Nothing beats a big tub of freshly churned ice cream…unless that thing is store-bought ice cream. Anyone who owns an ice cream maker—whether it’s the homespun kind cranked by hand or a more straightforward electric one—has turned out a few duds: the texture’s off, the flavor’s wan, or the ice cream never really sets.
Seemingly so simple, the art of making ice cream at home is full of twists and turns. And if you’re going to go through the trouble of making it, you want it to be awesome, not a gloppy, inedible mess. There are freezing points to consider, the denaturing of proteins, the fact that cold foods don’t taste the same as foods at room temperature. But you don’t have to run out and enroll in advanced chemistry for success. Armed with a few useful facts, you can eschew frosty fails and churn out ice cream (and its relatives, such as sorbet and sherbet) that’s brain-freezingly good.
If you chop chocolate into chunks and add it straight to your ice cream, it’ll feel gritty and taste bland in the final product. That’s because solid chocolate that’s been properly tempered to have that nice snap at room temperature does not melt the same way when it’s cold. Most commercial ice cream manufacturers remedy this by adding coconut or vegetable oil to the chocolate that they use for chunks, but this dilutes the chocolate’s flavor.
If you want dreamy, creamy chocolate chunks in your ice cream, the solution is fortunately simple. Food writer and chocolate authority Alice Medrich advises in her book Bittersweet to first melt the chocolate, pour it onto a parchment-lined tray, and freeze it before cutting it into chunks. Four ounces of solid chocolate should yield enough chunks for a one-quart batch of ice cream. This extra step may seem fiddly, but it makes a huge difference that’s totally worth it—particularly if you’re investing in premium chocolate.
Gently heating the dairy in your ice cream base will result in a smoother ice cream. “One step is essential for optimal smoothness if using and milk or half-and-half in a recipe,” writes food scientist Shirley Corriher in CookWise. “The milk or half-and-half should be heated to 175 degrees F (79 degrees C), just below scalding.” Corriher theorizes that this denatures or partially coagulates some of the proteins, but whatever the case, it translates to ice cream with a better mouth feel.
Whether it’s a custard (that is, containing eggs) or Philadelphia-style (no eggs), cooling your hot ice cream base in bowl set over an ice water bath will help your ice cream freeze up faster. Plus it’s just a better food-safety practice.
The urge to throw in a panoply of tasty tidbits—nuts, brittles, dried fruits, etc.—is totally understandable, but, just as with the chocolate chunks, consider that not all treats will have the same flavor and texture once frozen. Big pieces of fresh fruit, such as strawberries, will turn icy and taste blander; nuts that have not been toasted will lack punch.
Take a cue from Jeni Britton Bauer, founder of Columbus, Ohio’s Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. She rarely adds stir-ins to her ice creams that have not been given strategic preliminary tweaks: she’ll roast or macerate fresh fruits to concentrate their flavor and decrease their water content, candy nuts into pralines to add interesting pockets of textural contrast, and toast coconut to make it pop.
The inclusion of wines, beers, liquors and liqueurs can make intriguing frozen desserts. Yay! But it’s important not to get crazy, because alcohol has a lower freezing point than water (which makes up the lion’s share of your dairy component). Too much booze could make your ice cream or sorbet taste awful and not freeze properly. Recently, Serious Eats’ Max Falkowitz put together an inspiring and useful guide for boozy ice cream. We suggest you read it before opening your liquor cabinet.
Most homemade ice creams will still be on the runny side if served immediately after churning, even if they’ve been churned correctly. So it’s tempting to churn them until they resemble the firm ice cream we’re used to seeing. Once your ice cream base is thick like a Wendy’s Frosty and starts to pull away from the sides of the canister, the churning step is done. If you go longer, your ice cream will be too stiff and gritty. Pop the canister in the freezer for an hour or so to firm up and you’ll have ice cream that’s at its peak consistency.
Let’s face it, unless you’re having a dinner party, very few households polish off an entire batch of freshly-made ice cream in one sitting. Homemade ice cream will get very stiff after an overnight stint in the freezer, and trying to scoop it before letting it soften will be more like chiseling into stone. Let the ice cream sit on the counter for ten minutes before you dig into it with that scoop. Yes, we know, waiting is hard, but your softened, velvety ice cream will be all the more gratifying for the delay.
I’ve used my budget-friendly Cuisinart ice cream maker for nearly a decade, and I’m still very pleased with it. However, the pamphlet of recipes that came with it is terrible. If you are going to dirty up your kitchen making ice cream, start with great recipes. I’m partial to Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home, which includes lots of ice cream theory and flavor-pairing insights in user-friendly layman’s terms. Pretty soon, you’ll be branching out to create ice creams of your own invention.
Sara Bir is Paste’s food editor. She classifies ice cream as a breakfast food.