Ryan Richardson: Some history and tips on ice cream
As temperatures rise, the robins come out from hiding and local ice cream parlors open their doors. The first weekend that folks break out the sunglasses and sandals, they’re also lining up to feed their insatiable appetite for ice cream.
Save for hardcore devotees, ice cream is something of a seasonal treat. What is refreshing and cool in the heat of the summer is an act of insanity in mid-January, so we pack away the pints in the warmer months at an average rate of more than six gallons every year.
Ice cream came about in the 16th century, where it was the favorite food of kings and princes. America has been in love with the treat since the earliest days of the republic. George Washington once spent $200 on ice cream during the course of one summer, equivalent to $2,500 at today’s rate.
Since that time, the basic formula for ice cream hasn’t changed all that much. Ice cream makers start with milk and add in sweeteners along with other ingredients – emulsifiers and stabilizers – that provide subtle but important effects in the end product. The ingredients are then mixed together, whipped and frozen to give it that smooth and refreshing quality that separates ice cream from ice cubes.
Ice cream bloomed in the 1800s with the spread of ice houses and industrial technology. The first ice cream machine was patented in 1843 in the United States, and in 1851 Jacob Fussell started mass-producing ice cream in Baltimore. Ice cream kept pace with industrial innovations, and the advent of electric power and refrigerated trucking helped make ice cream an affordable, year-round treat. Today the United States produces 1.55 billion gallons of ice cream a year.
If lines at the ice cream parlor aren’t to your liking, there are plenty of options available in the supermarket freezer. Dozens of brands and styles of ice cream fill the shelves, in addition to frozen yogurt and products that wish they were ice cream. Our research revealed little difference between the ice cream available at most ice cream stands, but when faced with a choice between “super premium” and “economy” ice cream, what’s a shopper to do?
At the most basic level, ice cream is a combination of two things: fat and air. Mechanically, ice cream has a lot in common with its cousin, butter, in that churning pushes together fats and milk solids to create a smooth, creamy texture. Air – called overrun by ice cream tycoons – further changes the texture of the ice cream. Air is also what keeps ice cream from becoming a solid block while it sits in the freezer.
The ratios of these two ingredients determine the grade. Premium ice creams have a higher fat content and low overrun; cheap ice cream is typically light on fat and heavy on air.
The quickest way to figure this out, when the label isn’t helping, is to divide the weight by the volume of the product you’re looking at. The more weight compared to volume that an ice cream has, the less air you’re paying for.
While fat is king when it comes to ice cream, there are a number of alternatives that use the cutting edge of food science to cut calories and fat content from the product. Each of these changes means compromising the integrity of the product in one way or another, but the options are available.
If you’re buying high-quality ice cream, you also want to think about how you handle it. As a frozen food, temperature is the biggest threat to ice cream, so ice cream should always stay in the freezer as long as possible. When ice cream melts, the air escapes from it so if melted ice cream gets placed back in the freezer it becomes an inedible lump. So make sure ice cream is the last item you grab in the grocery store and that you keep it deep inside the freezer to make sure it stays consistently cold.
To learn more about ice cream, stop in at a local ice cream shop or visit the International Dairy Food Association’s ice cream Web site at www.idfa.org/facts/icecream.cfm.