Ice Cream/Frozen Desserts

5 Common Homemade Ice Cream Issues (& How to Fix Them)

July  1, 2015

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: Stef Ferrari of Hay Rosie Craft Ice Cream Co. troubleshoots homemade ice cream issues, so you, too, can churn with confidence. 

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Ice cream isn’t always as simple as following a recipe, which means a fun experiment can quickly become a frustrating frozen endeavor. Maybe your finished product looks like the Abominable Snowman attacked it. Or maybe you can’t figure out why you made a fine batch of dessert soup. Whatever the problem, here’s how to fix common homemade ice cream issues:

The issue: Your ice cream is crunchy or icy.

The culprit: Ice crystallization

This is probably the most common at-home ice cream conundrum. Making ice cream is 10% flavor development and 90% managing water and ice. The inconvenient truth is the faster ice cream mix freezes, the creamier it will be. During churning, the dasher (or blade) of the machine scrapes tiny ice crystals off the walls of the freezer (or canister/bowl). Those ice crystals—interspersed with air—make up the body of your ice cream, which means the faster the ice cream freezes, the smaller the crystals and creamier the product.

Ice crystals are at their smallest right after churning. From then on, they only grow. Once ice crystals reach a certain size, the texture becomes gritty, crunchy, and icy. 

The solution: Commercial ice cream makers are designed to work quickly: spinning fast at very cold temperatures. At-home ice cream makers typically rely on freezer bowls and can be a lot slower. In terms of ice crystals, this is a bit of a disadvantage. Here’s how to minimize the effects of the ice cream handicap:

  • Make sure the freezer bowl is actually frozen. Like, really frozen. It needs a full 24 hours in the freezer for best results. Put the bowl in overnight and try to forget about it until the next day. This is not the time for impatience. 
  • Your mix should be as cold as possible prior to churning. No matter how cold your bowl may be, a hot mix is a disservice. Besides, aging your mix overnight aids in fat coalescence and flavor development (read: it tastes better).
  • Once the ice cream’s spun, work quickly to transfer it from the bowl and into the freezer as fast as possible. Freezing fast will help maintain the ice crystals’ small size.

More: Another tip for avoiding icy ice cream from the Ample Hills Creamery book. 

The issue: Your ice cream has fat globules (a.k.a. chunks, globs, balls, or tiny little flecks of milk fat floating in your finished product).

The culprit: Think about making whipped cream—there’s a window for perfectly fluffy peaks, but go a tad too far and it becomes butter. A similar phenomenon happens here, particularly with flavors that use an oil or oil-based ingredients like peanut butter or olive oil. 

More: A very genius whipped cream (with staying power).

The solution: First, properly emulsify your mix—preferably while your mix is still warm. An immersion blender works best for this, but you can use a standard blender as well. After aging overnight, give it another buzz before pouring it into your freezer bowl.

Most importantly, keep an eye on your ice cream! Your machine’s instructions may tell you that it’s going to take 25 minutes, but that’s not a rule. Always check in regularly to make sure you catch the ice cream at its creamiest, pre-glob incarnation.

 

 

The issue: Your add-ins are icy or gritty.

The culprit: This is a personal pet peeve. Unfortunately, as incredibly delicious as store-bought peanut butter cups are, they just aren’t meant to be eaten at sub-zero temperatures. Grabbing candy off the shelf and tossing it in ice cream makes them hard. And hard is sad. 

The solution: While it does require an extra step, give add-ins a little homemade love. Making your own chocolate chips, peanut butter cups, and other candies gives you the opportunity to formulate them for the freezer. When coating add-ins with chocolate, for example, adding a touch of coconut or canola oil to the chocolate prior to dipping, drizzling, or dunking ensures the chocolate will still be chewable post-freezing. 

Also, when creating your own variegate (that’s the fancy term for swirl, ribbon, ripple, and the like), keep in mind it will need to fully cool before incorporating. Attempting to layer a piping hot (or even lukewarm) jam, caramel, or fudge, will cause it to pool at the bottom of your container and produce ice crystals throughout the ice cream. As that ribbon sinks, it melts the ice cream, which eventually refreezes into crunchy bits.

More: Why there are gritty chocolate chunks in your ice cream—and how to fix it.

 

The issue: Your ice cream isn't holding up after a few days.

The culprit: So, your ice cream came out great. Hooray! It’s delicious, creamy, and perfectly scoopable. But by the time you dig in two weeks later, it deteriorated into amorphous gloop: gummy, mushy, and shrinking from the sides of your container. Unfortunately, homemade ice cream just doesn’t have the staying power of the commercial kind. Most lack the stabilizers common in the supermarket stuff—ingredients designed to keep those products shelf-stable for as long as possible. Stabilizers also inhibit the effects of heat shock, anticipating the product will be shuffled around from freezer-to-freezer.

