When it’s hot and sticky in the summer, consider it a sign that the universe is giving you an excuse to eat more ice cream. You can get instant gratification by grabbing a cone at your local scoop shop, but why not take the time to make your favorite flavor at home?
“It seems intimidating but it’s really quite easy,” said Jackie Cuscuna, founder of Brooklyn, New York ice cream shop The Social. Making homemade ice cream “seems like something more like alchemy. You’re taking a liquid and turning it into a delectable frozen solid,” she added.
This alchemy can be accomplished by any home cook, regardless of skill level. All you need are a few basic ingredients and a little imagination. Here’s how to turn your kitchen into a full-scale ice cream laboratory.
You don’t need pricey equipment
First things first: You’ll need an ice cream maker to churn your frozen concoctions. But you don’t need to dip into your savings to get one that does the job well. “It’s absolutely 100% OK to start off with a basic model – any one will do,” Cuscuna said.
The most affordable models use a bowl that needs to be pre-frozen before use, which does take up space in the freezer and requires advance planning. However, if that additional time and forethought makes sense from a cost perspective, these models are reliable and long-running. Compressor models are more expensive (and heavier) but don’t require any advance freezing.
(If you’re wondering what this food writer uses for her homemade ice cream, after 15 years of developing and testing recipes using a basic freezer bowl model, I switched to a compressor in 2020.)
For a challenge, you can make ice cream without electricity. Though they don’t use it for the large-scale batches sold at The Social, when her family is making ice cream for fun, “we prefer to do the old school method with a hand crank ice cream churner with ice and rock salt,” Cuscuna said. If you’re looking for something to keep the kids busy at the beach house or lake cabin, it may be fun to stash one of these manual models there.
You don’t need to use eggs
Many ice cream recipes use an egg custard base to give the finished ice cream its thick, smooth texture. “Eggs are an emulsifier,” Cuscuna explained, containing both proteins and fats that help maintain the consistency of ice cream as it churns and air bubbles are whipped into the creamy base.
To start with a traditional egg-based custard, churn up a rich vanilla ice cream. Make it your own by customizing it with classic mix-ins or try new combinations like Rice Krispie Treat ice cream.
If you don’t want to use eggs in your ice cream base, “you need to add something else that’s going to allow it to be as creamy as it can be,” Cuscuna said. Philadelphia-style ice cream, so-called because it was allegedly developed by Benjamin Franklin during the sweltering summer of 1787 to cool down his fellow Constitutional Convention delegates, uses heavy cream, milk and sugar as its base. The fats in the heavy cream help emulsify this mixture, though it can have more of a soft serve consistency than egg-based ice creams.
Other ingredients can also take the place of eggs to stabilize and emulsify the ice cream. Portland, Oregon-based ice creamery Salt & Straw uses xanthan gum, light corn syrup and dry milk powder in its eggless ice cream base, while the Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream base uses cream cheese, light corn syrup and cornstarch. For a chocolatey eggless ice cream, make some Philadelphia-style Rocky Road ice cream, which uses cocoa powder to thicken and smooth the ice cream base.
Or try The Social’s method for giving their ice cream bases, all of which are egg-free, more thickness and body. “We puree the mix-ins that we’re using, like brownies or ooey gooey butter cake,” into the ice cream base, Cuscuna explained. Blending ingredients like cakes and cookies into the base gives it “a thicker, creamier, more resonant flavor,” she said.
No-churn and no-dairy ice cream? No problem!
With so many high-quality plant- and nut-based dairy replacements now on the market, making vegan ice cream at home is much easier than it was a decade ago. Coconut milk, almond milk or cashew milk are some of the most popular swap-ins for getting that rich and creamy ice cream taste without dairy. This salted bourbon caramel ice cream uses cashews and coconut milk.
No-churn ice cream might seem like a recent trend, especially if you spend enough time on Pinterest, but the idea has been around for more than a century. The traditional Italian dessert semifreddo, for example, is made by blending whipped cream with eggs and freezing the mixture to a mousse-like consistency.
Some modern recipes ditch the eggs for sweetened condensed milk, which has a similar gooey structure to sugar-thickened egg yolks, and which can be flavored any which way under the sun. For dairy-free no-churn ice cream, full-fat coconut milk mimics the structure of heavy cream incredibly well for a thick, smooth finished product.
Where to begin?
With so many options, it’s hard to decide what flavor of ice cream to make first. (I’m going with my all-time favorite: lemon crisp ice cream.)
Whatever you decide to churn, “it’s never going to be bad,” Cuscuna said. Experimenting with homemade ice cream is “more about the combination of flavors that are going to speak to you and resonate to that childlike sense you have,” she added.
So whether it’s a Cracker Jack-inspired ice cream flavor to scoop into your favorite plastic baseball helmet, a dairy-free summer berry ice cream, or a classic chocolate flavor, you can’t go wrong.
Casey Barber is a food writer, illustrator and photographer; author of “Pierogi Love: New Takes on an Old-World Comfort Food” and “Classic Snacks Made From Scratch: 70 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Brand-Name Treats”; and editor of the website Good. Food. Stories.