Technical

Butterfat and Ice Cream

Contrary to what you may have heard, fat is good.

One of the biggest factors in ice cream’s texture is the amount of “butterfat” (the fatty part of milk) that it contains.  If there’s not enough butterfat, the ice cream tends to taste icy and not very smooth—which is fine if you’re making a sherbet or a sorbet, but not great if you’re aiming for your own version of Ben & Jerry’s.  On the other hand, if there’s too much butterfat, it starts to taste greasy like lard, and it sticks to the inside of your mouth.  Or in other words, it has bad “mouth feel”.

Another big factor that controls the texture is the amount of air in the ice cream.  Companies with big fancy machines can control the amount of air they introduce into the ice cream, and adjust the mouth feel that way as well.  But since our home machines add a fairly fixed amount of air each time, our main method of controlling the texture is by controlling the butterfat content.

  • Homemade ice cream recipes often contain about 19% butterfat. See my post about Making an Ice Cream Butterfat Calculator for more info.
  • Super-premium ice cream contains about 14-16% butterfat.
  • Premium ice cream like Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs is probably in the 12-14% neighborhood.
  • Ice cream in the U.S. has to contain at least 10% butterfat and less than 1.4% egg yolks, according to the FDA’s regulations.
  • Frozen custard is similar to ice cream, and is defined by the same FDA regulation as ice cream. It also must contain at least 10% butterfat, but must also have at least 1.4% egg yolks. It’s made with a machine that adds less air so it tastes more dense, and it’s served fresh at a higher temperature so it’s usually softer.
  • Gelato isn’t regulated in the U.S., but is usually about 3-8% butterfat and often contains more stabilizers to compensate for a lack of cream and eggs. And like frozen custard, it’s also made with less air, and served warmer, than ice cream.
  • Soft Serve is often around 3-6% butterfat.  Dairy Queen, for example, is 5%.
  • Ice Milk is about 3.5% butterfat, the same as whole milk.
  • Sherbet is also defined by the same regulation as ice cream in the U.S., and must contain 1-2% butterfat.
  • Sorbet usually contains no dairy at all, and is usually just frozen fruit juice, sugar, and water (and a great alternative for people that can’t eat dairy).

The percentages of butterfat listed above are by weight, not by volume.  So if you took a gallon of 16% super-premium ice cream and pumped it full of enough air to make it into two gallons, it’d still be 16% butterfat by weight, but it’d taste entirely different (and terrible, probably).  When you eat a super-cheap grocery store ice cream that tastes like you’re eating flavored air, that’s pretty much what it is.  They’ve put too much air into it, so they can sell more of it without actually adding more dairy ingredients.  Of course, the opposite can happen as well.  If there’s not enough air in the ice cream, it tastes too dense, almost like a frozen block of cream.  There’s a fine line between too much or too little air, and too much or too little butterfat.

The increase in volume of ice cream from adding air is referred to as overrun, and is calculated as a percentage of the original product. So if you started with a gallon of ice cream base and added the same amount of air to double it, it’d have a 100% overrun, which also happens to be the maximum allowed in the U.S. Some countries allow a maximum of 120% overrun.

Gelato and frozen custard are usually sold fresh, meaning they’re not stored like ice cream in a deep-freeze until they harden.  This is partly because the butterfat content is low enough that the water in the mix would freeze into larger crystals, making it taste icy.

Most ice cream recipes I’ve seen use heavy whipping cream, light cream, milk, or half-and-half.  The recipe I mentioned for the Sweet Cream Base uses 2 cups heavy whipping cream and 1 cup whole milk.  Most of the butterfat comes from the cream, and the milk is mostly just to increase the volume.  You could even use skim milk if you wanted, and then just increase the cream a bit to compensate for the lost butterfat.  Or use half-and-half with less cream.  That particular 2-to-1 ratio is just the one Ben & Jerry’s picked because it’s easy to make and it comes out to the amount of butterfat they wanted, which if I calculated correctly, is about 19%.

