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Everything You Need to Know About Classic American Ice Cream

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What makes ice cream uniquely American?

Like many of the world's most coveted and crave-able foods, the invention of ice cream was an accident. The Chinese are credited with pouring snow and salt over flavored syrups in 200 B.C. Not long after, the Persians poured sweet grape juice over snow, and notorious Roman emperor Nero sent servants to fetch ice from distant lands, onto which he poured jammy syrups for an icy treat. Smooth, creamy American-style ice cream, however, is a much newer invention that has gone through just two centuries of evolution.

For most of human history, the consumption of ice cream was relegated to the upper classes in Asia and Europe. The expense and labor involved in its creation — which often involved climbing actual mountains to collect snow or carving out frozen ponds in the winter for ice — meant that only the wealthy could afford to indulge in a treat this refreshing. According to The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, man didn't figure out how to freeze a liquid into a soft slush until the 16th century, and it would be another two centuries before Americans had both a ready supply of ice and a hand-cranked device in which to freeze milk, cream, and sugar.

What makes ice cream uniquely American? Its sound, its texture, and of course, its taste: sweet and often rich with butterfat.

Before you taste it, American ice cream is about sound: The twinkly song of the urban ice cream truck, the crunch of ice in a hand-crank ice cream maker, the whirr of a countertop ice cream machine. And then it's about texture: slippery, smooth, soft, sticky. Finally, the taste: sweet and often rich with butterfat, American ice cream comes in many forms. From classic custards to perennially popular frozen yogurt, here are the seven main styles of ice cream found in the U.S. today.

A note: According to Ice Cream: The Whole Scoop by Gail Damerow, President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law the first Food and Drug Act regulating the production of ice cream and other dairy-based foods in 1906. The FDA's regulations regarding ice cream are updated every year on April 1. These regulations mainly define ice cream in terms of its milkfat content, though industry standards exist for qualities like the amount of air churned into a frozen dessert (overrun) and the percentage of sweetener by volume. Within each category below find both a colloquial definition of the frozen dessert as well as, where applicable, the FDA's definition:

French custard-style ice cream at NYC's Oddfellows.

French Custard

The most common style of ice cream sold commercially is what ice cream professionals call French custard-style ice cream, and the most basic definition of a custard ice cream is the cooked-then-frozen combination of milk, cream, eggs, and sugar. The inclusion of chicken eggs both enriches the final product and stabilizes it, allowing it to last longer on the shelf without turning icy over time. Chemical and other natural emulsifiers are often added to ice creams of lesser quality to further extend shelf life, but they often have a negative effect on texture and flavor, producing gummy ice creams that are also too sweet.

Product labeled and sold as ice cream cannot contain less than 10 percent milkfat solids and should contain less than 1.4 percent egg yolk solids. In technical terms, a custard ice cream is more complex than any other ice cream style because of the variations in milkfat, sweetener, eggs, and overrun or air content. All American ice cream has air either whipped, pumped, or churned into it. The amount of air and how it is incorporated into the liquid base helps determine the quality and type of finished frozen dessert: Air is free, so ice creams with a high overrun (30 percent or more) are less expensive and of lesser quality.

Once churned, this type of ice cream is always packed in containers and frozen until firm. It is always served by the scoop. French custard ice cream differs from Italian gelato both in its fat content (gelato usually contains only about five percent milkfat) and overrun (not more than 30 percent).

All ice cream manufacturers play with ratios to achieve a balance between cost, flavor, and mouthfeel. Due to the influx of artisanal ice cream makers across the country in the past decade, richer custard ice creams made with organic or pasture-raised dairy and eggs are more readily available. It's a great time to be an ice cream consumer in the U.S.

Where to eat it:

