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How Did Ice Cream Get So Expensive? – Eater

Ice cream is not the American Dream , not exactly. It’s more like the American Way. It has countless stories to tell, and anyone can tell them. Walk up to the freezers at Whole Foods and stare at the rows and rows of primo pints. Which will you choose? Will it be a Van Leeuwen, wrapped in clean, modern, Easter egg monochrome? A whimsically hand-doodled Ample Hills? Or a McConnell’s, the epitome of old-fashioned?
They’re all selling the same thing: a trip to Bountiful — an Instagram-filtered memory of one’s own past, and a greater, collective American promise. Whether their designs evoke the Yankee-Doodle optimism of Norman Rockwell or the hazy, impasto California Dreaming of Wayne Thiebaud, they’re all tapping a kind of bygone patriotic ideal. With this modern repackaging of Americana comes an additional tenet of our mythical history: the virtue of artisanry. No, they’re not churning ice cream in wooden buckets, but they want you to know that there is care and craft in each and every pint. That they’re making the brownies in your scoop of chocolate fudge brownie from scratch, in-house. That they’re using responsibly sourced produce from small, local farms. This handmade’s tale may be the most important story they tell — and sell.
With this modern repackaging of Americana comes an additional tenet of our mythical history: the virtue of artisanry
Capitalism is the American Way, too. You can always get someone to pay more for something — in fact, it’s encouraged. Still, eight, 10, 12 dollars is an awful lot for a pint of ice cream, which was one of the few staples that, no matter where or how we lived, it seemed we could all rely on enjoying. As our egalitarian treat becomes another common good that’s been “elevated” into a luxury item, we might want to ask a few questions of the national pastime-as-dessert — like, how did we get here? How good is $10-good? And if it’s really that good, how much better might $15-good be?
Eve Babitz, who, like most of us, has been known to succumb to a craving for a scoop, may have been more inclined to lose it over boys than anything else, but her relative objectivity about the rest makes her observations reliably perceptive. In Eve’s Hollywood , the same book in which she recounts wearing her “leopardskin bathing suit and eating a [Wil] Wright’s chocolate burnt-almond ice-cream cone” as a gorgeous young man in a Jaguar chucks a u-ey to check her out at 13, only to drive off just as abruptly, leaving her with a broken heart, she writes:
My mother once told me that in high school she won the state championship for catsup making. The girl with whom she’d shared a kitchen only won 4th place though they’d made the catsup in the same pot and there was no difference. My mother puts hers in a glass jar with flowers painted on it that she painted herself. Packaging is all heaven is.
It’s the frames which made some things important and some things forgotten. It’s all only frames from which the content arises.
If you asked kids what they imagine people eat in heaven, ice cream would probably be one of the most popular answers. As they get older, they might stop believing in heaven, but not in ice cream — although these prices could make a person question their faith. What if it is all just packaging ?
Hard-packed pints, even the $10 ones, are made from the same fundamental ingredients — milk, sugar, air — with the same basic technology as the $5 pints, and even the $5 not-quite-half gallons . The people responsible for these pricey pints will tell you that the cost is justified. They incorporate more butterfat; their milk is organic and comes from grass-fed, deliriously happy cows; and they use the best ingredients possible, whether direct-trade coffee or gently smoked cherries. These details — signifiers that speak to a contemporary anti-bourgeois bourgeois culture that selects for “authenticity,” “mindfulness,” and “transparency” — go into their ice cream, and the story that their ice cream tells, one as conscientiously fashioned as the other.
You can put organic bilberries or biodynamic sapodillas foraged by an elite cult of yodeling eunuchs into your product and slap a $20 price tag on it, for all the United States government cares, but what’s inside had better be ice cream , if that’s what you’re calling it. Not gelato, not sorbet, not ice milk, not frozen yogurt, and definitely not the ever-enigmatic “frozen dessert.”
The FDA has a specific legal definition of “ice cream” that stipulates both the process by which it’s made — “freezing, while stirring” — and the minimum amount of dairy fat it must contain (10 percent). There are other rules, ones about pasteurization or the use of “hydrolyzed milk proteins” and “optional caseinates,” but the important thing to know is that anything labeled “ice cream” contains a legally mandated amount of dairy and dairy-derived fat, or butterfat, determined by weight: A gallon of ice cream must contain 1.6 pounds of dairy solids and weigh at least 4.5 pounds. So there’s a limit to how far even Halo Top, the world’s preeminent seller of fantastically branded pints of exquisitely flavored air , can stretch the definition.
