When I was first learning how to cook, I assumed more was always better. The more flavor I could pack into my food, the more salt or acidity or spice, the better it would taste, right? Thankfully I've grown up.
There's a time and place for that sort of thing, of course. I make a strawberry sorbet that's nothing more than strawberries blended with sugar, salt, and a little lemon if the fruit's too sweet. It's ruby red and people are floored by how much it tastes like its namesake berry.
But if you're getting serious about your desserts you've probably figured out that balance is as important as power, that some of the tastiest sweets—ice cream included—are about exercising restraint so their component ingredients jive together rather than overwhelm one another.
That's why salt is so crucial in flavoring custards, why lemon juice goes in so many sorbets, and why crunchy mix-ins like chocolate or nuts keep some ice creams' excessive richness in check. In my black sesame ice cream there's savory toasted sesame oil to stand up to sesame seeds' sweetness and a hint of orange zest to marry the two sesames together.
There's a reason I add bitter Campari to raspberry sorbet. Blend up raspberries with sugar and you get plenty of volume—loads of sweetness and tartness, which is fine except it doesn't taste that much like a raspberry anymore. Something bitter tames the sorbet's other elements and winds up making the final product taste more like real raspberries. (Think of the bitter seeds when you bite into a fresh raspberry.)
When making an ice cream of your own, consider the primary flavor(s). What are their strengths and what aspects do you want to tone down? If your chocolate is too sweet, how can you counteract it? Nuts maybe, or something tannic like wine. Ripe fruit like peaches or plums can turn blandly oversweet when pummeled with sugar; bold ingredients like bourbon or ginger bring back some nuance.
I don't have a magic rule for balancing flavors in ice cream, but I do have a mantra: an ice cream is only as strong as its weakest flavor. Here are some of the ingredients I use when keeping balanced flavors in mind:
- Dark spirits like bourbon, Scotch, or rum add notes of vanilla, caramel, and oak. They have a way of anchoring light flavors like mint or summer fruit and add complexity without much sweetness.
- Citrus zest, especially orange, has a way of brightening and drawing together duller flavors like coconut or sesame. Even small amounts can affect an ice cream dramatically.
- Fresh ginger brings heat, freshness, and a feeling best described as "clean" to all kinds of fruit and warm spices like cinnamon.
- Roasted nuts, either steeped in ice cream base or stirred into churned ice cream, add deep roastiness (duh) and sometimes a touch of bitterness, handy to add character to an ice cream that may otherwise be blandly sweet. Ground coffee works similarly well.
- Spices in small quantities. Star anise adds a licorice lilt to citrus, cardamom a breezy lift to heavy flavors, nutmeg a holiday vibe that works with everything from squash to vanilla.
For one more illustration, here's a recipe that's all about balance: the saffron, honey, and orange ice cream you see at the top of this post. Saffron deserves a pairing with something that'll enhance and develop its floral flavors, and a light honey like acacia, alfalfa, or orange blossom is just the thing (a dark honey would overwhelm it). In turn, the saffron's earthiness keeps the honey's sweetness at bay, and a sprinkling of orange zest adds a bright third layer to the ice cream. You taste all three flavors, but each in their turn, no one dominating the other. Call it your ice cream moment of zen.