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When I signed on to write a column about different varieties of vegan ice cream, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. 14 batches later, I have a little more respect for the challenges of making homemade ice cream without eggs or dairy.
This isn’t my first foray into non-dairy ice cream, but it’s my first time trying to perfect texture and flavor using a variety of bases. My approach to making ice cream has always started with a couple cans of coconut milk. It’s a reliable method because coconut milk has a fat content that’s comparable to full fat dairy—something in between whole milk and heavy cream. It churns up smoothly, with a mouthfeel that’s similar to custard-based ice cream, and it doesn’t require any thickening agents.
The drawback is that coconut milk-based ice creams do tend to taste like coconut. If you’re making a chocolate, strawberry, or coffee flavored mixture, then you might not notice it, but delicate flavors like vanilla might lose some subtlety with a coconut base. Then there’s the fact that some people just don’t care for coconut, or they’d like an ice cream that’s a bit lighter than the ultra-creamy mix that coconut produces. There are so many non-dairy milks on the market these days: how do they stack up for ice-cream making?
The answer is that making a non-dairy ice cream without coconut as a base ingredient is a little tricky, but it’s definitely possible. Depending on what you have at home in terms of equipment and ingredients, you’ve got options.
Vegan Ice Cream 101
Replacing dairy wasn’t the hardest part of perfecting vegan ice cream, but the fat content of non-dairy milk is a factor to consider. Most plant-based milks have about half the fat content of whole milk, and more fat = creamier texture. Coconut milk (either canned or in the carton) and soy milk are higher in fat than the majority of commercial nut milks, but some newer nut milk brands are creating richer and higher fat blends. Adding non-dairy creamer to an ice-cream base is an easy way to up the fat content, too.
The real challenge for me was replacing eggs, which are used to create the custard base in traditional mixes. Eggs have both fat, which contributes to emulsification and creaminess, and protein, which helps create a thick, gel-like texture that’s resistant to forming big crystals of ice or gritty texture (the ultimate ice-cream buzzkill).
With enough fat in my ice cream base, I could get away with not replacing eggs, which is why I could transfer my cashew and coconut bases straight from a blender to the fridge (and then to the ice-cream maker). But with most commercial plant-based milks, like soy, almond, cashew, hemp, or the coconut milk that’s sold in cartons (rather than cans), I needed to create a custard base over the stovetop using a thickener (cornstarch or arrowroot) to create the gel-like texture. Adding olive oil also helped emulsify the mixture so it churned smoothly.
Pick Your Vegan Ice Cream Base
After all of my experimenting, I’ve come to rely on three methods, each with advantages and disadvantages. The cashew base is my favorite: I think it has the best consistency and the most neutral flavor, which makes it a good blank canvas. The downside is that it’s tough to blend the cashews to creamy perfection without a high-speed blender. If you’re working with a regular blender at home, I’d recommend the coconut or non-dairy milk varieties. (If you really want a cashew base, blend it in a regular blender, then strain the base through a cheesecloth. But it’s an additional step and compromises the ice cream’s richness.)
I tested the coconut and cashew versions two ways: first, by simply blending ingredients, allowing them to cool a little, then transferring them straight to the ice cream maker. I also tried blending everything but the sugar, heating it, and allowing the sugar to dissolve while the base thickened over the stovetop (as one would with a traditional ice cream custard). I didn’t see noticeable differences between the batches after churning, so I don’t include heating as an instruction. Just remember to blend your base thoroughly, so that all of the sugar dissolves before you churn.
The non-dairy milk variety definitely needs heating. If you plan to make it, allot plenty of time for the base to cool in the fridge (4 hours should do it, but overnight is ideal).
Base 1: Cashews
This base requires a high-speed blender. Start by soaking a cup of raw cashews for at least 2 hours or overnight in water. Drain the cashews. Add them to your blender, along with 2 1/2 cups unsweetened, nondairy milk of choice (almond and soy are my favorite options), 1/2 cup cane sugar, 2 tablespoons maple syrup, agave nectar, or brown rice syrup, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1/4 teaspoon fine salt, and 1 tablespoon olive oil (or a neutral oil, like grapeseed). Blend for at least 2 minutes on high speed, or until the mixture is completely smooth. Transfer it to the fridge and allow it to cool for at least 30 minutes (an hour is even better).
