Ice cream is one of the best parts of summer, if not the best part of summer. But as fun as it is to chase the Good Humor truck down the street (oh c'mon, as if you've never?), it's even more fun to churn up a batch at home and eat it straight from the container, barefoot and curled up by the AC. Here, we'll cover everything you need to know about making homemade ice cream.
Pick your ice cream base
Vanilla ice cream is often seen as the ultimate plain-Jane flavor, but it's not. It's vanilla. If you remove the extract or bean, you're left with sweet cream, the purest ice cream possible. In Italy, the equivalent gelato is known as fior di latte, or "flower of milk" (so pretty). You can — and should! — eat sweet cream as is. But it also happens to be the foundation for all other ice creams. Here are six ways to make it:
Named for the many dairy farms that used to surround Philadelphia, this eggless ice cream base is as simple as it gets. Because there is no cooking involved, preparing the base is as easy as whisking together cream, milk, sugar, and salt, then chilling and churning.
Pros: Cooking a custard — without curdling the egg yolks — takes skill. Stirring ingredients doesn't! You can't mess this up. The brighter, lighter flavor of Philadelphia-style also lends itself particularly well to fresh fruit, vegetable, or herb ice creams.
Cons: Because there are no fatty egg yolks to emulsify the ice cream base, Philadelphia-style ice creams freeze harder and icier than their custardy counterparts. To sidestep this, make sure to let the ice cream sit out at room temperature for 10-ish minutes before serving, or supplement the granulated sugar with a liquid sweetener, such as corn syrup or honey (more on why below, "How to Avoid Icy Ice Cream").
Basic ratio: 2 cups heavy cream, 1 cup whole milk, ¾ cup granulated sugar (or ½ cup granulated sugar plus ¼ cup liquid sweetener), ¼ teaspoon kosher salt.
2. French style
Also known as custard ice cream, this super silky base is distinguished by its egg yolks. Unlike Philadelphia-style, you have to cook the ingredients first, then chill, then churn. Here's the cheat sheet: Combine the egg yolks, sugar, and salt in a bowl. Warm up the cream and milk. Slowly add the warm dairy to the yolk-sugar mixture (to temper the yolks), then return the whole mixture to the stovetop and cook until thick enough to coat a spoon, like gravy.
Pros: The egg yolks not only add rich flavor and a buttery color, but they act as an emulsifier, creating a smoother, creamier ice cream that's less prone to crystallization (the enemy of ice cream everywhere!).
Cons: Egg-tempering and custard-making can be tricky. If you temper the eggs or cook the mixture too quickly, you'll end up with scrambled eggs (and eggy-tasting ice cream, ick). To avoid this, temper the yolks as slowly as possible (adding a couple tablespoons of warm liquid at a time), then cook over medium-low heat, whisking slowly but constantly.
Basic ratio: 2 cups heavy cream, 1 cup whole milk, ¾ cup granulated sugar, 6 egg yolks, ¼ teaspoon kosher salt.
If you look hard enough, you'll find a couple rebellious ice cream recipes that call for egg yolks, but don't cook them. This style is so uncommon, there's not even a name for it, but it's the sort of ice cream my mom made every summer when I was growing up, inspired by the now 32-year-old Ben & Jerry's cookbook. Turns out, Superiority Burger owner and ice cream extraordinaire does the same thing. As Dana Cree writes in Hello, My Name Is Ice Cream, Headley "likes how the egg yolk adds richness but no cooked flavor."
Pros: With this method, you can get the best of both worlds. Simply whisk the eggs and sugar until pale yellow and very thick, then add the cream and milk. It's the ease of the Philadelphia method, with some bonus richness.
Cons: Raw egg yolks are questionable from a food-safety perspective (since germs, like salmonella, can only be killed by cooking to a certain temperature). Proceed at your own risk.
Basic ratio: 2 cups heavy cream, 1 cup whole milk, ¾ cup granulated sugar (or ½ cup granulated sugar plus ¼ cup liquid sweetener), 2 large egg yolks, ¼ teaspoon kosher salt.
