If there’s a food that brings more universal joy to the world than ice cream, I’ve yet to find it. Frankly, I’m not sure I’d want to.
Whether you eat it in a bowl or a cone, on a hot summer afternoon or by the midnight light of the refrigerator, ice cream is almost guaranteed to bring a smile to your face. But what about making it yourself? Does the idea of homemade, from-scratch ice cream fill you with radiant happiness?
If it doesn’t, it should.
Roll down the freezer aisle these days, and you’re likely to find a flavor or six that suits your particular taste, mood and diet. But when you make your own, you get a perfect match.
Start with flavors and ingredients you are drawn to, suggests Jeni Britton Bauer, the two-time cookbook author and founder of cult chain Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. Then mine your personal experiences for inspiration. “It’s so much fun to tell your stories through ice cream,” says Bauer, who has looked to childhood favorites, in-season produce and even music and color (Lemon Yellow Camaro, anyone?) for ideas.
You might love the idea of churning out your own custom flavors, but even Bauer knows the prospect can be daunting. I’m here to help. So let’s take a deep breath, chill out and get to it.
What is ice cream?
It may not sound particularly sexy, but ice cream is an emulsion, a mix of ingredients — fat and water — held together despite their inclination not to. This puts it in the same camp as salad dressing, mayonnaise and even cake batter.
Because an emulsion wants to separate, for the best results, it’s helpful to have something to hold it all together: an emulsifier. In a traditional French custard ice cream, egg yolks serve that purpose (they also thicken the base). But the idea of creating an egg custard that must be cooked to a certain temperature and texture can seem like a tall order for novices (and then what to do with a bunch of leftover egg whites?). That’s why I’m particularly fond of Bauer’s recipes. In her method, boiling the base accomplishes what the egg yolks otherwise would: binding water to the dairy proteins, fat and sugar, so that it can’t form ice crystals.
Cornstarch is the last layer of protection, absorbing any remaining water and providing some thickening power. (Cream cheese lends additional body and “bounce,” as Bauer says.) I’ve used Bauer's recipe for both my dairy bases below, as well as most of my custom flavors.
Let’s take a quick look at the basic components of ice cream and why they matter.
The major players
Fat. A great ice cream owes its smooth, creamy mouthfeel to fat, which helps keep ice crystals small. As Bauer explains, fat is also extraordinarily effective at carrying flavors, so when ice cream melts in your mouth, you are hit with the taste of your ingredients.
Typically, the bulk of that fat comes from heavy cream — it is ice cream, after all — but other contributors might be milk, half-and-half, buttermilk and even cheese, depending on the flavor. The less fat there is in dairy, the more water there is and therefore more risk of ice, so keep that in mind when the urge to tweak a recipe strikes. Vegan ice creams often rely on coconut milk (see the recipes below) or nuts, or a combination, for their fat.
Sugar. Here’s another ingredient that’s critical to managing the mix. Sugar attracts water, lowering the temperature at which ice forms and thus reducing the presence of ice crystals. Too much sugar and your ice cream will be soup; too little and it will be rock hard. You can further work sugar in your favor by using a liquid sugar, such as honey, golden syrup or glucose, for especially smooth results. Bauer employs some corn syrup (it’s less sweet than sugar!), but don’t use it for more than a quarter of your total sugar, unless you want to be drinking your ice cream.
Water. As Bauer says, water is with you or against you when you make ice cream. It works in your favor when it bonds with the proteins, starches, sugars and fats in the mix, and against you when it breaks free, turning your ice cream icy or, worse, soggy.
Air. When ice cream is churned, the goal is to not only freeze it but to incorporate air for optimal texture. To create ice cream that is neither too dense nor too fluffy, you have to get just the right amount of air in (more on that below). As David Lebovitz notes in his veritable bible, “The Perfect Scoop,” ice cream churned at home will be denser and freeze harder than store-bought varieties made with more powerful machines. All that means is you’ll likely need to give your ice cream 5 to 10 minutes to soften on the counter before scooping. Not a bad price to pay for a superior result.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to making ice cream at home is the machine. You can make no-churn ice cream — and we have several recipes for it! — but a machine is easy to use, and nothing beats the texture and versatility of what comes out of it.
