My introduction to making ice cream came from Mark Bittman’s classic How to Cook Everything. It really is a good book, never amazing but always solid and an excellent resource for beginning cooks. I learned from Bittman the difference between traditional custard based European ice cream and eggless “Philadelphia style”. The latter sounded good to me and I quickly whipped up a batch. Sadly, the result was memorable, but not in a good way — a mixture of icy and buttery. Ugh. I next turned to Marcella Hazan, who had been such a reliable guide in so many ways. But, likewise, the ice cream I made from her recipes was disappointing, not so much in flavor as in texture. I began to wonder what I was doing wrong.
I tried other books. David Lebovitz is a highly respected writer, but his book on ice cream offered no help and offended me with ridiculous flavors to boot (parsley ice cream anyone?). Torrance Kopfer’s Making Artisan Gelato was more help; he stressed the importance of processing the mix in a blender and allowing an overnight cure to improve texture. He was honest about the challenges of making ice cream at home, but ultimately his approaches were limited as well.
Eventually, I discovered some information that would have been very helpful to have from the start: home ice cream machines are at a disadvantage in producing high-quality ice cream because they churn and freeze the mixture too slowly, 25 to 30 minutes compared to less than 10 minutes for commercial machines. This slow churn time gives an opportunity for large ice crystals to form in the mixture, producing a result with inadequate smoothness and texture, icy instead of creamy. It turns out that my guides’ closing instructions in their recipes – freeze in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions – was the most important part, and one doomed to fail. Thanks a lot!
So, for years I consoled myself with making sorbet instead of ice cream or gelato. Being water-based rather than dairy-based, an icy sorbet isn’t the abomination that icy gelato is. But being a lover of gelato, I never entirely gave up. Occasionally I would try, tweaking a recipe here or there, trying to reduce the churning time in any way possible. I found two recipes that worked well, hazelnut and chocolate. I opined that the extra solids in these mixtures somehow improved the textures, but I really didn’t understand how or why.
Then I came upon the website icecreamscience.com, run by a British chap with a lot of knowledge and experience making ice cream. He suggested that the result was 70% recipe and 30% machine. He agreed that a professional machine could produce the ice cream faster, but he suggested that with the right recipe, even a humble machine such as I had could produce very excellent results. Part of his solution was to reduce the water content of the mixture (more water = more icy) by simmering it gently for quite a long time, something like 20 to 60 minutes. This amount of time was a bit intimidating, but I would have tried it had I not run into Meredith Kurtzman in the meantime.
Meredith was in charge of gelato production at Mario Batali’s restaurants Esca and then Otto. During her time there, she was considered by most to be the finest gelato maker in New York City. I learned from Meredith that using a little bit of the sugar dextrose can have a beneficial effect on gelato texture, as can the use of milk powders and a stabilizer such as guar or xantham gum. To those who care about using quality, natural ingredients, the term stabilizer might raise eyebrows. But it shouldn’t. Stabilizers are natural products derived from such plants as cassava root.
Just around the same time, I came across two new books which discussed these very things. For the first time in any book I had seen, there was a frank discussion of the limits of home ice cream machines and how different sugars and thickeners could play a role in improving ice cream texture, especially at home where the churning time was longer. Morgan Morano of Morano Gelato published The Art of Making Gelato, in which she discussed the value of using milk powder to soak up extra water in the mix. She also recommends a small amount of light corn syrup and tapioca flour in the mix, all in service of producing a less icy, smoother textured gelato. Dana Cree’s new book Hello, My Name is Ice Cream also discusses these issues. She gives more detailed information on choosing which stabilizer to use and she recommends the use of glucose syrup to improve texture as well. There is deep but understandable science in her book, which is invaluable for making gelato.
In the meantime, I had upgraded my machine from a $50 Cuisinart to a $700 Italian-made Lello machine, which is overkill for home use but perfect for our little restaurant. I was assured that the Lello machine could reduce freezing time to 15 minutes or less, but I was also encouraged by Morano’s and Cree’s assurance that the judicious use of milk powder, alternative sugars, and stabilizer could dramatically improve the results of ice cream, even using a slow-churn machine. If you do use an inexpensive machine such as the Cuisinart, the kind with the insert that lives in the freezer, it is imperative that the freezer be set to its coldest temperature. Freezer temperatures can vary considerably. Mine can be anywhere from -10 degrees F to 15 degrees F. If your insert is 15 degrees as opposed to -10, it will not be capable of freezing your ice cream mixture quickly. Once the ice cream is made, however, the freezer temp should be adjusted to around 10 degrees to prevent the ice cream from becoming rock hard. It’s a little extra work, but worth it.
I’m currently in the early stages of experimentation to find a personal expression of how I’d like my gelato to be, but I am encouraged by the results. Using Morano’s formula as a guide, I produced my first-ever successful fior di latte or sweetened milk, the most exposed and simple gelato flavor there is. On a recent trip to Venice, I was encouraged to see dextrose and vegetable fiber (a kind of stabilizer) in the ingredient list in one of the best and most natural gelaterie in town. Most gelaterie in Italy don’t proudly display their ingredients, and for a reason. Artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, and oils abound. Even in Italy, the search for quality takes effort.
I’m delighted to finally have the knowledge to produce excellent gelato at home. I wish it hadn’t taken 15 years and that I hadn’t received so much bad advice from certain writers along the way, but it’s better late than never. Sometimes success, when it finally comes, is all the sweeter for having been delayed.