Ice-cream 101: How to create custom flavours at home

Adapt these ice-cream base recipes with your own mix-ins and flavourings.
Adapt these ice-cream base recipes with your own mix-ins and flavourings. Photo: Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post

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 fridge, 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 flavour or six that suits your particular taste, mood and diet. But when you make your own, you get a perfect match.

Start with flavours and ingredients you are drawn to, suggests Jeni Britton Bauer, the cookbook author and founder of American 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 favourites, in-season produce and even music and colour for ideas.

You might love the idea of churning out your own custom flavours, 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.

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Corn flour 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.

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 flavours, 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 cream – it is ice-cream, after all – but other contributors might be milk, buttermilk and even cheese, depending on the flavour. 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 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 favour by using a liquid sugar, such as honey, golden syrup or glucose, for especially smooth results. Bauer employs some corn syrup, 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 favour 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 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 five to 10 minutes to soften on the bench before scooping.

Good Food Magazine December 2019 Ice-cream Churners

Breville's the Smart Scoop ice-cream maker. Photo: Supplied

Equipment

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to making ice-cream at home is the machine. You can make no-churn ice-cream, 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.

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 centre 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 (such as the Breville Smart Scoop, see below) 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 and Kenwood offer an attachment for their stand mixers.

The rest of the equipment you'll need to get started 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-litre) and whisks. A fine-mesh strainer and food processor or immersion blender are handy, too.

Top three ice-cream churners

1. Breville The Smart Scoop Ice-Cream Maker, $399

This semi-pro machine has a compressor, which cools the mixture without the need for ice or a freezer. It also has 12 hardness settings to adjust texture.

2. Cuisinart Fruit Scoop Frozen Dessert Maker, $139

Freeze the internal bowl and this machine will churn fruit or dairy into ice-cream. The American brand also has other models available with compressors.

3. Kenwood Chef - Frozen Dessert Maker Attachment, $129

Spec up your Kenwood Chef mixer with this frozen dessert attachment, which takes you from fresh cream to a litre of icy goodness in just 30 minutes.

DANI VALENT

Keys to success

The base recipes (see 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 baking cookbook author Rose Levy Beranbaum. 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 4C (in the case of Bauer's recipes, an overnight chill will let the corn flour 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.

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 corn flour-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 flavour, 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 -6C.

Store it properly

Airtight is the way to go. Keep out unwanted odours and humidity by packing the ice-cream into a container and covering the surface with baking 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 ice-cream entrepreneur Victoria Lai. 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 flavour and texture can begin to suffer.

Make it your own

Let's move on to the really fun part: designing your own flavours. 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.

Homemade peach ice cream. Homemade ice-cream generics for Good Food Washington Post ice cream feature summer 2020. Good Food use only.

Adding fruit to an ice-cream base can be tricky. Photo: iStock

Flavouring the base

There are a multitude of ways you can add flavour directly to the base.

Extracts and essential oils

A little goes a long way. Add up to three teaspoons of extract per litre of ice-cream just before freezing so the flavours 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.

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 flavours and ingredients that could easily be leached of flavour 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 flavours and drive off some of the water that could make things icy. Try cooking with a bit of sugar. After numerous rounds of testing, I got the best result by reducing the fruit (in this case, peaches) 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.

Mixing peanuts into home made vanilla ice cream.  Homemade ice-cream generics for Good Food Washington Post ice cream feature summer 2020. Good Food use only.

Mixing nuts and chocolate chunks into homemade vanilla ice-cream. Photo: iStock

Mix-ins

Lebovitz says his ideal amount of mix-ins is 1½ to 2 cups per litre of churned ice-cream. Really, the possibilities are endless, from cookies and cake to lollies 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 favourite is crumbled amaretti cookies, which get ever so slightly chewy but retain plenty of texture when embedded in ice-cream.

Semi-soft

Try dried fruit plumped in sugar syrup or macerated in alcohol. Cubes of cake or jams are good here, too.

Feeling hungry? Inspired? Ready to craft your own flavour? 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."

Sweet cream ice-cream base

Consider this soft, smooth and scoopable base your go-to blank canvas for creating any ice-cream flavour you want. It's also great as is. Unlike a traditional French custard-based ice-cream recipe, this one is egg-free. Instead, cream cheese lends body and a slight tang, which will be more or less prominent depending on which add-ins you choose. Corn flour also helps thicken the base.