  • Heavy whipping cream is about 36% butterfat, and is not the same thing as “whipping cream” (which is 30-36%).  In Australia I believe it’s called “pure cream”, although you can also get “thickened cream”, which has gelatin added to raise the viscosity and make it easier to whip.  In the UK it’s called “whipping cream”.
  • Light cream is about 20% butterfat.  I believe it’s “light cream” in Oz and “single cream” in the UK.
  • Half-and-half is typically about 12% butterfat, but can be between 10.5 and 18%.  It’s made from a 50/50 mix of light cream and milk.  If you wanted to make your own half-and-half from heavy whipping cream and milk, I calculate that you’d need to use about one part heavy whipping cream to three parts whole milk.  But 12% is the number that’s important, and the fact that it has about a third the butterfat of heavy whipping cream.  I believe half-and-half is called “half cream” in Australia and the UK.
  • Whole milk is usually around 3.5% butterfat.  Or in other words, about a tenth of the butterfat in heavy whipping cream.
  • Skim milk has less than 0.5% butterfat.

Whole milk is what recipes usually mean when they say just “milk”.  It has basically the same butterfat as raw milk straight from the cow.  If you let raw milk sit for a while, it separates into milk and cream, which rises to the top.  If you “skim” off the cream, you’re left with skim milk.  If you add more cream to it, you get the creams listed above, with heavy whipping cream being pretty close to pure cream.  If you mix the cream and milk together real well and basically smash all the little fat globules together, it’s homogenized, and won’t separate anymore.  If you heat the milk to a specific temperature for a specific amount of time, it’s pasteurized, and won’t contain bacteria like salmonella anymore.

By the way, ever wondered what 2% milk is two percent of?  Well, it’s not 2% of the butterfat in whole milk, because that’d be 2% of 3.5%, or in other words, white water.  :-)  It’s 2% total butterfat, just like whole milk is 3.5% total butterfat.  2% milk is about 5 grams of fat per cup (240 ml) compared to 8 grams per cup in whole milk.  Drink up.

Comments

24 comments for “Butterfat and Ice Cream”

  1. I’ve always wondered about the differences between “heavy whipping cream,” “half-and-half,” and the rest. I didn’t realize it makes such a big difference in the texture of ice cream. Interesting read, thanks!

    July 28, 2009, 5:02 pm
  2. Wayne wrote:

    Well, I sort of knew about the butterfat. Having milked cows and then separated the cream with a cream separator it was easy to learn that lesson. I think there is an old ice cream freezer around here somewhere. I may have to get it out and try to make some home made ice cream.

    P.S. I also walked 5 miles to school in the cold snow. :-)

    August 1, 2009, 5:42 pm
  3. Damon wrote:

    When an ice cream has less thank 10% butterfat, can it be labeled as “ice cream”? If not, then what is the correct technical term for this type of product? (i.e. 9% butterfat)

    November 2, 2009, 12:01 am
  4. Russell wrote:

    Hi Damon. Well in the U.S., the FDA has specific requirements for ice cream, saying it has to be a minimum of 10 percent butterfat. They also require sherbet to be between 1 and 2 percent butterfat. But I haven’t found an official regulation for the values in between. I’d guess a 9 percent butterfat ice cream would be called “light” or “low-fat” ice cream, but I don’t know if there’s a specific rule about it.

    November 2, 2009, 9:17 pm
  5. Megan wrote:

    I was so glad to read this. I’m working on making ‘interesting’ flavors of ice cream (though my family tells me I should have started with the plain stuff first until I ‘know what I’m doing’ but whatever) and, like many newbies, am struggling with the icy-factor. So thanks!

    July 22, 2010, 7:31 pm
  6. kym abayomi wrote:

    when i put my ice cream mixture in the fridge to cool down the fat from the cream rises to the top, i dont use eggs maybe i dont need to heat the mixture? i am using full cream fresh cream and 2% MILK.

    when i mix the ice cream it gets clumpy and sticky should i skim the fat from the top?

    February 7, 2011, 10:43 am
  7. paul wrote:

    Actually Ben & Jerry’s has been 12% butterfat ever since they were sold about 10 years ago.