A cooked-until-thick ice cream base, just like custardy French, but in this case, egg yolks aren't doing the thickening. Cornstarch is. (Yes, the same cornstarch you have in your pantry to make gravy!) As David Lebovitz notes in The Perfect Scoop, "thickening gelato with a starch is a Sicilian trait, and it is done because egg yolks are less digestible than starch, important during their hot summers." If you ask me, the chewy, silky result is something to get behind anytime, anywhere. To make a Sicilian-style ice cream: Heat up the cream and milk. Separately stir together the sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Slowly add the warm liquids to the dry ingredients, return to the saucepan, and continue to cook until thick. Chill completely, then churn.
Pros: Cornstarch inhibits ice crystallization, which means you're in for a supremely creamy ice cream. It's the sort of texture egg yolks would accomplish, but without the added heaviness.
Cons: Cornstarch breaks down in the freezer over time, which means you won't want to keep this ice cream around forever. Get on those sundaes sooner than later.
Basic ratio: 1 1/2 cups heavy cream, 1 1/2 cups whole milk, 3/4 cup granulated sugar, 3 tablespoons cornstarch, 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt.
5. No churn
You don't need an ice cream maker to make ice cream. But you do need to know how to mimic one. An ice cream maker accomplishes two things at once: freezing and aerating the ice cream base. Freezing makes the mixture scoopable (instead of pourable), while aerating makes the mixture fluffy (instead of rock-hard). The most common no-churn method uses sweetened condensed milk and whipped cream. The former acts as a custard-like base, while the latter adds air. But there are other ways to get creative: In this Genius lemon ice cream, you freeze a lemon-thickened ice cream base until slushy (two to three hours), stir it up, then continue freezing. You can also freeze an ice cream base completely, break it up into chunks, then whip these until fluffy in a food processor like in this no-churn peach ice cream.
Pros: No special equipment needed. No-churn ice cream recipes are great if you're in a small kitchen with limited appliances — or, ahem, if you forgot to freeze the bowl for your ice cream maker (me, all the time).
Cons: Because these ice creams are creatively — not technically — "churned," they get harder and icier quicker. If you make a batch, try to eat it as soon as possible (maybe this isn't such a bad thing after all).
Basic ratio: 2 cups heavy cream, 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk, ¼ teaspoon kosher salt.
Not to be confused with sorbet, which is non-dairy, yes, but is made up of fruit puree or juice, sugar, and water. Non-dairy ice creams are all about creamy ingredients — they just happen to come from plants, not cows. Coconut milk is the most common, though you'll also see cashew milk, soy milk, almond milk, and even oat milk. Combining different milks allows you to customize the flavor and fat content. Because many recipes are both non-dairy and vegan (no animal products at all), egg yolks are an uncommon emulsifier. In their place, you'll find everything from coconut or olive oil to cornstarch or arrowroot starch.
Pros: For people who don't eat dairy by choice or can't because of an allergy, non-dairy ice cream is a dream doppelgänger. When made properly, it's as scoopable and creamy as the real deal.
Cons: While dairy milks are mild in flavor and rich in fat content, non-dairy milks are more complicated. If you pick a leaner variety, like soy or oat, you should supplement it with a fattier milk and/or oil. And if you go for all coconut milk (the richest of the bunch), be prepared for a coconutty flavor.
Basic ratio: 2 (13.5-ounce) cans full-fat coconut milk, ½ cup granulated sugar (or ¼ cup granulated sugar plus ¼ cup liquid sweetener), 2 tablespoons melted coconut oil (refined for less coconutty flavor), ¼ teaspoon kosher salt.
How to flavor any ice cream base
Now that you know how to make a sweet cream base, let's learn how to flavor it. You can customize your ice cream in countless ways, from grinding up black sesame seeds to opening a bottle of beer, but here we're going to focus on the basics.
The easiest way to flavor a sweet cream base is by adding an extract. Vanilla, almond, and mint are most common. Like salt, the best way to determine the quantity here is to taste, starting with small amounts (say, ¼ teaspoon per 1-quart batch) and increasingly incrementally. While it's difficult to overdo something like vanilla (some recipes use several teaspoons), it's easy with more potent extracts like almond or mint. Incorporate by stirring into the ice cream base, either right after cooking for cooked bases or with the rest of the ingredients for uncooked ones.