An ice cream machine doesn’t have to cost a lot or take up a lot of room. The simple Cuisinart ICE-21 is one popular choice. There is just one button to turn on and four easily assembled pieces, and it will only set you back around $40. It’s also America’s Test Kitchen’s top-rated maker.
When picking this or any other model, there are inevitable trade-offs. The ICE-21 canister must be frozen a day in advance, taking up room in your freezer and eliminating the possibility of consecutive batches unless you buy an extra one. As to how it works, Bauer explains, the ice cream freezes around the very cold walls of the canister. Those thin layers are constantly scraped off the sides and into the center as the dasher (or paddle) turns, until all the ice cream has been through the process and sufficiently whipped with air.
There are self-refrigerating models (ATK recommends the Breville Smart Scoop) with compressors that let you churn a batch whenever and as often as you want, but they cost several hundred dollars and take up a much larger footprint. KitchenAid offers an attachment for its stand mixer, though ATK did not recommend it for a number of reasons.
You can find other models, too, whether it’s a rock salt machine or ball you kick around, but they’re not ideal for the ice cream enthusiast who’s ready to make the plunge into creating custom flavors with a minimal amount of fuss.
The rest of the equipment you’ll need to get started — and for more advanced ice cream wizardry — is either already in your decently stocked kitchen or easily acquired. Think mixing bowls (small, medium and large), measuring cups (dry and 2- and 4-cup glass ones for liquid), a heatproof spatula, a large saucepan (4- to 5-quart) and whisks. A fine-mesh strainer and food processor or immersion blender are handy, too.
If you’re going to invest the time, money and effort into making ice cream, you might as well have a good scoop. Bauer and ATK recommend the Zeroll model that conducts heat from your hand, but at home I really like the company’s dishers that sport a mechanism that sweeps across the bowl for a beautifully shaped scoop of ice cream. I also own the very effective Oxo scoop.
Keys to success
The recipes you find below will walk you step-by-step through the process (I promise you’ll be surprised by how quickly a base comes together), but here are some tips to ensure it goes as smoothly as possible.
Chill. “Everything has to be cold at all times,” says Rose Levy Beranbaum, the baking cookbook author whose new book, “Rose’s Ice Cream Bliss,” comes out next year. That applies throughout the entire process, because the faster you freeze, churn and store your ice cream, the smaller the ice crystals will be. Freeze your canister for the time recommended by the manufacturer, and ensure the base is thoroughly chilled, to around 40 degrees (in the case of Bauer's recipes, an overnight chill will let the cornstarch thicken the base a little more). Pre-freeze your storage containers, lids and solid mix-ins. And once the ice cream is out of the machine, work quickly to pack the ice cream so it doesn’t melt.
Don’t disrupt the balance and expect it to always work. As we’ve established, each element of the ice cream base serves a particular role in a specific amount. Bauer acknowledges that people are especially prone to messing around with the cream and sugar for dietary reasons, but do so at your peril. If you want to limit your calorie intake, “just invite more friends,” she suggests.
Know when to stop cooking and churning. You can use a variety of time, temperature and visual cues to know when your base needs to come off the heat and when it needs to come out of the ice cream machine. For the recipes here, 4 minutes of boiling is followed by an additional 30 seconds to 1 minute of boiling after you’ve gradually whisked in a cornstarch-milk mixture. In that last minute, the base will turn somewhat glossy, and you’ll feel it thicken and resist as you stir with a heatproof spatula.
Properly churned ice cream will be thick and creamy like soft-serve, and with her recipes, Bauer says the ice cream will begin to rise out of the machine. When I didn’t totally trust my eyes, I quickly dipped a spoon into the machine to judge the texture. Timing varied somewhat by flavor, but some of my batches using Bauer’s recipes and very cold bases chilled overnight were ready in the ICE-21 in as little as 10 minutes, none more than 20. If you want to be precise, America’s Test Kitchen pinpoints the proper temperature at 21 degrees.
