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How to Swap in Sour Cream, Yogurt, or Buttermilk in Any Ice Cream Recipe

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Last month, it took me about 20 trials to find my new favorite vanilla ice cream. Now that I have that little white dress, I can accessorize it by adding ripples of chocolate or caramel sauce or crunchy nuts, or chocolate-coated cookie pieces, or crushed candy pieces. I can infuse the cream with cinnamon or cardamom (or other spices), or with coffee beans instead of vanilla beans. I can sweeten and simultaneously flavor it with honey, maple syrup, molasses, or sorghum syrup. Vanilla ice cream is the perfect starting point, a beautiful blank page.

Good vanilla ice cream is also an invitation to go boldly beyond inclusions and flavors. How about swapping in your favorite cultured dairy? I’m a huge fan of sour cream, yogurt, and buttermilk, so that’s where I started. As a base, I used Alice’s Vanilla Ice Cream 2.0 which (just for easy reference, or for comparison to other recipes) has 2 cups cream, 1 cup milk, 4 yolks, and added solids from milk powder. (For convenience and frugality, I tested with pure vanilla extract instead of vanilla beans.)

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Alice's Vanilla Ice Cream 2.0
Alice's Vanilla Ice Cream 2.0

Here’s what I learned:

  • You can replace some or all of the milk with yogurt, sour cream, or buttermilk. To avoid a chalky or gritty texture, the cultured dairy should not be cooked or heated: Make the custard base with the cream (and any milk you are not replacing). When the base is cold, whisk in the sour cream, or yogurt, or buttermilk. Chill and freeze the ice cream as directed.
  • When considering the swap, you should compare the fat content and thickness (i.e. amount of solids) of the milk and the ingredient that you are substituting. If the substitute ingredient has considerably more fat than milk, consider tweaking the recipe to offset the extra fat by adding more milk and decreasing cream (see my sour cream example below). You can anticipate and make adjustments for solids as well (see my yogurt example).
  • You could (if you insist) increase sugar to compensate for the tangy dairy, but I did not.
  • If the cultured dairy product contains salt, you could consider omitting the salt from the ice cream recipe. I did not do this. Only one of my tasters—who is very salt sensitive—noticed this.
Photo by Bobbi Lin

Buttermilk

I replaced all of the milk with buttermilk. My buttermilk had only 2% fat rather than the 4% in whole milk, but I chose to ignore that. The texture was cold and refreshing, verging on icy, but in a nice way, and the flavor was balanced and very delicious. Had I wanted to compensate for the lower fat of the buttermilk, I could have increased the cream a tad in relation to the buttermilk. But my results were so nice that I doubt I will make that change next time.

Sour Cream

Because sour cream has considerably more fat than milk, I made the following adjustment: Instead of 2 cups cream and 1 cup milk, I used 1 1/2 cups cream, 1/2 cup milk, and 1 cup sour cream. The texture was creamy and wonderful and the sour cream flavor was subtle and fabulous.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Yogurt

Fearing that Greek yogurt would be too thick, I intended to test with regular yogurt, but Greek was all that I had at the critical moment. I replaced all of the milk with Greek yogurt. The texture of the resulting ice cream was uber-thick and smooth and noticeably less cold than the other samples. (This was caused by the extra-high amount of solids—milk powder plus thick yogurt!) But wait! My tasters loved it, even while admitting that is was more like creamy frozen cheesecake than ice cream. If I want to mitigate this next time, I could either reduce some of the milk powder, or substitute yogurt for less than the full amount of the milk, or use regular yogurt as I originally intended. Fun, right?

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Crème Fraîche

I haven't tested this yet but I know someone will ask. Crème fraîche is as rich as cream, so you should substitute it for some or all of the cream instead of the milk. Because of its high fat content, crème fraîche can be heated or cooked, so you don’t have to add it cold. That ought to get you started.

Next, I’m looking forward to trying quark, goat milk yogurt, and kefir. What have you tried?

Alice Medrich is a Berkeley, California-based pastry chef, chocolatier, and cookbook author. You can read more about what she's up to here.

How have you experimented with ice cream? Tell us about your discoveries and your trials in the comments below!

Tags: ice cream, swapping dairy