Like extracts, powders are an easy-as-heck way to go from plain to name-your-dream-flavor. Try instant espresso powder (estimate 2 to 3 tablespoons per 1-quart batch) or matcha powder (estimate 1 to 1 ½ tablespoons per 1-quart batch). To incorporate, add a small amount of the cream or milk to the powder to smoothly dissolve, then mix that into the rest of the liquid base (can be done either before or after cooking, or in no-cook ice creams).
You can infuse with heat or without it — and the ingredient possibilities are endless. To do a stovetop infusion, combine the liquids with your chosen ingredient, bring to a simmer, let steep for 30 or so minutes (tasting every so often to check progress), then strain. To do a cold infusion, combine the liquids with your chosen ingredient and refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours (again, tasting every so often to check progress), then strain. Here are a few VIPs: Fresh herbs (estimate 1 cup mint or basil, or a few sprigs of rosemary, thyme, or lavender per 1-quart batch). Ginger (estimate a 5-inch piece, chopped, per 1-quart batch). Spices (estimate 1 to 2 tablespoons of something like fennel seeds or black peppercorns per 1-quart batch). Tea (estimate 5 tea bags, like Earl Gray, per 1-quart batch). To learn more about infusions, right this way.
This is easy to remember. To make a fruit ice cream, add a fruit puree. You can do this a couple ways: 1) Add some sugar to chopped- up fruit (subtract that amount from the overall recipe), let it macerate in the fridge (a fancy way of saying become syrupy and delicious), then blend (and strain if seedy). 2) Cook the fruit on the stovetop or in the oven until soft and jammy, then blend and strain. Estimate ¾ to 1 ½ cups puree per 1-quart batch, depending on the flavor, starting with smaller amounts and adding to taste. Some favorites of mine: strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, peach, apricot, plum, and cherry.
How to avoid icy ice cream
Even though it's called ice cream, no one wants icy ice cream. No matter the flavor, our goal is always: creamy as can be. Unfortunately, thanks to your freezer's temperature fluctuations (which encourage crystallization) and most homemade ice cream's lack of stabilizers (which hinder crystallization), creamy ice cream can be tough to achieve. But worry not! Here are a few tricks to keep up your sleeve:
Light corn syrup (different than high-fructose!) is one of the most efficient ways to achieve creamy, scoopable, dang-good ice cream. It's neutral in flavor, available at most supermarkets, and can be swapped into any recipe. Not only does corn syrup disrupt crystallization, but it's less sweet than granulated sugar, yielding a more balanced, less cloying ice cream. Honey also achieves a creamier result, but it's intensely sweet and flavorful (sometimes this is a good thing — think herbal lavender or tangy blackberry — sometimes it's not). As a general rule, you can replace ¼ to ⅓ of the granulated sugar with a liquid sweetener.
Cornstarch is probably already in your pantry, for everything from gravy to extra-crispy fried chicken. It also happens to be a great stabilizer for ice cream. And by stabilizer, I mean an ingredient that stabilizes the water content and thwarts crystallization. Estimate 1 to 3 tablespoons per 1-quart batch of ice cream. To incorporate, combine sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a bowl, slowly add warmed cream and milk, transfer back to the saucepan, and bring to a boil for 1 minute to activate the starch's thickening powers.
Also a household staple, cream cheese is as happy in ice cream as it is on a bagel (and that's pretty happy). Its stable structure comes from various ingredients, like whey proteins or carob bean gum, depending on the brand. These encourage a creamier ice cream that will hold up better in the freezer. Estimate 2 ounces cream cheese per 1-quart batch of ice cream. To incorporate: For a cooked ice cream base, slowly whisk the just-cooked base into softened cream cheese. For an uncooked base, blend the base with softened cream cheese until completely smooth.
Put water in the freezer and it turns into ice. Put vodka in the freezer and it turns into, well, really cold vodka. Why? Alcohol has a lower freezing point, a scientific nugget we can use to make creamier, more scoopable ice cream. Estimate 1 to 3 tablespoons booze per 1-quart batch of ice cream. Vodka will go unnoticed, while Scotch, bourbon, or rum add bonus flavor. To incorporate, stir into your ice cream base right before churning.
