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Commercial Ice Cream Mixes

Ever wondered how small ice cream shops and restaurants make their homemade ice cream?  Well, it turns out many of them don’t actually beat together the eggs and sugar, and then heat the milk and cream, and go through the whole process [1] like we do at home.  They just pour a pre-made mix into the ice cream machine and let it churn away.  And they get that ice cream mix from a local dairy.  The mix typically has cream, milk, and sugar, but without the flavoring, which can be added depending on what they’re making.

I’m lucky enough to have a friend that works at a dairy, and when he found out about my love of all things ice cream, he brought me five half-gallon containers of their various ice cream mixes.  My friend, his dairy, and the names of the ice cream companies he gave me the official mixes for shall remain nameless in this blog post, because I’m not absolutely sure he was allowed to give them to me.  He does, however, have my eternal thanks.  :-)

The first thing that struck me about these mixes is that none of them contained eggs.  If I tried to make ice cream without eggs, I’d end up with a fairly icy batch of ice cream.  But they compensate by using stabilizers like guar gum (from guar beans) and carrageenan (from seaweed).  They also sometimes use things like polysorbate 80, and mono and diglycerides, which are emulsifiers that work the same way as egg yolks to help bring things together that don’t normally mix well (for example, oil and vinegar in Caesar salad dressing).  But I’m more interested in the guar gum and carrageenan, since they’re easier to buy, and something I’d like to experiment with (although I have no idea how much of them to use — that’s an experiment for another blog post).

The other thing about not using eggs is that the mix doesn’t have to be heated to kill salmonella [3].  The dairy uses pasteurized milk and cream, so the mix can be used as it is.

So what do you do with five half-gallon containers of commercial ice cream mix?  You have an ice cream party, of course!  I made several versions of vanilla, and had a blind taste test.  Sort of like a wine tasting, but without the spitting.  I had five vanilla ice creams in all — four of the commercial mixes plus a batch of my own homemade version (the sweet cream base [1] plus a teaspoon of vanilla).  I also made Chocolate Brownie, Spicy Peach Chocolate Chunk [4], and a Cinnamon Oatmeal Cookie Chocolate Chunk ice cream (recipes coming soon).

So here’s what I learned…

First, all of the commercial mix ice creams came out of the machine really sticky.  Some of them hung off the spoon almost like marshmallow cream.  I assume this was because of the emulsifiers and stabilizers.  And they were all snow white, since they didn’t have any eggs in them.

The next thing I learned was that I might be using too much vanilla — or maybe the vanilla I’m using is too strong for a full teaspoon.  The pre-made vanilla mixes tended to be much more subtle.  The taste testers seemed to think it was fine either way, but that the ones I added vanilla to were better suited to someone that really likes vanilla.

Much to all of our surprise, the taste testers liked the 10% mix better than the 14% mix or the homemade version I made.  They immediately picked out the one I made from scratch, saying it was almost like butter in comparison.  My first thought was that maybe I needed to lower the butterfat content a bit, but actually I think now that the high butterfat content is probably needed at home since we don’t add all the extra stuff to make it thicker and less icy.  But when I do some experiments with guar gum and carrageenan, I wonder if I’ll find that I need less butterfat to make an ice cream that’s just as smooth.  I think the tasters would have been happy eating any of the three higher butterfat mixes (10%, 14%, and mine), but the 10% mix was the winner.  Even they were surprised when they discovered that their favorite wasn’t the 14% premium ice cream from a famous company.

They immediately picked out the 5% mix because of its distinctive flavor.  They seemed to like it though.

The 3.5% mixes were interesting to try because of how different they were from the ones with higher butterfat contents.  We could really taste the difference in the texture.  They felt colder on the tongue, almost like the slight burning feeling that you get from eating ice or snow.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were bad by any means, but it was very clear they weren’t in the same category as the others, and that fact helped the tasters understand the difference between the various types.

One really cool thing about the mixes was that it was just so incredibly easy to make ice cream!  Pour 3 cups of mix from the carton straight into the machine, start it churning, and out comes 4 cups of really good ice cream!  I also figured out finally that my machine adds a pretty consistent 33% “overrun”, which is the amount of air added during the churning process.

And I learned that if you’re gonna make nine batches of ice cream, it’s really nice to have a machine with a built in freezer.  It was a veritable ice cream factory in my kitchen that day!

I think I also learned that having nine types of ice cream is really great for an ice cream party, but maybe a bit too much when doing a blind taste test.  But hey, can you really have too much ice cream?