Is there a magic ingredient that keeps ice-cream soft?

Burdon on society
  • Is there a magic ingredient that keeps ice-cream soft? Burdon on society

    I have bought a electric ice-cream churner, I have tried so many different flavours, different recipes, used alcohols. Have read previous questions and a don't believe that leaving ice-cream out to thaw -scoop then refreeze is the only answer.How do the commercial companies keep them soft. I generally find the next day it is fairly reasonable to scoop, but day after day -the longer it stays the harder it becomes.

  • Yes, actually, there are two magic ingredients: Guar gum and Xanthan gum.

    Guar gum is a thickener, but in small quantities can also prevent the growth of ice crystals which would cause the ice cream to harden into icicles.

    Xanthan gum is a stabilizer which helps keep air (called overrun) in the mixture. Air is generally churned into ice cream by ice cream machines, but it won't stay that way without the stabilizer.

  • The magical ingredients for commercial ice cream are stabilizers, emulsifiers, and really good freezers. As Aaronut notes, stabilizers can go a long way... Personally, watching a bowl of ice cream melt without losing its shape makes me a bit uncomfortable, so... use in moderation.

    But if you don't happen to have any gum available, here are a few suggestions drawn from my personal experience with home churning:

    You want air. Lots of air.

    My little (1.5qt) churn came with a bunch of recipes starting out at 2/3rds of the final volume (1qt). That's enough if I want to serve it within a few hours, but since I don't have a blast freezer in my kitchen the end result tends to lose some air while hardening. I've found that aiming for a post-churn mixture where air is around 50% of the volume works much better.

    Start with a custard

    Yes, I mean eggs. Egg yolk. There's some additional fat in this, but you're working with cream so you should have plenty of that already. There are also emulsifiers and proteins, and I suspect this is where the real value comes in: remember, the eventual goal is to end up with a sort of frozen foam stable enough to resist falling while hardening. It's also nice if you're able to mix in that air without turning the milk fat into butter... I aim for a maximum temperature of 140° to 160° F when cooking the custard, as this seems to provide sufficient texture without curdling (but if you do have problems with the mixture curdling, try using a double boiler). The final product should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, and you should chill it as quickly as possible (and you want it good and cold before trying to churn it - at least down to 40° F).

    Use plenty of sugar

    This is your anti-freeze. It won't keep ice crystals from forming, but it will keep the liquid from freezing solid (the more crystals form, the more concentrated the solution and the lower the freezing temperature). If you add the sugar to your custard, you can be sure it's properly dissolved - sugar granules don't do you much good. Once frozen your perception of the sweetness will decrease, so if you're tasting as you go along don't be afraid to go a bit beyond what you'd normally be comfortable eating.

    Use heavy cream

    Well, this should be a given, but... The lower the milkfat content, the more water and hence more ice you'll end up with. You can combat this with more sugar, but you'll still have trouble whipping in enough air because you'll have less fat to stabilize it.

    Harden it fast, store it cold

    You probably don't have a way to blast-freeze the final product either, but you can still do your best: make sure your deep freeze is as cold as possible (I keep mine at or below -10° F), put the ice cream into small, thin-walled containers (I re-use pint-size yogurt containers) and bury them in frozen veggies. Using multiple containers has the advantage of letting you take one out to consume without exposing the rest to room temperature, but more importantly it increases surface area: if you must put it all in a single container, try to find a wide, shallow one.

    And once you have it cold, keep it cold - the longer it takes to freeze, the bigger the ice crystals will be, but the colder you keep it once frozen the less they'll grow over time (you'll also lose less air if you can avoid freeze/rethaw cyles). Not so much of an issue if you want to eat it tomorrow, but critical if you're aiming for soft creamy goodness a week or two out. Avoid auto-defrosting freezers for this same reason.


    There are a lot of variables here. Fat content, sugar, other ingredients, the design of your churn and temperature of your freezer, ambient temperature, altitude, container size, personal taste... Don't be afraid to play around with things until you hit a recipe and process that you're happy with! It took me a couple of days to get comfortable making vanilla ice cream, but several months of trial and error (wonderful, delicious trial and error...) to get a pumpkin ice cream I was happy with. Fortunately, it's fairly easy to find folks willing to help eat your "mistakes"...

  • I'm using a Krups ice cream maker. Without easy access to E numbers, and only a domestic ice cream maker, I find that the biggest variables are fat, sugar and water content.

    Without an expensive ice cream maker, you can't really rely on air or flash freezing. My maker just won't stay that cold longer enough, and it can't churn enough air into the mix.

    The biggest improvements to my own ice cream came from perfecting my custard and just not using flavourings that add too much water. And before churning, I try and get the custard as cold as possible. Usually I leave it in the fridge over night.

  • The key is to keep your ice crystals small. Freezing it fast (as mentioned by Knives) is one option. I've seen liquid nitrogen and dry ice each advocated to this end. The other option is additives.

    Commercial ice creams are quite the chemistry set indeed. The gums mentioned as well as methylcellulose and carageenan form gels and minimize ice crystal formation. Glycerol monostearate and lecithin both emulsify and limit ice crystal formation.

  • A professional ice cream machine -- one that doesn't have a base which lives in your freezer, is going to be the best way.

    As @Ray said -- you need to keep the ice crystals as small as possible. The best way to do this is to start with an extremely cold base and freeze it as quickly as possible.

    Premium commercial ice creams don't have to contain stabilizers and gums since they're made on machinery designed to freeze as quickly as possible.

    That being said, I've had luck with this recipe:

    Which does not use crazy chemicals just cornstarch.

  • Technically Xanthan Gum is a polysaccharide, derived from the bacterial coat of Xanthomonas campestris. It is not associated with milk ingredients, but was discovered on corn. Many people believe that those with corn allergies should avoid this ingredient, however commerically produced it is generally corn free.

    Adding a dash to your ice cream will definitely improve ice crystal formation, thickening and hardening. However, the real secret is fat content. Fat doesn't freeze, but water does. So, if your ice cream is mostly milk it has a relatively low fat content and will turn out much harder. Use heavy whipping cream to make ice cream that you prefer to stay softer.

  • Here's how commercial companies keep ice cream soft and keep ice crystals from forming: They add propylene glycol (anti-freeze, yes anti-freeze)!


    See also:

    I'd rather have the ice crystals.

  • Even better try glycerine, a form of clear liquid sugar, don't forget to deduct the sugar value of the glycerine from the recipe. It always works for me.

  • Both sugar and alcohol lower the freezing point of water and keep the ice cream "softer" at lower temperatures. Too much sugar and the ice cream is too sweet. A little bit of alcohol goes a long way in lowering the freezing point though.

    One of my favourite ice cream recipes is Whisky and Honey Ice Cream. 2-3 tablespoons of whisky in a half gallon batch of honey ice cream adds great flavour and ensures that I can open the freezer and enjoy a spoonful of ice cream immediately.

    Here's my recipe:

    I don't like emulsifiers or other chemicals. In my experience ice cream with no additives will stay nice for a week in the freezer, if it's lasting longer than that, it's probably something wrong with the flavour!

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