The oldest trick in the book. Don't forget to take ice cream out of the freezer in advance. Figure five to 15 minutes, depending on the container size. And if you do forget (that's okay), microwave the container in 10-second bursts until scoopable. Just be careful not to turn it into soup — though, if you do, Ina Garten knows just the way to use it.
How to incorporate mix-ins
What would cookies and cream ice cream be without the Oreos? (Vanilla.) Or rocky road without the marshmallows and nuts? (Chocolate.) Or Chunky Monkey without the fudge pieces and nuts? (Um. Monkey?) You catch my drift. In so many cases, the mix-ins make the ice cream, whether that's a classic flavor or your own creation. Go crazy.
The golden ratio
Estimate 1 to 2 cups mix-ins per 1-quart batch. Start with a smaller amount, then increase to sight, depending on how chunky you want your ice cream.
Freeze the mix-ins before you incorporate them into the ice cream. If you stir room-temperature mix-ins into just-churned ice cream, you'll significantly raise its temperature (not what we want). I like to spread them out on a plate so they don't freeze into one big blob (also not what we want).
When to incorporate
Add mix-ins to ice cream either at the very end of churning, letting the machine do the stirring for you, or sprinkle them into the ice cream as you transfer it from the machine to the container.
- Candied or chocolate-covered nuts
- Crumbled toffee or nut brittle
- Chopped-up candy (especially Reese's)
- Smashed cookies (chocolate chip, Oreo, peanut butter)
- Itty-bitty cookie dough balls
- Mini marshmallows
- Cubed brownies
Think of stracciatella as literal chocolate chips. When the ice cream is in its last seconds of churning, pour in melted chocolate, in the thinnest possible stream. The cold ice cream will harden it instantly and the machine's churner will break it into bits and shards. Estimate 4 ounces chocolate (dark, semisweet, or milk) per 1-quart batch.
Swirls and ripples
Whether it's fudge sauce, caramel sauce, jam, or lemon curd, the method is the same: After churning, add some sauce to the base of your container, then ice cream, then sauce, and so on. When you scoop the ice cream, you'll end up with beautiful layers. Don't pour into the machine or try stirring in by hand; you'll end up with a homogenous mixture.
Rules of storing
1. Stick the storage container in the freezer at least 1 hour before churning.
2. If you're using an open-faced container, like a loaf pan, immediately cover with plastic wrap to prevent the ice cream from absorbing odors and acquiring that freezer-y taste (you know the one). Otherwise, opt for something with an airtight lid.
3. Ice cream keeps forever, right? Not quite. The older it gets, the more its flavor and texture go downhill. Non-dairy and no-churn ice creams will become icier quickest; try to eat within a few days to a week. Other varieties are best within a month.
Which ice cream maker is right for you?
While an ice cream maker isn't necessary to make ice cream (see "No-Churn" above), it is ideal. These days, ice cream makers are relatively inexpensive, with many models under $50, and easy to find in stores or order online. Here are the three most common styles:
If you plan to make ice cream once a month or so, get a frozen-bowl machine. These countertop machines include a liquid coolant–filled bowl, which has to be frozen in advance. (If you have the space, you can store the bowl in the freezer by default.) These machines are low in cost and easy to get the hang of.
If you plan to make ice cream every week (hopefully more! who knows!), get a self-refrigerating machine. While these models are the most expensive of the group, their built-in compressor means you don't have to remember to freeze a bowl and you can make multiple batches of ice cream in a row.
If you want to make the ice cream with your bare hands and elbow grease and rugged determination, get an ice and rock salt machine. They come in automatic styles as well, but the signature here is the old-school hand-crank, which you wind yourself while the ice cream spins in a rock-salted ice bath. Besides requiring more effort, these models are messier than the other two. (And be careful not to get salt water in your ice cream!)
Odds are, a frozen-bowl ice cream machine is what's right for you. While the nitty-gritty instructions (like how to assemble and clean) depend on the manufacturer, here are the big dos and don'ts:
- Don't forget to stick the ice cream maker's bowl in the freezer. At least 24 hours in advance, ideally more. If the liquid coolant isn't fully frozen, the ice cream won't properly churn.
- Go ahead and stick the storage container in the freezer, too. At least one hour in advance. To keep your just-churned ice cream as cold as possible, it makes a huge difference to transfer it into a pre-frozen container, then put that in the freezer.
