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The scoop on ice cream
by Jan Haber

Without ice cream, there would be darkness and chaos. —Don Kardong, American Distance Runner

We were brought up on the legend that ice cream was invented in America by Thomas Jefferson or Dolley Madison or, invented by the ancient Chinese, it was brought to Italy by Marco Polo, to France by Catherine de Medici and then to America by T.J. The truth is more complicated.

The ancestors of ice cream were probably born in 4,000BC, when the Mesopotamian well-to-do built ice houses on the Euphrates to take the curse off the heat of Summer. Snow, brought down from the mountains by slaves, was sold on the streets of 5th century BC Athens to cool wine; Nero, the Roman Emperor (37—67AD) is known to have enjoyed iced drinks sweetened with honey. The Islamic world loved chilled refreshments too. Our word, sherbet, is derived from the Turkish for a variety of sweet drinks cooled with snow and in India, among the Mughals, all the best people enjoyed something like ice cream, made with condensed milk semi-frozen in molds.

The break-though in ice cream technology must have come during the Tang Dynasty, China’s Golden Age (618 to 906AD), when some smart person discovered that, combining salt with ice water lowered the mixture’s freezing point. For the first time, it became possible to freeze foods. With salt and ice, ice crystals could be created in almost any liquid. Frequent stirring kept the crystals small and scoopable.

The first European ice creams show up around 1600—a century after Catherine de Medici left Florence to become Queen of France, by the way. In 1694, Antonio Latini of Naples, published a recipe for milk sorbet flavored with candied pumpkin.

By 1744 ice cream had crossed the Atlantic. In 1784, George Washington purchased a mechanical ice cream maker for his house at Mt. Vernon. He paid $200 for it, a fortune at the time. We have Thomas Jefferson’s hand-written recipe for French vanilla ice cream, made with egg yolks, cream, vanilla extract and sugar.

From the earliest times, only the rich could afford to eat ice cream. That changed in 1843, when the American inventor, Nancy Johnson, introduced her hand-crank ice cream maker. Ice cream took another leap in popularity with the advent of affordable mechanical refrigeration powered by electricity or gas.

Today, the ice cream industry in the US alone generates $10 billion is sales, with take-home ice cream representing the largest share of the market. According to industry sources, the average American eats something like 50 pints of ice cream and related treats each year.

Vanilla is still the heavy favorite of 29% of us. Chocolate comes in second with 8.9%;
Butter Pecan is 3rd, with 5.3%, tied with Strawberry, at 5.3%; in fifth through 10th places are Neopolitan, Chocolate Chip, French Vanilla, Cookies and Cream, Vanilla Fudge Ripple and Praline Pecan.

The many varieties of frozen goodies

Ice Cream
The most basic frozen dessert is made with milk, cream, sugar, and flavorings, churned to freeze the mixture and incorporate air. Without the air, ice cream would freeze into an icy-hard mass. Cheap brands at the supermarket may be more than 80% air (called overrun by the industry), premium brands less. To be labeled ice cream in the US, it must contain at least 10% fat.

Ice Milk
This was once ice cream with 2% to 7% fat content. In 1994, the feds re-defined the rules to allow manufacturers to label their product ice cream with the modifiers nonfat, low-fat, reduced fat and light. Values are per 1/2 cup serving:
nonfat (less than .5 grams of fat),
low-fat (maximum 3 grams),
reduced fat (at least 25% less fat than the average of leading ice creams) and
light (half the fat of average ice creams).

Coconut Milk Ice Cream
Popular with vegans; ice cream can also be made with almond milk.

Frozen Custard
A dairy-based frozen dessert containing egg yolks, to add richness, this is similar to ice cream, with less air whipped into it during freezing, resulting in dense, custardy texture.

Frozen Yogurt
Made with milk containing friendly bacterial cultures to provide thickness and tangy flavor without high fat content, though fat and sugar amount varies widely from brand to brand.

Gelato
Similar to ice cream, this Italian frozen dessert contains less fat and less air, giving it a rich, dense texture.

Granita
This is a frozen dessert made with crushed ice, sugar and fruit juices. Its crunchy texture is due to the large ice crystals that are encouraged to form during freezing, making it distinctly different from sherbet.

Italian ice
Although it contains no dairy, this is churned like ice cream to create fine ice crystals, yielding a soft, smooth, snow-like product.

Semifreddo
This is a frozen dessert that is made without special equipment, with a custard base and whipped cream to create a mousse that is frozen and sliced. The word means half frozen in Italian.

Sorbet
This fruit-based frozen dessert is typically made with puréed fruit, water and sugar, churned like ice cream.

Sherbet
Similar to sorbet, this is a low-fat (1 -2%) frozen dairy product with a high sugar content, which prevents large ice crystals from forming and keeps the texture soft. Typically made in fruit flavors orange, lemon, lime and strawberry. Sometimes, sherbet and sorbet are synonymous, with both terms describing a non-dairy frozen dessert.

Shaved ice
This apparently originated in Hawaii and features a scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with crunchy ice crystals, slathered with fruit syrup. We understand it is making its way to the mainland.

Tofutti
Another vegan creation, this is soy based, lactose-free and contains no animal products; typically made of imitation cream cheese, imitation sour cream and tofu. It looks a lot like ice cream.

Question: Which is the best? Answer: The one you enjoy the most—and it’s never too soon to begin your research.