When the heat starts to soar, few things chill us out as quickly as ice cream does. Who, among us, doesn’t have fond memories of a stop at the ice cream shop after summer sports, or running out to the street, money in hand, to meet that truck full of frozen sweets?
But one of the best things about ice cream is that it’s easy to make at home. Whether you’re craving a favorite flavor, looking for a new creative outlet, or honing your foodie cooking skills, all you need are simple ingredients and an ice cream maker.
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A basic ice cream recipe starts with dairy products—a combination of heavy cream, whipping cream, half-and-half, condensed milk, and/or whole milk—plus sugar, a pinch of salt, and vanilla or other base flavorings. Heat your base ingredients to dissolve the sugar, refrigerate to get a head start on freezing, and you’re on your way.
Scienceofcooking.com notes that fat is one of the main components that provides smoothness to ice cream, so the higher the fat content in the base, the richer the taste and creamier the texture. Don’t go too high on the fat, though, or the result can feel greasy.
Once your base is prepared and chilled, it goes into the ice cream maker. Entry-level machines have insulated mixing bowls to pre-freeze; more expensive models have built-in compressors for chilling. In less than an hour, your ice cream will be ready for solidifying in the freezer, or ready to eat as soft-serve right away.
If you want to add some pizazz to the finished product, the options are plentiful: Chocolate chips, pretzels, mini marshmallows, chopped candies, citrus zest, fruit, even crumbled bacon and a swirl of maple syrup.
From here, the riffs are nearly endless. You could try a tangy frozen yogurt. Cook’s Illustrated recommends avoiding Greek yogurt and straining excess liquid from regular yogurt instead.
The creme de la creme of ice cream is gelato, that smooth, rich, decadent, European-style ice cream that’s as luxurious as it is tricky. The secret to gelato’s richness is a cooked custard base. If you’re not comfortable tempering eggs—patiently and gently heating your mixture to avoid clumps of yolk—you might want to make gelato a goal after mastering some basic, egg-free ice creams (and practicing some custards in your spare time, too).
What if dairy’s not your thing? You’re in luck. Check out vegan recipes using coconut milk or almond milk. Full-fat liquids and the addition of nut butters or other fats can make the results creamy and delicious.
Artificial sweeteners are more complicated. Sugar actually lowers the freezing point of water, minimizing dreaded ice crystals. Plus, some artificial sweeteners are more or less sweet than sugar. Many websites say xylitol works best for sugar-free ice cream—just make sure dogs don’t get a taste, since xylitol is extremely toxic for canines.
You could also go with simple sorbets. Their elegance lies in their beautiful color and clear flavors—deep indigo blueberry, garnet-hued pomegranate, or bright coral-colored strawberry-mango. And herbal sorbets, like lemon thyme, rosemary, or even Douglas fir, are a refreshing twist for a hot afternoon.
If you don’t have an ice cream maker, don’t despair. No-churn ice cream recipes abound on the internet. These are based on freshly whipped cream (nothing from a tub here, please) and need only a hand or stand mixer to whip up a delicious frozen dessert. Or check out recipes for no-churn fruit sorbets using a food processor.
No matter what you choose, the final product might not be as smooth as what the big shops offer, but it can be a worthwhile tradeoff to have exactly what you want, when you want it, along with the satisfaction of having fun in the process. And isn’t that what summer is all about?
If you like this, read: Ice cream sandwich shop to open next month in the Italian Village