Classic Vanilla Ice Milk Recipe

Like sorbet, ice milk is light and refreshing on a hot summer's day, but with the creamy, soft consistency you'll find in the best ice cream.

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Photograph: Vicky Wasik

Why It Works

  • Milk powder provides a second layer of dairy flavor, while working to eliminate iciness in the finished product.
  • Holding the base at a boil for 60 seconds ensures that the cornstarch is fully dissolved, eliminating any trace of starchy taste or texture.
  • Reserving some of the milk off-heat preserves its fresh flavor, while also helping the base to cool faster.

In elementary school, our teachers celebrated the start of summer vacation by distributing ice cream packed in tiny cardboard tubs, each fitted with a paper lid that could somehow be folded into a spoon. I can't tell you where they came from—a warehouse club like Sam's, perhaps, or some other place that sold stuff in bulk on the cheap.

Cheap was the word, because it wasn't even ice cream: It was ice milk, an extremely low-fat concoction made predominantly of sugar, nonfat milk powder, and air, with just enough artificial vanilla to appease a small child. And yet it was wonderfully refreshing, light, cold, and crisp, like a milk sorbet.

What Is Ice Milk?

Ice milk doesn't have a legal definition in the US, but historically it was a frozen confection containing less than eight percent milkfat and stabilized with powdered milk, starches, and gum rather than eggs.

A famous example would be Dairy Queen's soft-serve—the FDA considered it ice milk in days of yore, but since the organization revamped its classification system, it qualifies as "reduced-fat ice cream" instead.

carnation instant milk powder

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Between fast food and bulk treats for kids, it's easy to dismiss ice milk as an "imitation" product, but with good-quality ingredients, ice milk is simply a leaner, more refreshing, all-American alternative to fior di latte.

What's the Point of Low-Fat Ice Cream?

The phrase "fat is flavor" has come to rule the kitchen, but anyone who's ever tasted toasted sugarpineapple syrup, or lemonade will know that plenty of extremely flavorful foods contain no fat at all.

In fact, the very lack of fat can be crucial to some recipes. Strawberry ice cream is delicious, sure, but in terms of pure refreshment, it can't compare to a scoop of pure strawberry sorbet.

Such is the case with ice milk, which is similarly light and crisp, but with just enough dairy to create a sense of creaminess that feels pleasantly rich—even though it technically isn't.

That's what makes ice milk such a treat on a sticky summer day, or when paired with desserts that are already heavy and rich: a warm double-chocolate brownie, for example.

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Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

How to Make Ice Milk at Home

Ice milk can be as simple as milk and sugar, but to get the soft and creamy texture we associate with commercial treats and soft-serve, it takes a bit of milk powder and cornstarch, too.

Together, these ingredients work to manage the water content of the milk, keeping ice crystal formation in check down the road, for a dessert that's creamy and scoopably soft. Plus, powdered milk bolsters the milkiness overall, giving the finished product a more vibrant flavor.

You can find small pouches of powdered milk from brands like Carnation in almost any supermarket, but for those inclined to keep a larger volume on hand, shopping in bulk online can reduce the price considerably. (I have a tub from Hoosier Hill Farm at home.) Whole-milk powders will give the ice milk more richness, but low-fat and nonfat powders will keep it light; use whichever you prefer.

My version also makes use of lightly toasted sugar to add a hint of caramel complexity while muting the sugar's sweetness. For a batch this size, a quick, 30-minute toasting is all it takes to transform the sugar.

The technique for the ice milk itself is as straightforward as it comes: Combine all the dry ingredients in a pot, whisk in half the milk, then cook over medium heat until it comes to a boil. From there, keep whisking for a minute as it bubbles in order to fully activate the cornstarch, preventing any trace of chalkiness in the finished product.

By dividing the milk, we can develop some cooked, "toffee" notes without sacrificing the lightness and subtle complexity of fresh dairy. As I learned with fior di latte, it's important not to skimp on milk in the first stage, as using too little may leave some of the cornstarch undissolved.

The final step is to doctor the ice milk with a splash of vanilla, although it can easily be flavored with other extracts to taste.

As with almost any ice cream, the base can be cooled passively in the fridge until no warmer than 40°F (4°C), or it can be chilled to the same temperature much faster in an ice bath. The only benefit to either method is how it fits with your schedule.