- Help the ice cream base help you. If you're making a no-cook ice cream, start with cold-as-possible liquids, straight from the fridge. If you're cooking a custard, strain it from the saucepan into a bowl set over another, larger bowl of ice (this is called an ice bath). Stir the custard until cold, then refrigerate.
- Don't rush the chilling. Refrigerate the base until it's chilly as can be. Depending on whether you're using a no-cook or cooked base, this can take anywhere from a couple hours to a full day. Don't try to churn a lukewarm or even room-temperature base.
- Taste the ice cream base before churning. Go on, try a spoonful. Ice cream should be seasoned to taste, just like tomato sauce or chicken soup. I often add another pinch of salt or even a teaspoon or two of cider vinegar, right before churning, until it's delicious enough to drink.
10 of our best ice cream recipes
From ice cream mastermind David Lebovitz, this recipe is halfway between frozen yogurt and ice cream, with a tangy-tart flavor as refreshing as jumping in the ocean.
Salty, sour preserved lemons take a break from helping out with dinner and work on dessert instead. To serve, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.
Black sesame's ultra-nutty flavor is reminiscent of peanut butter, though no one would mistake the two thanks to its moody gray color. Try this with a dollop of jam on top.
A good chocolate ice cream is hard to find — but you found one. Try to use a milk chocolate that's at least 38% cacao for the best flavor.
"If I had to choose one ice cream flavor for the rest of my life," writes our co-founder Merrill Stubbs, "it would be black raspberry." Enough said.
Instead of the more common mint extract, this ice cream turns to fresh peppermint instead. All you have to do is combine the leaves and cream, and let steep.
Malted milk powder is an ice cream VIP. Its toasty, caramely flavor evokes an old-school milkshake. I keep a 40-ounce container in my pantry at all times.
Naturally sweet carrots are old friends with cake. Turns out, they love ice cream, too. For more vegetable ice cream recipes, head here.
Why make butter pecan ice cream when you could make browned butter pecan ice cream? The toasty milk solids underscore the ice cream's nutty flavor.
Avocados are so rich and buttery, they act as the "cream" in this Mexican recipe. The rest of the ingredient list is just milk, sugar, and lime juice.
5 of our favorite toppings
1. Hot fudge
All you need are two ingredients: sweetened condensed milk and unsweetened chocolate. A splash of water helps things along and a big pinch of salt dials up the flavor.
Like salt, instant espresso powder adds depth and complexity to caramel sauce, keeping it from being overly sweet. (Plus, caffeine!)
Tart yogurt (or crème fraîche) balances the richness of plain whipped cream. This is great on extra-sweet ice cream flavors, like caramel or strawberry.
If you like strawberry sauce on ice cream, you'll love this. All you need are strawberries, sugar, and a free afternoon. I love this on herbal ice creams, like mint or basil.
5. Magic shell
Chocolate, strawberry, and matcha, oh my! Spoiler alert: It's not magic, it's coconut oil. Use refined coconut oil if you don't want a coconutty flavor.
Hungry for more?
Now that you're an ice cream–making fiend, you probably want to learn even more. Here are four cookbooks to check out:
Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream & Dessert Book.
This delightfully illustrated book not only covers ice cream basics, but also includes a slew of freezer aisle–favorite flavors, from New York Super Fudge Chunk to Cherry Garcia.
The Perfect Scoop.
This is the book that taught me to make ice cream. It was recently revised (read our interview with author David Lebovitz here) and includes ice cream 101, plus obsessed-over recipes (from classics like rum raisin to new favorites like avocado), as well as homemade sauces (hi, salted butter caramel) and mix-ins (hello, wet walnuts).
Hello, My Name Is Ice Cream.
If you're interested in the scientific hows and whys of ice cream–making, this is the book for you. Dana Cree gets into a molecular level of detail on everything from crystallization (and how to combat it with stabilizers) to ingredient ratios. The resulting flavors, like cold-press coffee and cheesecake, are pretty fun, too.
Ice Cream and Friends.
We'd be remiss not to mention our own ice cream book. Just like it sounds, this is a user-friendly guide, here to lead you toward your next favorite ice cream flavor. Maybe it's naked chocolate. Or cinnamon roll. You tell me.