    March 11, 2011, 6:41 pm
  8. paul wrote:

    Kym- You need an emulsifier (like egg yolks) or gelatin in order to keep the products “in suspension”. Of course commercially that is done by 2-stage homogenization of the mix after it has been pasteurized and before it is cooled.

    March 11, 2011, 6:43 pm
  9. paul wrote:

    Kym – When you say “full cream” are you talking an 18% light cream or a 40% heavy cream? If you’re using heavy cream then you have too much fat in the mix. What about your milk solids? You should be using a non-fat skim milk powder for that. You need high solids in the mix. Are you using the “pearson square” for calculating your formula?

    March 11, 2011, 6:44 pm
  10. Zach Harris wrote:

    Russell,
    I own an Ice Cream shop. When we opened 5 years ago we set out to make “super premium” ice cream. There is only one ice cream base supplier in our area, and the highest butterfat base we can get is 14% which puts us below “super premium” quality. Is there anything I can do to bump up the butterfat content of our base, maybe by adding cream? If so, how much should I add? Thanks for the Help! Zach

    April 17, 2011, 11:33 pm
  11. Russell wrote:

    Zach,

    Excellent question! I liked it so much, I made an Ice Cream Butterfat Converter page to help with the calculations. Check it out and see what you think. :-)

    Russell

    April 18, 2011, 11:37 am
  12. Overall, this post has a lot of good information except for the butterfat percentages. Sorry, Haagan-Daz and Ben and Jerry’s are about 14% and the others less than that. Those two brands are not super premium ice cream brands at all. They are premium brands. The super premium today is the exclusive province of the smaller creameries primarily in California and Wisconsin which run around 15%. Humboldt Creamery in Northern California is a good example of a super premium ice cream today. The highest butterfat ever available commercially was sold by Wil Wrights Ice Cream Parlor’s in the Los Angeles area in the 1950′s and 60′s. The butterfat would stick to the roof of your mouth for an hour. Haagan-Daz doesn’t even come remotely close to this.

    January 7, 2012, 7:52 pm
  13. KT wrote:

    Actually one of the standards of identity of ice cream is that it MUST be at least 10% butterfat. Also, Haagen Dazs has the highest butterfat today of major ice cream brands at 17%. Ben and Jerry’s has cheapened their mix and now are at 14% (vanilla and chocolate) and some of their flavors are as low as 13%; very naughty! But in their defense B&J’s is also the only national brand that clearly states that they are rbst free that I am personally aware of. I have never heard of a company making more than a 17% butterfat ice cream but I would not be surprised if someone is.

    April 10, 2012, 6:50 pm
  14. Ray wrote:

    We make our own ice cream with raw cream and raw eggs, so we don’t really know the butterfat content, but it is definitely high. Use raw eggs only if you have your own chickens or have access to eggs that were laid the day you make the ice cream. Wash the eggs with soap before breaking them. The cream is skimmed off the top of raw milk after it has settled for 2 or 3 days.

    The recipe is: 1 pint of cream, 3 large eggs, 1/2 cup sugar (evaperated cane juice), and 2 teaspoons of fair trade, organic vanilla extract. This is the right amount for a 6 cup ice cream freezer.

    May 9, 2012, 3:38 pm
  15. [...] from a New York/Pennsylvania Coop Farm and it is utterly sensational, devastatingly rich, with a 16% butterfat content, the flavor, the texture, concentrated and [...]

    May 16, 2012, 4:31 pm
  16. Brian Tafoya wrote:

    I am guessing that if I added heavy whipping cream or light cream to my bread recipes, the bread would be creamier?
    Have you ever used butterfat in bread recipes?
    Do you have any bread recipes?
    I’m looking for a way to make my bread creamier.
    Many thanks.

    July 8, 2012, 3:59 pm
  17. john williams wrote:

    Of the people who commented here, how many have a lab?

    Making ice cream can be simple, but it can also be complicated. Dreyer’s claims they have 60 different bases for their over more than 100 different flavors. A typical Dairy has one base and they always make chocolate last because you can’t detect any of the other flavors in the vat.