Butterfat gives ice cream its richness, density, and luscious mouthfeel. It is the most essential — and, traditionally, most expensive — raw material in ice cream making. The more butterfat that’s in there, the richer it feels, and the more it costs to make. In her cookbook Hello, My Name Is Ice Cream , Dana Cree, the former executive pastry chef for several One Off Hospitality restaurants and current owner of Pretty Cool Ice Cream in Chicago, explains that it’s “key to ice cream’s flavor, not only by contributing its own deliciousness but also by absorbing flavor from other ingredients like mint leaves or coffee beans.”
But there’s a “physical limit” to how much butterfat an ice cream base can take, Cree writes. More than 20 percent and “the ice cream feels flabby on the palate — more and more fat compounds on your cold tongue before your mouth has a chance to warm it and swallow it. Within a few bites, you’d notice your entire mouth has a slick of fat coating it.” This is something you may have experienced, especially with the deluxe stuff. That greasy, creamed-soup texture is not a measure of fanciness; it’s an indication that the ice cream may be full of first-rate ingredients, but the quality of those items isn’t matched by the technique applied to them.
In a given batch of ice cream, the amount of butterfat is more or less inversely proportional to that of its overrun, or how much air it contains. More air means more fluff, and less room for other ingredients, according to Jill Moorhead , who wrote the Grocery Insider column for the Kitchn, and, at one point, was the wholesale marketing director for Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. And it turns out that a good way to spend less money on ingredients that you have to pay for is to add more of the one that you don’t.
Within the industry, ice cream is classified into “quality segments,” which are based on price, the caliber of ingredients, overrun, and butterfat content, among other factors. The lowest quality segment is “economy,” a label applied to a product that has the maximum overrun (100 percent, or equal parts air to dairy base) — and the minimum butterfat (10 percent) — permitted by the FDA; it is the least ice cream that ice cream can be and still legally be called “ice cream.”
One step above that is “regular,” which covers the standard supermarket half-gallon that usually has between 10 and 12 percent butterfat. This is probably the fluffy ice cream of your youth — the Breyers, the Dreyer’s, the Edy’s, and the Blue Bells; even as you read this, future memories are being spooned into the mouths of America’s children. Then there’s “premium,” which runs the gamut from the Whole Foods’ in-house brand to the scoops you might get at your local ice cream shop, with between 12 to 14 percent butterfat and less overrun than the generic.
All ice cream, no matter what it costs, is made from the same basic ingredients: milk, sugar, and air
For a long time, that was it. Things didn’t get any more deluxe than premium until 1960, when Reuben Mattus came along with the idea that there were people out there, unabashedly bourgeois types, who might be interested in a more rarefied option. He upped the butterfat to at least 15 percent , shunned preservatives and stabilizers (we’ll get to those, don’t worry), and cut the overrun to 20 percent. He may have been just another macher from the Bronx, but his ice cream conjured European sophistication : His wife and cofounder, Rose, called it Häagen-Dazs. They rolled their pints out in just three flavors — vanilla, chocolate, and coffee — and sold them for what, at that time, was a higher price than any other ice cream on the market, 75 cents each , or roughly $6.40 today. The “super premium” quality segment was born.
The Mattuses had impeccable timing: Over the next two decades, Americans became turned on to all things “imported.” If it came from Europe (or seemed to), it was perceived as finer, fancier, and more desirable, and marketed accordingly. Häagen-Dazs did more than fit right in ; it spawned a number of knockoffs ( this is why everyone ate all the Frusen Glädjé ). By 1982, high-priced pints from Häagen-Dazs and its clones comprised 20 percent of total ice cream sales.
This was the scene that a pair of Long Island-born hippies named Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield burst onto when they took over a former gas station to sell “Vermont’s Finest All Natural Ice Cream” in zany flavors like Mint Oreo, Mocha Walnut, Honey Coffee, or Wild Blueberry. Their scoops — and pints — offered the same superior quality as the Fauxropeans’ in terms of butterfat and overrun, but with a folksy, decidedly All-American ethos. They had little black-and-white spotted cows drawn onto their packaging, colorfully illustrated like a children’s picture book, and where their continental competitors prided themselves on the elegance and purity of their products, the hippies packed their pints with Heath bars, or a “dastardly” mix of pecans, raisins, and chocolate chips. The duo’s success posed enough of a threat to Häagen-Dazs that in 1984, its owner, Pillsbury — which had purchased the brand a year earlier — tried to block distributors from carrying Ben & Jerry’s .