Store it properly. Airtight is the way to go. Keep out unwanted odors and humidity by packing the ice cream into a container and covering the surface with parchment paper, then a secure lid. Place it in the coldest part of your freezer (not the door), ideally surrounded by plenty of other frozen foods that will insulate it from the whims of the defrost cycle. “The worst thing you can do for the longevity of your ice cream is sneaking a tablespoon of it every night,” says Victoria Lai, the lawyer-turned-ice cream entrepreneur behind Washington chain Ice Cream Jubilee. Doing so constantly exposes the ice cream to the temperature shock of many trips in and out of the freezer.
And, as if you needed encouraging, eat your homemade ice cream sooner than later. After a few weeks, its flavor and texture can begin to suffer.
Make it your own. Let’s move on to the really fun part: designing your own flavors. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Even if it’s not a total success, you can file it away as a learning experience that will still probably taste very good.
“Just open up your freezer to your friends and they will come running over,” Lai says.
Flavoring the base
There are a multitude of ways you can add flavor directly to the base.
Extracts and essential oils. A little goes a long way. Add up to a tablespoon of extract per quart of ice cream just before freezing so the flavors aren’t cooked off on the stove top. If you use essential oils or essences, Bauer suggests adding just 2 to 5 drops right as you begin churning.
Alcohol. It’s easy to overdo, too. Too much will make your ice cream smell and taste like a bar, and it can hinder freezing, leaving the ice cream too soft. Don’t go over ¼ cup, especially with higher-proof liquors such as bourbon, and if you’re really unsure how much you’ll like, add in ½-teaspoon increments, tasting as you go. For my Kahlúa-flavored ice cream, I suggest a range of 2 to 4 tablespoons, the higher end of which pleased my cocktail-loving colleagues.
Ingredients to steep. Whole spices and tea, fresh herbs, nuts and more. Anything hard or woody (cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods) or leathery (strips of citrus peel) is best added with a hot steep, Bauer says, after you’ve taken the base off the heat. Limit hot steeps to an hour, or 15 minutes in the case of coffee or tea, which can oversteep. More delicate flavors and ingredients that could easily be leached of flavor over high heat (herbs, mainly) need a cold steep, which can be done while the base cools in the fridge or in an ice bath.
Fruit. Adding it to an ice cream base can be tricky. Chunks will freeze solid, and purees can be too diluted by the dairy. Cooking can help concentrate flavors and drive off some of the water that could make things icy. Try cooking with a bit of sugar. After numerous rounds of testing for my peach ice cream recipe, I got the best result by reducing the fruit in a saucepan until it was pretty pulpy and pureeing it with freeze-dried peaches for extra oomph. A cup of strained puree was about as much as I could add to the base without it being too much for the machine.
Lebovitz says his ideal amount of mix-ins is 1½ to 2 cups per quart of churned ice cream. Really, the possibilities are endless, from cookies and cake to candy and nuts. Ice cream is never fully frozen, so take into account that many ingredients will dissolve or soften in it.
Sometimes the pieces are very small or need to be frozen, as when pouring in melted chocolate to freeze into little freckles in the last few minutes of churning. But most of the time, mix-ins should be layered in as you pack the ice cream to keep them distinct (when it comes to sauces) and from jamming up the machine (when it comes to solid additions). Whatever you add, try to save some for the very top layer as a preview of what’s inside.
A few types of mix-ins to consider:
Saucy. Try ripples of chocolate sauce, swirls of fruit sauce and pockets of dulce de leche or caramel.
Crunchy. Here’s your opportunity for contrast. Go as mainstream or eclectic as you like. My new favorite is crumbled amaretti cookies, which get ever so slightly chewy but retain plenty of texture when embedded in my peach ice cream. A close second: graham crackers toasted in butter, which you’ll find in my S’Mores Ice Cream.
Semi-soft. Try dried fruit plumped in sugar syrup or macerated in alcohol. Cubes of cake or — hand on heart — dollops of Marshmallow Fluff are delightful (S’Mores Ice Cream). Jams are good here, too.
Feeling hungry? Inspired? Ready to craft your own flavor? Excellent. Remember, Bauer says, “It’s not just what it tastes like, it’s the cultural connections and the family connections.”
“You can dream, too,” she says. “I wouldn’t limit yourself to anything. . . . You can really go anywhere.”
About this story
Design, development and art direction by Elizabeth Hart. Photos by Tom McCorkle and Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post. Food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post. Photo editing by Jennifer Beeson Gregory.