How to Churn Ice Milk

With a canister-style ice cream machine like the Cuisinart ICE-21 (my personal fave, and the top pick from our ice cream maker review), it's vital to confirm that the freezer itself is set to 0°F (-18°C) and that the canister has sufficient time to freeze before churning. I leave my canister in the freezer at all times, so I can churn up ice cream at a moment's notice.

Whatever machine you have, don't rush the churning phase. Pulling ice cream off while it has a milkshake-like consistency is a recipe for iciness, and that's doubly true for ice milk. A generous churn time ensures that the dasher can reduce all the fat and ice particles to a small, uniform size, and that the ice milk will achieve proper aeration, for a texture that's as smooth as silk and soft enough to scoop straight from the freezer.

close up of ice milk on a brownie bite on a fork

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

In turn, proper churning makes ice milk slow to melt, for a lingering finish despite its lean formula. Thanks to the toasted sugar, added milk powder, and extract, this ice milk has a rich and satisfying flavor even when made with standard supermarket milk.

That said, since milk is the primary ingredient, it doesn't hurt to look for local options for that extra-fresh dairy taste. Either way, you'll be rewarded with a smooth and creamy but ultra-light summer treat—no folding spoons required.

August 22, 2018

Recipe Facts

Active: 15 mins
Total: 5 hrs
Serves: 10 servings
Makes: 5 cups

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Ingredients

  • 9 1/4 ounces plain or very lightly toasted sugar (about 1 1/3 cups; 262g)

  • 1 1/4 ounces cornstarch (about 1/4 cup; 35g)

  • 1 3/4 ounces powdered milk (about 1/4 cup; 50g)

  • 1 teaspoon (4g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt (plus more if desired); for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight

  • 28 ounces whole milk (about 3 1/2 cups; 795g), divided

  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions

  1. Whisk sugar, cornstarch, powdered milk, and salt together in a 3-quart saucier. When no lumps of cornstarch remain, add exactly 14 ounces of the milk (about 1 2/3 cups; 396g) and whisk to combine. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly but not vigorously, until it begins to simmer. This will take about 6 minutes; if the process seems to be moving slowly, simply turn up the heat. When the mixture comes to a boil, set a timer and continue cooking and whisking for exactly 1 minute. This ensures the cornstarch is fully hydrated.

    making base for ice milk

    Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

  2. Immediately transfer mixture to a large bowl, then whisk in remaining milk, along with the vanilla (see notes). Bearing in mind that the ice milk will taste substantially less sweet once frozen, season with an additional pinch of salt, if desired. Cover and refrigerate the base until cold, thick, and no warmer than 40°F (4°C), about 3 hours. (This process can be sped along with an ice bath if time is of the essence; in that case, a stainless steel bowl will help cool the base even faster.)

    adding milk and vanilla to ice milk base

    Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

  3. Churn in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s directions. Meanwhile, place a quart-sized container and flexible spatula in the freezer. When the ice milk looks fluffy and thick, shut off the machine and, using the chilled spatula, scrape it into the chilled container. Enjoy as soft-serve, or cover with plastic pressed directly against the surface of the ice milk, then close lid and freeze until firm enough to scoop, about 4 hours. (The time will vary depending on the material and dimensions of the container.)

    churned ice milk being put in container

    Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Special Equipment

3-quart stainless steel saucier, ice cream maker, nonreactive, freezer-safe container

Notes

After making the ice milk, stir in your favorite extracts to taste, or try flavoring it with ingredients such as freeze-dried coffee powder, powdered green tea, or ground spices. The milk can also be steeped with vanilla beans, tea leaves, dried flower buds, whole spices, and other nonacidic flavoring agents.

Nutrition Facts (per serving)
182 Calories
3g Fat
36g Carbs
4g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 10
Amount per serving
Calories 182
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 3g 3%
Saturated Fat 2g 8%
Cholesterol 9mg 3%
Sodium 217mg 9%
Total Carbohydrate 36g 13%
Dietary Fiber 0g 0%
Total Sugars 33g
Protein 4g
Vitamin C 0mg 1%
Calcium 152mg 12%
Iron 0mg 0%
Potassium 191mg 4%
*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.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)