LA's newest artisanal ice cream shop is called ICDC, which stands for ice cream, doughnuts, and coffee. The mint chip and coconut dulce de leche are particularly addictive.In Atlanta, High Road Ice Cream and Sorbet sells its product out of a retail lab as well as wholesale (locally). The company is obsessive: By pasteurizing its own dairy, it controls every step of the ice cream making process. From single-origin chocolate flavors to well-balanced coffee to super peachy peach-fried-pie ice cream, it's a local favorite that's worth a trip for true ice cream fanatics.In New York City, Oddfellows ice cream proves that oddball-sounding flavors like pink pepper strawberry can be just as refreshing as matcha and mint cookie chip. Brooklyn-based Ample Hills Creamery pushes the flavor envelope with flavors like PB Fluff and Stuff and periwinkle blue cotton candy. Just a few miles away, Greenpoint-based Van Leeuwen Artisanal Ice Cream crafts clean and clear singular flavors like Earl Grey, espresso, and pistachio.Molly Moon's in Seattle is best known for flavors like salted caramel (a new standard), tart but rich goat cheese, and well-balanced strawberry balsamic. The shop regularly draws lines.In San Francisco, two companies have the local market cornered: Humphry Slocombe deals in wacky combinations like Secret Breakfast (a vanilla base with cornflake cookies and Jim Beam bourbon) and foie gras; Bi-Rite Creamery is credited with popularizing salted caramel as an ice cream flavor. The shop's floral honey lavender flavor is almost equally popular.

Custard-Style / Frozen Custard

An ice cream style popular in the Midwest and Northeast, in the U.S., frozen custard is distinct from more generic French custard-style ice cream. It is a very dense dessert, and to preserve its texture — significantly firmer than soft-serve but softer than hand-packed or scooped French-style custard bases — it's sometimes piped directly out of a machine instead of being scooped to order. When scooped, sometimes a paddle is used to coax it out of the container instead of a rounded spoon.

The FDA defines a frozen custard as an ice cream with at least 10 percent milkfat that also contains more than 1.4 percent egg yolk solids. Industry standards also define frozen custard as having no more than 30 percent overrun. A concrete, meanwhile, is defined as frozen custard blended with mix-ins like crushed cookies, a slice of pie, or butterscotch sauce.

Where to eat it:

Ted Drewes is a St. Louis-based institution known for its concretes and frozen custard. Since 1930 the shop has been making three main flavors — vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry — into which patrons pick from among 40 different sauces, swirls, crumbles, and toppings. New York City-based Shake Shack has re-popularized this regional treat, and in the past 10 years has brought it to dozens of new markets across the U.S. and globe. To preserve the dessert's homespun and neighborhood-centric nature, every Shake Shack outlet partners with a local bakery to blend a pie, brownie, or cookie into that location's signature custard.

Milk Ice / Ice Milk

In The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, food writer Jeri Quinizo describes how World War II rationing led to the creation of milk ice (or ice milk). Several allied countries banned ice cream production during the war, but Quinizo writes "in the United States, ice cream was considered a morale building symbol of patriotism, thanks in large part to industry lobbying." By 1943, the U.S. Armed Forces was the world's largest ice cream manufacturer. Despite the rationing of ingredients like sugar and cream, ice cream production prospered in the U.S. because of the invention of milk ice — an icier, lower-milkfat alternative to the ice creams of the day, which were traditionally made with 14 percent fat. Sherbet (fruit-flavored ice milk) was also available when fuller-fat ice cream was not. By the time the war ended, Americans had developed a taste for milk ice, resulting in the product’s persistence until today.

Since 1994, what was commonly known as milk ice in the mid-20th century is now officially labeled and sold as low-fat ice cream. According to the FDA, all ice cream containing less than 10 percent milkfat (or less than three grams per ½ cup serving) can be called low-fat ice cream. Because of its lower milkfat content, the frozen dessert is often sweeter to make up for the absence of milkfat solids.

Where to eat it:

Dairy Queen is the most widely available reduced-fat or low-fat ice cream in the retail market today; many grocery-store brands fit into this category as well.

Mr Softee Nick Solares/Eater
Nick Solares

Soft Serve

Usually made without eggs, and often stabilized with a starch- or gum-based emulsifier, soft-serve ice cream requires a special machine (or liquid nitrogen) in order to both inject the right amount of air into the base as well as freeze it into a soft texture that nevertheless holds its shape. It's often piped out out of a machine fitted with a star-shaped extruder, giving the finished product the look of decorative cake icing. The FDA dictates that in order to call a product soft-serve ice cream, it must contain the same milkfat minimum as custard-style ice cream: 10 percent. However, soft-serve is often less expensive than denser ice creams because it may contain an overrun of up to 100 percent, depending upon the manufacturer and method of production. That's about 80 percent more overrun than premium ice cream brands like Vermont-based Ben & Jerry's or Ohio-based Jeni's.

Creemee, popular mainly in Vermont, is maple syrup-flavored soft-serve. Locals love the creemee from Ferrisburg, Vermont-based Cookie Love, a densely packed, uber-sweet confection.