The solution: In the all-natural world of most home kitchens, it’s critical to make and enjoy your ice cream as fresh as possible. It’s not designed for longevity. 

I like to package ice cream in small enough containers the whole thing can be eaten in one sitting. That way, you don’t subject the entire batch to thermal shock. With larger-sized containers, moving the ice cream, allowing it to soften for a single-serving, and then returning it to the freezer allows those pesky ice crystals to expand.

Another good idea is to place a piece of wax or parchment paper over the ice cream’s surface to prevent contact with air—inhibiting freezer burn.

Overall, though, the best option is to plan ahead and make your ice cream to serve. This sometimes means thinking a few days in advance. If you’re having guests on Saturday, make your mix on Thursday, spin on Friday, and freeze overnight. Or, if you prefer a soft serve-like consistency, you can spin on Saturday and serve it that same day. 

 

The culprit: less-than-succesful homemade ice cream due to ingredient swapping.

When making ice cream, beware of the unresearched ingredient swap. As home cooks, we’re experimental by nature. But while many recipes can be quite forgiving in swapping one ingredient for another, ice cream is a little more particular.

Ice cream formulas are mathematical equations, carefully balanced and calibrated to achieve specific results. Unfortunately, swapping this for that (like strawberries for blueberries) can have quite an impact. 

For example, take dairy selection: In an increasingly health-conscious world, many folks want to experiment with low-calorie options. Ice cream does not appreciate that attitude.

Attempting to swap out your dairy can throw an ice cream formula totally out of whack. Fat makes up a good portion of the solids in ice cream. Cream is about 59% water, while skim milk is 90%. Changing one dairy for another means considering how that added water will be managed. The bottom line: The type of dairy's selected for a reason.

More: How to cook with coconut milk.

Besides flavor, fat is important for consistency and structure. Ice creams sans stabilizers rely on fat (in addition to egg yolk, which is comprised of 10% lecithin—a natural stabilizer) to emulsify and balance water. As the fat percentage increases, the need for stabilizer decreases. Haagen Dazs, for example, is 17% milk fat and able to sustain a large scale distribution without the use of additional stabilizers.

When choosing cream, I find many options—even organic ones—include stabilizers or thickeners like carrageenan. If you intend to use these ingredients or are following a recipe that calls for them, be aware you may already be inadvertently adding some thickener. I always try to find pure, unadulterated cream as a starting point.

Finally, all fruits are not created equal. Water content in fruit is particularly critical in ice cream formulation. Take strawberry ice cream, for example. It’s an extremely challenging flavor despite its ubiquity. If a recipe calls for roasted strawberries, there’s a reason for it. A strawberry is 94% water, which means haphazardly tossing them into an ice cream makes for a crunchtastic strawberry-sicle that tastes like nothing. Roasting concentrates the flavor of the strawberry and dehydrates it, making it much more manageable—and delicious.

For context, here’s the range of water activity in various fruits: 

  • Raspberry: 86%
  • Coconut: 44%
  • Orange: 90%
  • Banana: 75%
  • Date: 26%

Taking a date ice cream and trying to repurpose it for an orange creamsicle will easily result in an ice storm. While experimenting should be part of the fun of homemade ice cream, it’s important to know your ingredients and the role of each before diving in.

More: Want more ice cream tips? Check out these 15 we found in cookbooks.

What's the best homemade ice cream you've ever churned? Tell us in the comments below! 

Photos by Yossy Arefi, Phyllis Grant, Armando Rafael, Mark Weinberg, and James Ransom

25 Comments

Sue R. July 8, 2018
I have an assignment to make 150 cupcake-size Spumoni desserts. Planning to layer crushed biscotti, pistachio/vanilla & cherry ice cream. But I’m concerned that they’ll get too soft after removing the liners and plating. Any suggestions? Would mixing instant pudding into the ice creams before laying them help? It’s HOT here in Florida! Thanks!
 
Sophia May 12, 2018
I've recently be given an ice cream machine and still not used to it and im in the middle of making ice cream but haven't put my freezer bowl into the freezer . Is there any way to salvaging it without throwing away the mixture ??
 
Lazlo T. December 8, 2018
I am still learning but my sense is that if you cover the mix and put it in the refrigerator for a day while the ice cream maker gets frozen you will actually have a BETTER ice cream because the mix tends to be better infused with flavor as it sits - once again, the main thing is covering it so it doesn't absorb any other flavors while being refrigerated. Then try to make the mix as cold as it can be when you pour it in so that it will become ice cream more quickly and freeze better. I know this is a long time after your initial question, but good luck!
 