Bauer recommends using Philadelphia brand cream cheese. Don't be tempted to leave out the syrup. It keeps the churned ice-cream from getting icy.

The ice-cream base needs to chill overnight in the fridge. The churned ice-cream needs at least 4 hours to set in the freezer.

INGREDIENTS

2⅔ cups whole milk

5 tsp corn flour

3 tbsp cream cheese, at room temperature

⅛ tsp fine sea salt

1½ cups cream

¾ cup sugar

¼ cup light corn syrup (or glucose syrup)

METHOD

1. Whisk about 1½ tablespoons of the milk with the corn flour in a small bowl to form a smooth slurry.

2. Whisk together the cream cheese and salt in a medium bowl, until smooth.

3. Combine the remaining milk, the heavy cream, sugar and corn or glucose syrup in a large (four litre) saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a rolling boil, reducing the heat as needed to make sure the mixture does not boil over; cook for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat just long enough to gradually whisk in the corn flour slurry; return the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat and cook for about 1 minute, stirring with a spatula until slightly thickened, with a consistency a little thicker than cream. Remove from the heat.

4. Gradually whisk the hot milk mixture into the salted cream cheese, until smooth. (At this point, you can whisk in flavour add-ins, such as fruit purees or brewed tea.) Cover the bowl; refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, at least overnight.

5. When you are ready to churn, assemble your ice-cream machine according to the manufacturer's directions and turn it on. Pour in the chilled ice-cream base and spin until it's thick and creamy – about the consistency of soft-serve ice-cream.

6. Pack the ice-cream into a storage container, alternating it with layers of your add-ins of choice, if using; do not stir (to retain the layering). Press a sheet of baking paper directly against the surface, and seal with an airtight lid. Freeze in the coldest part of your freezer until firm, at least 4 hours.

Note: To chill the base mixture faster, pour it into a large resealable zip-top bag and seal. Submerge the sealed bag in an ice-water bath in a large bowl. Let stand, adding more ice as necessary, until cold, at least 1 hour.

Makes 1.25L

Chocolate ice-cream base

This creamy, almost chewy base is packed with cocoa flavour, but because it's a mellow chocolate made milky with the addition of evaporated milk, it will play well without overwhelming any add-ins. Unlike a traditional French custard-based ice-cream, this recipe is egg-free and relies on evaporated milk for both flavour and body.

Don't be tempted to leave out the syrup. It's less sweet than granulated sugar and keeps the ice-cream from getting icy.

Note: The ice-cream base needs to chill overnight in the fridge or, if you are using an ice-water bath (see note, above), at least an hour on the bench. The churned ice-cream needs at least 4 hours to set in the freezer.

INGREDIENTS

1 cup plus 1½ tbsp whole milk

5 tsp corn flour

55g dark chocolate (55 to 70 per cent cocoa)

1½ cups cream

1½ cups (one 340g tin) evaporated milk

¾ cup sugar

¼ cup light corn syrup or glucose syrup

⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

¼ tsp salt

METHOD

1. Whisk the 1½ tablespoons of milk with the corn flour in a small bowl to form a smooth slurry.

2. Chop the chocolate and put it in a medium bowl.

3. Combine the remaining cup of milk, the cream, evaporated milk, sugar and corn or glucose syrup in a large (four litre) saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a rolling boil and add the cocoa, whisking until it is incorporated, reducing the heat as needed to make sure the mixture does not boil over; cook for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat just long enough to gradually whisk in the corn flour slurry; return the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat and cook for about 1 minute, stirring with a spatula until slightly thickened, with a consistency a little thicker than cream. Remove from the heat.

4. Gradually whisk the hot milk mixture into the chocolate. Add the salt and whisk until the chocolate is melted and incorporated. Cover the bowl and refrigerate it until thoroughly chilled, at least overnight. (At this point, you can whisk in flavour add-ins such as extracts or liqueurs.)

5. When you are ready to churn, assemble your ice-cream machine according to the manufacturer's directions and turn it on. Pour in the chilled ice-cream base and spin until it's thick and creamy – about the consistency of soft-serve ice-cream.

6. Pack the ice-cream into a storage container, alternating it with layers of your solid add-ins of choice, if using; do not stir (to retain the layering). Press a sheet of baking paper directly against the surface, and seal with an airtight lid. Freeze in the coldest part of your freezer until firm, at least 4 hours.

Makes 1.25L

Recipes adapted from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home and Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream Desserts by Jeni Britton Bauer.

The Washington Post