    Generally Vanilla will have the highest butterfat % and in the case of Dreyer’s the claim was 14% in French vanilla. Their concern was more what the “focus groups” thought than the traditional (more butter is better) I was told if you put more than 8% in chocolate it would taste like lard. The FDA labeling laws have say in order to “label” it ice cream it has to have 10% butter fat and weigh 4.5 lb per gallon. So you have to wonder, does the FDA know enough about “chocolate ice cream” to be imposing these laws? Is the minimum 10% by volume, or by weight? do they watch it?

    ????

    April 10, 2013, 7:30 pm
  18. Helen Lim wrote:

    Can you tell me what went wrong when I used ice cream maker for this recipe. After 30 mins 20 – 30 mins churning the ice cream is still watery.

    Strawberry Ice Cream
    Ingredients:
    1 cup strawberries – puree.
    1 cup milk (i use full cream milk)
    1 cup thick cream (Pauls thickened cream)
    1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk).

    In ice cream maker churn according to the manufacturer’s instructions. After 30 mins still very watery. I transfer the ice cream to a chilled container and store in the freezer for 24 hrs. It turn out very icy. Please advise. Thks.

    May 4, 2013, 1:08 am
  19. Russell wrote:

    Helen,

    I would guess the problem is with all the water in the strawberries. I’ve had good luck with adding xanthan gum as a stabilizer, to offset some of the water and thicken it a bit. You can see my post about that here:

    Stabilizers in Ice Cream Part 2: Strawberry Ice Cream
    http://www.icecreamgeek.com/?p=887

    Thanks,
    Russell

    May 11, 2013, 4:31 pm
  20. Urganite wrote:

    I’m surprised so many of you are asking how companies making ice cream can make ice cream and avoid having to actually provide a product with 10% butterfat. If it wasn’t totally obvious to you, the answer is “it’s not ice cream”. It’s usually something like “frozen dessert” or “frozen dairy confection”. Would “ice cream” by any other name taste as sweet? Well, it’s not actually ice cream, but that doesn’t stop people from buying it thinking that it is.

    May 19, 2013, 12:27 am
  21. Jae wrote:

    I made a custard with 5 egg yolks 1.5 cups coconut milk, 1.5 cups heavy whipping cream and a vanilla pod and 1 cup sugar. Came out AWESOME. I have one working now with 2.25 cups coconut milk and .5
    Cups heavy whipping cream with 5 yolks and a vanilla pod. Also 1 cup sugar. Tastes a little greasy. I was thinking of adding a little skim milk to lighten it up. Good idea? It hasn’t gone through the ice cream machine yet so I’m worried the air will fix that and I don’t need the skin milk.

    May 25, 2013, 5:52 pm
  22. [...] just need to make it so you like it. http://www.icecreamgeek.com/?p=113 [...]

    June 12, 2013, 3:10 pm
  23. Brian Brandt wrote:

    An excellent well-researched article. Years ago I worked at Marshall Field and Company which made its own brand of ice cream. I was told it was 18% butterfat and that was about as rich, i.e., high butterfat as ice cream could get. I am now buying Trader Joe’s Super Premium Vanilla and I would agree, given the texture and mouth feel it must be 16% or more. A great product and on a per pound basis, a good value.

    Separately, ice cream should be sold by the pound not liquid volume. The mass market brands sold at supermarkets are filled with air (overun). Why do you think they are so easy to scoop. Further, the butterfat content should be posted on the package. Then we would know what we are buying.

    June 30, 2013, 12:37 am
  24. Matley wrote:

    I recently made a Philadelphia style ice cream mix – half gallon heavy cream, half gallon whole milk, 4 cups skim milk and 3 cups sugar. I mixed it all together, let it get to 38 degrees and put it in my emery Thompson 12 quart machine. After 8 minutes I turned off the refrigeration and started taking out the ice cream but after a couple seconds of letting it out it got really clumpy and hard and almost became like butter. Eventually I had to stop running the machine and force the rest out. Anyone know what might have happened? This had been my second time making butter and I really would prefer ice cream!

    December 15, 2013, 9:41 pm

Post a comment