Next, transfer the base to a prepared ice cream maker and follow the manufacturer’s instructions (mine took 15-20 minutes). You should get a rich, creamy mixture that’s easy to scoop and serve once churned, but you can also chill for 1-2 additional hours before churning to firm it up.
Base 2: Coconut Milk
The most low-maintenance option. Shake well, then open two 13.5-ounce cans of full-fat coconut milk. Add the milk to your blender, along with 1/2 cup cane sugar, 1/4 teaspoon fine salt, and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. Blend for at least a full minute. Transfer the mixture to the fridge and allow it to cool for at least 30 minutes (an hour is ideal if you’ve got it).
After, transfer the base to a prepared ice cream maker and follow the manufacturer’s instructions (mine took 25-30 minutes). Just like with the cashew base, you should get a rich, creamy mixture that’s easy to scoop and serve once churned, but you can also chill for 1-2 hours prior to churning to firm it up.
Base 3: Non-Dairy Milk
Think of this batch as a cross between traditional vanilla ice cream and a creamy vanilla sorbet—it won’t be as rich as the other two options. I tested this one with:
- Soy milk
- Cashew milk
- Almond milk
- Macadamia milk
- Hemp Milk
- Coconut milk (from the carton)
Different milks definitely gave me different results: some almond milks are higher in fat than others, which made a slightly creamier ice cream. Hemp milk had good texture but a distinctively hemp-y flavor. Soy milk was my favorite. One thing to keep in mind is that some soy milks are darker in color than others; depending on which brand you buy, you may have a yellow or tan hued ice cream. No matter what milk you use, I recommend buying an unsweetened, plain variety to control the ice cream’s flavor.
I consulted many wise vegan cooks along the way to this batch. Isa Chandra Moskowitz has a great explanation of why each ingredient in vegan ice cream serves a purpose. Hannah Kaminsky’s book, Vegan a la Mode, offered great tips along with dozens of ultra-creative flavor ideas (one of Hannah’s tips is to use Bird’s Custard Powder in place of cornstarch, which I’m eager to try).
To get started, whisk together 3 cups of nondairy milk, 2 tablespoons olive oil (or a neutral oil like grapeseed), 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Place the mixture into a saucepan and add a 1/2 cup of sugar. Bring the mixture to an almost-simmer (it should be scalded, jiggling a little at the surface, but not bubbly) over medium low heat. Dissolve 2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch in 2 tablespoons water; whisk until the cornstarch is smooth, then add it to the ice cream base. Reduce the heat to low and continue stirring for 2-3 minutes, or until the mixture has thickened up and coats the back of a spoon.
Transfer the mixture to the fridge, cover, and allow it to cool for at least 4 hours (or overnight). Transfer the base to a prepared ice cream maker and follow the manufacturer’s instructions (mine took 15-20 minutes). The mixture will be ready to enjoy, but you can also freeze it for another 1-2 hours. Just be aware that if you freeze it for longer, it’ll form ice crystals.
- If you do a lot of gluten-free baking and have xanthan gum at home, you can add 1/2 teaspoon to the cashew and coconut versions. It’ll help to create a creamier, thicker texture.
- You can substitute arrowroot starch for cornstarch in the non-dairy version.
- To make the non-dairy ice cream richer, try using 2 cups non-dairy milk and 1 cup of an unsweetened, non-dairy creamer (there are great almond and soy options available these days).
Oh, and one more thing
No matter how hard I tried, none of my varieties held up as well to freezing as the commercial vegan ice creams on the market these days (this gave me a not-unwelcome excuse to taste them all as I was making them). If you’re making the ice cream for friends, I recommend freezing right before dinner (so that the ice cream won’t have been in the freezer more than a couple hours when you eat it), or churning it right before serving, so that your friends can witness the action.
Curious about ideas for mix-ins? Here are some of my favorites. Solids can be added at the end of churning, while swirls should be added after the ice cream has been taken out of the machine:
- Roasted blueberries
- Roasted banana or banana chips
- Roasted fig
- Candied pecans
- Roasted sweet potatoes
- Oreos (→vegan!)
- Melted dark chocolate (I usually add melted vegan butter or oil to melted chocolate to keep it from clumping)