Jen C. June 24, 2016
My ice creams turn out ok, but I notice that a thin layer of fat forms at the top of my mouth when I eat it. I'm assuming the fat is separating from the ice cream, but it is not visible to the eye. Will the blending/emulsifying trick also help me here? Or is there another trick to help prevent this?
 
Lacey M. June 13, 2016
Hello - so my husband decided to help finish making an ice cream pie that I was working on. He poured the ice cream "base" into the pie crust and put it in the freezer before it was actually made into ice cream in the ice cream maker. Should I just throw it away? I am bummed
 
Dave February 1, 2016
I've done a lot of experimenting in an attempt to eliminate frost in my ice cream. <br />Here's my recipe:<br />* 4 Eggs<br />* 300ml thickened cream<br />* Enough milk to make up to 1 litre.<br />* 2 Tsp vanilla extract<br />* Sweetening<br />Poach the eggs until just firm. Dry them off on a kitchen towel and chill in the freezer. When chilled blend the egg mix until very smooth. Add the cream to the egg mix and whisk until combined. Mix sugar, to your own taste, with a bit of warm milk to ensure it is all dissolved. Then add the sugar mix and the remainder of the milk to the cream mix and whisk. Chill in the freezer for a few minutes and then into the Ice Cream maker. I don't add any other flavouring to the mix because it adds water to the mix which causes it to frost when frozen. I have made this many times and it never gets frosty in the freezer.
 
EpicureAcademy August 17, 2015
Ghost Peach is my fave of the week1<br /><br />Recently had several nice ripe Colorado peaches that I prepared for a basic sorbet of fruit, fruit Sugar water and a little salt.<br />At the last minute I thought what if I make 2 batches and use ghost pepper salt in one. A few spins from PACO and I had very interesting results. Not the least of being how many people I never said a word to knew about my Ghost Peach. The heat comes in slow and high but the peach has so much weight it kept it all calm.<br /><br />Anyone else with a PacoJet out there?<br /><br /><br /><br />
 
james August 4, 2015
Ever had a "Terry's Chocolate Orange"? <br />It is the best ice cream flavour that I have <br />ever made. <br />James <br />
 
nana M. July 20, 2015
Frozen Zabaglione mm! good!
 
Trish July 20, 2015
I churn a mean balsamic roasted strawberries & thyme ice cream.
 
Jess W. July 20, 2015
David Lebovitz's herbal mint chocolate chip ice cream, and following in close second is Foodie House's line basil ice cream, with a few minor modifications. I prefer homemade over shop-bought any day!!
 
Jess W. July 20, 2015
*lime* basil ice cream. I
 
The P. July 20, 2015
Any possibility of providing a "print version" option for your web site's cooking techniques articles?
 
Some of the recipes I've tried come out sort of gummy. They taste delicious, but the texture is just a bit off. Any ideas why?
 
Crystal C. July 16, 2015
The best ice cream I ever churned was Lemon Verbena. It was creamy, and flavorful, without being overwhelming. I think the secret to its success was letting the mix chill overnight...a great suggestion!
 
stingle July 15, 2015
Do you really need to use corn syrup if an ice cream recipe calls for it? Or can you sub honey?
 
Laura415 July 17, 2015
In my experience you can sub other sweet syrup like honey or rice syrup for corn syrup. Syrups inhibit crystallization, but you need to account for the different tastes. Honey is sweeter than corn or agave or rice. Taste your syrup and try to add the right amount. Many recipes will have tested these other syrups and you can follow one of those.
 
Joan July 15, 2015
What about an Ice cream that turns out rock hard?
 
Christine July 20, 2015
Add some vodka to the mix and the icecream will not freeze rock hard, Joan.
 
Elizabeth July 21, 2015
I'll second the liquor suggestion, and add that it doesn't have to be just vodka. Lots of hard alcohols will do, just add a tablespoon or two while you're churning. I've found it also helps to mitigate ice crystals.
 
clumsychef July 15, 2015
How about this problem: don't own ice cream maker, and don't have space for one...all these ice cream recipes are making me jealous! :)
 
Leslie M. July 26, 2015
We used to make a small quantity (maybe half recipe) ice cream in a gallon zipper bag by visiting it at the freezer every 15 to 30 minutes to mix it through the bag with our fingers. It takes an hour or two until it reaches your favored consistency. Turns out great.
 
Angie G. February 17, 2017
You can use a Blender, mixer, food processor, Most of the time I use my Tupperware Quick Chef Pro System. The only thing when using the Chef pro is let the frozen fruit sit out for a few before chopping its easier on the blades. & Its a lot easier clean up. :)
 
Sharon E. July 31, 2017
You can make reasonable fine ice cream without a machine
 
AR M. July 2, 2015
vanilla beans icecream. the best flavour ever!!