Once upon a time I was a little kid that loved baking, but didn’t understand the point of bringing the butter to room temperature or separating eggs or mixing until “just combined.” Sometimes it didn’t make sense to me and sometimes I didn’t know how to do it or what to look for, so I ignored these directions and the finished results weren’t quite what I was expecting. I quickly learned to blindly follow these directions.
It wasn’t until I did a bit more digging and reading more detailed cookbooks that I discovered the “why” behind these simple directions. Baking became so much easier when I knew what exactly was happening to my ingredients as I worked with them and why the directions are so demanding. I could look for warning signs of a recipe going bad and fix it before it was too late. And if the finished result wasn’t exactly what I wanted, I knew what went wrong and what to change for next time.
As I write these ice cream recipes, I realize that there are a lot of little directions packed into those paragraphs that might not make sense to someone who doesn’t make ice cream day in and day out. So rather than leave you to possibly ignore some directions (hey, I don’t judge) or make mistakes without really realizing what you did, I thought I’d take some time to explain the general process behind ice cream making and why I ask you to do the things I do. Of course, this explanation doesn’t cover all sorts of ice cream recipes, just the egg based recipes that I post here on my blog.
Prepare an ice bath and place a bowl in the freezer while you cook your base.
Honestly, I hate this step. My fridge doesn’t have an ice maker so I’m constantly filling and freezing trays of ice cubes. However, it’s essential to cool your base as quickly as possible. If your ice cream isn’t cooking or freezing, bacteria can grow so you need to cool your base as quickly as possible so bacteria doesn’t grow in your ice cream as it’s taking it’s sweet time going from warm to cool temperatures. You can make an ice bath in a plugged up sink (guaranteed big enough to hold your bowl) or a large bowl with a few cups of ice and a few cups of cold water. By freezing the container you’ll be pouring your warm base in, this will help it to cool faster.
Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams cookbook has a nice tip about pouring your hot finished base into a heavy duty gallon ziploc bag and throwing that in a cold bath. The flattened base can cool faster and then you can just dry off the bag and pop it into the freezer. However, as someone that makes ice cream nearly every day, I don’t want to constantly have to buy bags. That stuff adds up! But if you’re just making ice cream on occasion, this might be a good route.
Why can’t you just throw your base into the freezer? Home freezer’s can’t handle having a steaming bowl of hot custard in the freezer, bringing down the temperature so quickly like that. It will change the entire environment of the freezer, altering the state of all the corn dogs and year old veggies you have in there. Worse, it could heat up any raw frozen meats you have in there to dangerous temperatures where our friend bacteria likes to grow.
Putting the eggs in a separate bowl and pouring small portions of the hot cream into them before adding it into the rest of the base.
If you’ve ever made egg drop soup, you know that pouring cold or room temperature eggs into a hot liquid will cause the eggs to cook right away, leaving you with the delicious ribbons of egg in your soup. But as delicious as egg drop soup is, ice cream is not a place for ribbons of cooked egg. By breaking up your eggs and adding the hot cream to them bit by bit, you can better control the cooking of the eggs by slowly bringing them up to a temperature where they won’t cook when added to the rest of your base. You generally like to add at least a cup and a half of hot cream to your eggs before you add it back into your pan with the cream mixture. If you’re worried about the eggs cooking, you can add in more of the hot cream to your eggs (constantly whisking vigorously of course), up to half of the mixture before adding it back to the pan.
Another way to avoid having too much cooked egg left in your strainer (it’s common to at least have a little) is to bring your egg yolks to room temperature before tempering them with the cream. Then your yolks get less of a temperature shock when you add the hot cream to them. Keep in mind that eggs are easier to separate when cold, so I’d recommend separating the eggs before bringing your yolks to room temperature.
Cook the base until it coats the back of your spatula and a clear path forms when you run your finger across it.
This spatula test is a common visual tool used in the culinary world. You simply cook the mixture until it leaves a nice coating on your spatula where you can’t see the spatula underneath the cream- this is very clear to me as I use dark turquoise silicone spatulas. Use your finger or, if you’re scared of the heat, the other end of any other tool lying around in your kitchen, and if it leaves a clear path rather than moving to cover the space, you’re good to go!
While you can definitely use a thermometer to test when your base has finished cooking, these clear visual tools are easier and can be done by anyone regardless of the tools they have. It’s a matter of personal preference. If you’re a little more Type A, you can cook your mixture until it reaches 165 degrees fahrenheit.
Strain your base.
If you use eggs in your ice cream, strain that ish before you cool and churn it. Do it. No matter how many times I’ve done this, I always have some little bits of cooked egg somewhere in my base and my handy dandy mesh strainer always grabs them for me. On one occasion, I was in a hurry and forgot to strain my base and while we ate the finished results, we found a few tiny gummy yellow chunks. Not good. Thank goodness I didn’t give any of that ice cream to friends. You can also catch things like bits of cocoa that didn’t feel like breaking up or berry seeds or those nasty thready things that hang out on bananas. Just make it standard routine to strain your base.
Cover your base with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.
We’re all clear that any water getting into this base will turn into ice when the ice cream is frozen, yes? Okay. So we’re doing everything we can to keep excess water out of our base. By covering the cooled base in plastic wrap, we’re keeping any steam, condensation, or water that was in or on your bowl from getting into the base and hiding out there only to freeze your sensitive teeth when you’re eating your frozen ice cream. You also keep your base from forming any kind of film that could form on top of the ice cream and mess with your ice cream’s texture.
Ideally, you should let your base sit and marinate overnight so all of your flavors have a chance to get to know each other and really bond while it’s hanging out in the fridge. The flavor will be deeper as it’s really penetrated every ingredient in the ice cream. Sure, 2 hours of cooling can be fine, but a little patience will give you some incredible flavor in the long run. Trust me. It’s worth it. Plan accordingly.
I think this covers most of the bigger directions that might not seem obvious and hopefully helps clear up a lot of the other questions you might have had about ice cream making. I promise that each and every little direction, from the subtle adverbs to the paragraph long processes, really do make a difference on the finished product.
I know this post doesn’t cover EVERY detail of ice cream recipe directions, so if any of this inspires any questions or you have any questions about ice cream making in general, please let me know in the comments or via email! I’d love to help you make wonderful ice creams at home by answering your questions here on the blog or over email.