Photograph: Joanna Tully
Back when the hand-crank ice cream freezer was invented in 1846, the world of ice cream making came to the masses. In the following decades, many hungry families filled an outer tub with ice and salt and took turns at the crank, keeping the internal canister of custard in the perpetual motion needed to yield a smooth and creamy end result.
Of course, all this enthusiastic hand-churning came well before electricity changed the world. Today’s ice cream makers turn themselves and come with other amenities as well. In recent years, home versions have became available with freezable, gel-lined canisters, or—even better—mini compressors that will deliver ready-to-eat scoops in a matter of minutes.
Quart-size home-use models can be purchased for as little as $20, while bigger and more advanced machines can range in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. For occasional small-batch ice creams and sorbets, many amateurs are hooked on the pre-freezable bowls that are now available for use with stand mixers. The bowls need to spend the night in the freezer before starting the process. In fact, many ice-cream-making enthusiasts keep a bowl on ice all the time, so it’s clean and cold whenever the craving strikes. If the bowl is not cold enough, it will take longer for the ice cream to process, and larger ice crystals will form, creating a final product that is grainy rather than ultrasmooth.
This is the basic concept of how it all works: A paddle attachment, called a dasher, spins continuously, pushing the liquid custard or fruit purée up against the frozen bowl, slowly turning it into a semisolid mix. The ice cream then finishes hardening in the freezer.
Most ice creams start with a basic cooked custard. After milk and cream are heated and whisked slowly into eggs and sugar, the mixture is returned to the stove to be gently but consistently stirred until thickened and creamy. The only trick here is to make sure the custard doesn’t overcook, or it will curdle and “break” into an unusable mess. A reliable thermometer is helpful in avoiding this disappointment— get the custard off the stove when it reaches around 185°.
To make a custard, a good baseline ratio is about 80% milk to 20% cream, but this can be tinkered with depending on how rich an ice cream you like.
Flavorings like chocolate, caramel and coffee can be added to the warm base. Fruit-flavored ice creams often benefit from cooking the fruit down with some added sugar to intensify the taste and cook out the liquid, but be careful about how much sugar you add depending on the sweetness of the base, as an overly sweetened custard will freeze hard.
Many mass-produced ice creams also include gums and other stabilizers to keep them from getting icy. Home makers can accomplish this by adding small amounts of gelatin or pectin, the readily available thickening agent that turns fruits into jams and jellies.
Once the custard base is sufficiently cooked and quickly cooled, it benefits from a night in a refrigerator before being churned in the ice cream maker. Add-ins, including nuts, chips, cookie crumbs and chunks of fruit, are quickly and gently stirred into the soft ice cream before it heads back to the freezer to “ripen” or firm up.
Making your own ice cream takes some time and preplanning in our fast-paced, instant-gratification world. When your spoon finally dips into your very own frozen creation, it’s usually worth the wait.