One of my earliest memories is of crying my eyes out, and looking down to see a shiny red nub where the tip of my right big toe was supposed to be. I was 3 or 4, and we lived in a low-rent apartment complex in a second-floor unit. The units were connected by concrete stairwells, and one summer afternoon I was in such a rush to get up those stairs that I stubbed the skin off of my toe. I guess I cried out or something, because my grandmother was there instantly, trying to figure out how to Band-Aid up such an unusual injury. And I was crying, but it wasn’t my toe that was bothering me. I was freaking out because Dammit, Grandma, forget my stupid bloody toe nub, go get your change purse. The ice cream truck is getting away! Priorities, man.
It was a Baltimorean who made that ice cream truck possible. Jacob Fussell was a 19th-century dairy product distribution specialist—or milkman, if you want to be quaint about it. Ice cream had been around in a form recognizable to most since at least colonial times. But it was strictly small-scale, made either at home or by specialty confectioners who charged an arm and a leg for it. Fussell established the first large-scale production operation, making it cheap enough for normal folk to enjoy, either directly, via trucks (which would apparently rust through quickly, due to the melting ice and salt), or eventually via retail outlets like markets and ice cream parlors and saloons. (Yes, there were once ice cream saloons.)
So who actually invented ice cream? From what I can uncover, the Chinese can be credited with the earliest record of incorporating dairy with, um, frozenness. Speaking of dairy, here’s the spectrum of frozen products in descending order of butterfat content: ice cream, ice milk (or sometimes low-fat ice cream), gelato (less fat but more sugar), sherbet, sorbet (no fat). If the product contains a certain amount of egg yolk, it can be called frozen custard, and if it’s frozen only just before serving, it can be called soft-serve.
Easy experiment: Take a carton of milk, half and half, heavy cream, doesn’t matter—and put it in the freezer overnight. The next day, you will have ice cream, yay! FALSE. You will actually have a large block of frozen dairy. The trick to going from rock-hard to soft and smooth is all about size, which has everything to do with the “motion of the ocean,” if you will. Ice cream requires agitation during the freezing process to keep ice crystals from bunching together and growing large enough to perceive in one’s mouth. Ever leave a carton of ice cream out too long and refreeze it? That nastiness is the result of runaway crystal formation.
It’s this need for both cold and motion that makes it kind of a pain to make the stuff at home. I’ve owned practically every type of ice-cream-making device, more because I’m a gadget freak than an ice cream head. The movement issue is generally handled by something called a dasher, which is usually finned or bladed to efficiently stir and scrape the ice cream mixture. The stirring action is either manual, usually via a hand crank, or powered by an electric motor. The stirring can also affect texture by incorporating air into the ice cream, which lightens and fluffs it up but negatively affects flavor and richness. The amount of air in ice cream is called overrun, and generally super-premium ice cream has less overrun than cheaper products, and gelato has even less than super-premium. Air is cheap, you know.
The other key is, of course, cooling, for which most lower-priced devices take the old-school route of ice and salt, the latter enabling the former to absorb more heat energy before melting. Unfortunately, the best type of salt to use is rock (it lasts longer before dissolving), which can be found just about nowhere these days. Ambient temperature has a huge effect, and duh, it’s freaking hot out. Other makers use a freezable container that often doesn’t remain cold enough to make decent ice cream. The more costly route is a built-in freezing unit. I’ve owned a couple of such machines that cost a small fortune, were beautiful, worked great, but then broke down in a couple of months—they were Il Gelataio Italian gelato machines. Draw your own conclusions.
Perhaps the most ingenious-seeming low-tech solution I’ve encountered is something called the “Camper’s Dream,” which is a hollow plastic ball containing a sealed internal chamber where the cream/sugar mixture is contained. The remaining interior space is filled with the usual ice and salt, and the idea is to play with the ball, thus agitating the ice cream mixture, until it’s done. Except that the ball weighs probably 10 pounds when full, is hard and pointy, and doesn’t even roll that well. More of a weapon than a plaything. Also, you have to open it up periodically to check the ice cream, causing sugary stickiness to get all over the ball and your hands, and dirt and mud and ants to get all over that. It requires a change of ice and took me over 45 minutes of rigorous ball-shaking on a 75-degree day to get even semisolid ice cream. Long story short, it’s a piece of crap. But I did come across an even lower-tech method that requires virtually no special equipment and works extremely well. See below. Note that freezer bags work best because they have the best seals, and you can incorporate fruit or other additions after the ice cream has set. (And I’ve never tried it, but adding chocolate syrup should be fine.)
Resealable Plastic Freezer Bag Ice CreamIngredients1 cup half and half
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract, or 1/8 teaspoon vanilla bean scrapings
1/8 teaspoon salt
Materials1 1-quart freezer bag
1 1-gallon freezer bag
1/2 cup kosher or rock salt
oven mitts or winter gloves
Directions1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and stir thoroughly.
2. Seal ingredients into quart bag.
3. Add ice and salt to gallon bag. Mix.
4. Place sealed quart bag into gallon bag. Seal.
5. Don gloves and gently agitate bags using a combo of rocking, tilting, and massaging, until ice cream has set, 10 or 15 minutes.