Beat the Heat Dome With DIY Ice Cream

Churning up summer's best dessert at homes means you can be exacting with your ingredients.
Homemade strawberry ice cream. (Photo: Sarah Sphar/Flickr)
Jul 27, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

It’s easy to dismiss making ice cream and other frozen treats from scratch as an exercise in nostalgia, even in this DIY age. After all, you can find an array of perfectly delicious options at any supermarket or scoop shop, right?

Well, yes. And ice cream manufacturers who focus on sustainability issues—including Ben & Jerry’s, which has long been in the forefront, particularly in the realm of social justice—deserve a shout-out, along with the savvy consumers who are driving the trend today. According to a June 13 report in Progressive Grocer, among new products worth noting are GMO-free sorbetti from Ciao Bella as well as Breyers vanilla ice cream made with Rainforest Alliance Certified vanilla beans.

Be that as it may, I’m here to tell you that there is absolutely nothing like the flavor of the freshly churned stuff, made with ingredients you choose and control yourself. Factor in a dash of the unexpected—try a recipe for basil ice cream, for instance, or sweet corn gelato or cantaloupe granita—and the result is a no-bake dessert that is impossible to buy in any store. (In response to an “Intentional Summer Challenge,” readers of The New York Times pushed the envelope with sauerkraut, “Ants on a Log,” and more.)

It’s also fair to say that the simplest, plainest homemade ice cream will send guests at even the fanciest dinner party over the moon. My go-to choice this time of year is the perfect no-cook strawberry ice cream, which takes about 10 minutes of active time and is a genius recipe if there ever was one. Another winner is honeysuckle sorbet, a sublime signature dish from chef Bill Smith of Crook’s Corner restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “The first bite of this tends to silence people,” he writes in Seasoned in the South: Recipes From Crook’s Corner and From Home. “It’s like walking around at night with your mouth open. In fact, the flowers are best if picked at night because that’s when they really release their fragrance.”

And this five-herb ice milk can help keep your herb garden from running rampant in full summer. It’s also impossible to screw up: Ian Knauer, a former Gourmet colleague (and TakePart contributor), who developed the recipe, began with a French rendition that included tarragon, lemon balm, and lavender. It was delicious, but as long as you stick to the proportions in the recipes, more assertive herbs such as oregano, rosemary, and thyme work well too.

When it comes to ice cream, there are two main types. Standard ice cream, which is sometimes called Philadelphia style or plain, is a frozen mixture of sweetened heavy cream lightened with milk; it does not contain eggs. Custard (aka French) ice cream is made with whole eggs or egg yolks that are typically cooked into a custard base, or crème anglaise. Generally speaking, standard ice cream has a fresher, more immediate flavor than a custard ice cream. On the other hand, the old-fashioned eggy richness of a custard has a powerful allure, and because the eggs are a natural emulsifier (that is, they bind all the other ingredients into a cohesive whole), they help a custard ice cream stay malleable after a few days in the freezer—if it lasts that long.

Gelato—Italian ice cream—is made with milk or a combination of milk and heavy cream. It may also contain eggs, egg whites, or cornstarch. Gelato has a lower percentage of milk fat (sometimes called butterfat) than standard or custard ice creams do, so it incorporates less air in the churning and freezing process, resulting in a dense, soft, satiny texture. That lower fat content also allows more intense flavors, such as chocolate or hazelnut, to come into their own. A high fat content tends to batten down flavor, which is my main objection to so many of the superpremium (and superexpensive) commercial ice creams.

A granita is usually made with fruit juice, puréed fruit, coffee, or wine. It’s not churned but stirred occasionally during freezing to encourage the formation of coarse, flaky ice crystals. A sorbet is much like a granita, but because it’s churned instead of still frozen, it has a finer, lighter texture.

Now, a quick note about sweeteners. Sugar is a tried-and-true component of ice cream recipes, and Ice Cream Nation’s science page explains why: Not only does it add sweetness, but it’s key to texture and body. It “also lowers the freezing point of the mix, ensuring that the ice cream does not freeze rock solid. In other words, reducing the sweeteners (for health or dietary reasons, for example) does not only affect sweetness but could also jeopardize the ‘build’ and stability of the ice cream.” I haven’t had any experience making ice creams with alternative sweeteners, but there are numerous options online; if you have a favorite, please share.

As for ice cream makers, their purpose is to freeze the base mix as fast as possible while beating air into it. Aeration adds smoothness, and without it, ice cream frozen in the freezer would be as solid and un-scoopable as a frozen block of butter. The increase in volume from ice cream’s ingredients and the aerated end result is called overrun in the trade.

I was delighted to see that my ice cream maker of choice, the Cuisinart Frozen Yogurt, Ice Cream & Sorbet Maker (model ICE-21), was the top pick in this month’s Cook’s Illustrated roundup. At $54, it delivers great bang for the buck, is simple to use, and is light enough to be easily stowed when it’s not needed. Also, it makes delicious, even-textured ice cream. But old-timey hand-cranked models are still in production, and if your goal is to make four to six quarts at a time—helpful for family reunions or at the height of peach season—White Mountain Products (established in 1853) makes large sizes in both hand-crank and electric models.