Rita's Italian Ice and some small chains serve a concoction popular regionally called gelati (not to be confused with the plural for Italian gelato) in which a layer of sorbet or fruit ice is topped with soft-serve ice cream.

Where to eat it:

Mister Softee, an iconic fixture in the ice cream truck world, makes the country's most consistent soft-serve ice cream. Because of the proprietary design of its trucks and freezers, as well as its six- to 10-percent milkfat content, the company is able to churn out thousands of sweet swirls from New Jersey to Miami, Pennsylvania to Arizona.
‣ The notoriously fun crew behind New York City-based Big Gay Ice Cream has started a modern soft-serve revolution. BGIC uses a fuller-fat ice cream base made by Ronnybrook, a dairy based in Ancramdale, NY; its chocolate shell is made not with hydrogenated fats and fake sugars but from real chocolate and olive oil; and it makes its own dulce de leche batch by small batch. Best known for its Salty Pimp — a chocolate-dipped cone layered with dulce de leche, sea salt, and vanilla soft-serve — BGIC operates locations in NYC, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.
‣ Dominique Ansel — the pastry wizard responsible for the Cronut — is churning burrata soft-serve at his newest bakery, Dominique Ansel Kitchen. It is the milkiest soft-serve around, with a taste and texture similar to an Italian fior di latte gelato.

Sherbet

Long a classic steakhouse dessert, sherbet (which may also be spelled sherbert) is a sweetened milk or cream base to which fruit puree or juice is added. It is different from sorbet (a French fruit-based frozen dessert) or sorbetto (the Italian equivalent of sorbet) in that it always contains dairy, but because of the higher water content due to the addition of fruit, the mixture usually also includes a chemical stabilizer in lieu of egg yolks. Sherbet is defined by the FDA as a frozen dessert with between one and two percent milkfat and between two and 10 percent fruit solids, depending upon the type of fruit used.

Where to eat it:
‣ Portland-based Salt & Straw recently expanded into Los Angeles. The small company produces incredibly rich, well-balanced ice creams but has also brought back the sherbet with its One Thousand Herberts Sherbet, an herbaceous take on the usually fruity dessert made with a half-dozen herbs including parsley, basil, dill, and mint.

Philly-Style

Though the FDA does not refer to ice cream without eggs as Philly-style, this is a term common in the industry. Like all ice cream, Philly or Philadelphia-style ice cream must contain at least 10 percent milkfat in order to be labeled ice cream.

Between the 1780s and 1850s, Philadelphia was a hotbed of ice cream innovation. Five people, working within the same few decades in the City of Brotherly Love, are credited with furthering the history of American ice cream: Frenchman Emanuel Segur taught Americans how to make French-style ice cream; noted confectioner and former White House cook Augustus Jackson refined and perfected early commercially available recipes; chemist and feminist Mary Engle Pennington taught manufacturers and small-time producers how to safely cook and churn dairy mixes in the region; and a local resident, Nancy M. Johnson, designed the first hand-crank ice cream maker. It is not clear when Philadelphia became famous for its eggless ice creams, but since 1861, Bassetts, a beloved local institution, has been serving Philly-style ice cream to residents and tourists from across the land.

Where to eat it:
Bassetts, founded in 1861, remains the oldest existing ice cream parlor in the U.S. Staple flavors include rum raisin and butter pecan.
The Franklin Fountain has been resurrecting old-timey ice cream flavors since it opened in 2004. Hydrox Cookie was a cookies-and-cream flavor originally invented in 1908; the shop's Rocky Road recipe traces its origins to 1929; and Teaberry Gum, sporting a rich pink hue, is an early wintergreen mint flavor.
Zsa's Homemade Gourmet Ice Cream, a popular truck and wholesale business based in Philly, churns a richly textured vanilla, but is best known for its salted caramel (a new classic) and Black Magic (a coffee ice cream base chunked out with house-made dark chocolate cake). In the summer, fans line up for lemon buttermilk and browned butter peach.

Data visualization: Vince Dixon


Update 8/16: This piece has been updated to correctly reflect the location of Ronnybrook Dairy, which is located in Ancramdale, NY, and not Pine Plains, NY as was previously written. The piece also further clarifies the FDA's regulations surrounding Philly-style ice cream, or ice cream made without eggs.

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