strip of orange or lime zest (0.15g) in with the dairy to steep. The herb and zest contain essential oils similar in composition to those found naturally in pistachio, and subtle use can help bring out the flavor in lackluster nuts.
With or without this addition, the milk-soaked pistachios leftover from the infusion can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to one week and used as a 1:1 replacement for the fresh pistachios called for in our pistachio paste. The color of the paste will be quite muted, but the flavor will still be rather toasty and bold.
Make-Ahead and Storage
In an airtight container, with the surface of the ice cream protected by a sheet of plastic, the ice cream will keep for up to one month in the freezer.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 22g||28%|
|Saturated Fat 11g||55%|
|Total Carbohydrate 27g||10%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||1%|
|Total Sugars 26g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||2%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|