For all the folksiness, Ben & Jerry’s pints were still among the most expensive ice cream sold in supermarkets at the time — $1.69 to $1.79, or more than $5 in today’s dollars — though they came with a money-back guarantee. The twosome managed to leverage populism to charge more for one of the most populist things around, projecting good, clean, homegrown fun in direct opposition to pretentious European airs — all while asking customers to pay the same price. It was marketing genius, and it has served as the template for a new generation of ice cream makers.
You might have imagined that ice cream couldn’t get any better than “premium”; the word indicates the ultimate in quality, the top slot. But this is America, a place where brands regularly transcend the limits placed upon them by science or decency, where terms like “fast casual” or “wellness” can become synonymous with “lifestyle,” and where no one has ever minded the redundancy of a superlative like “super premium.”
‘If you can’t make ice cream better than Häagen-Dazs, you really can’t charge that much’
More recently, an insurgent category, informally called “ultra premium,” has emerged. These ice creams have pornographic amounts of butterfat — 17 to 20 percent — while their branding reflects the new artisanal-American vernacular of “hand-packed,” “locally made,” and “small batch.” Ingredients aren’t just “the best,” they’re seasonal, organic, heirloom, “crafted in-house,” and sometimes, savory (fennel), unexpected (pickled mango), or disarmingly paired (milk chocolate and tarragon). Ultra-premium ice cream is also exceedingly expensive, with pints generally running between $8 and $12.
We can thank — or blame — Jeni Britton Bauer for the existence of ultra-premium ice cream. In November 2002, she opened the door to the first Jeni’s Splendid shop in Columbus, Ohio. At the time, Häagen-Dazs’s four-year-old Dulce de Leche was still all the rage, Ben & Jerry’s had just retired Wavy Gravy, and brownie batter was about as exciting as it got. Britton Bauer exposed the Midwestern city to the craft beer equivalent of ice cream: flavors like Sweet Curry, Basil Honey Pine Nut, El Rey Single-Origin Chocolate, and, the brand juggernaut — and a now-ubiquitous dessert conceit — Salty Caramel. “Ylang-ylang fennel ice cream sounds weird,” she admits. But, she adds, there’s a “method to that madness.” The essential flavor derived from the flower is “similar to vanilla” and, she emphasizes, creates a nostalgic effect, which is what everything hinges on for Britton Bauer.
She priced it accordingly, and claims Jeni’s Splendid was the first ice cream to cross the $10-a-pint mark — a milestone she takes pride in. “When we think about what’s happening in flavor right now and ice cream, if you can’t make ice cream better than Häagen-Dazs, you really can’t charge that much,” she says. She still loves Ben & Jerry’s too, for its character and its mission — it’s no coincidence that Jeni’s Splendid is a certified B-Corp — but says that “we don’t have a 21st-century version of those companies. We don’t have that next great American ice cream.” Becoming that is her raison d’etre.
“Most ice cream recipes are still based on those from the 1950s,” Britton Bauer says. If that sounds surprising, think about the FDA standards: Ice cream is required to contain a certain amount of fat, in specified proportions, and the source of that fat has to be dairy — the processing of which is governed by yet another set of rules — meaning the boundaries of an ice cream base, the liquid that eventually becomes the lickable heap perched on a cone, are relatively fixed. This means that the best way to maximize your flexibility or autonomy in recipe development is by having total control of your dairy source.
The only proven avenue for total control is owning every step of the process, a fact Michael Palmer can probably retire on. In 2011, Palmer, a winemaker, and his wife, chef Eva Ein, bought McConnell’s Fine Ice Cream. Based in Santa Barbara, California, McConnell’s was established as a dairy in 1934, 15 years before it launched its ice cream business. Palmer thinks that he is sitting on a pot of churnable gold, and is doubling down on his investment by constructing what will be California’s first built-from-the-ground-up dairy in close to 60 years. When it’s finished, it will have eight to 10 times the capacity of his original dairy.
A licensed dairy doesn’t just have access to the raw material straight out of the cow, it has the equipment and legal permission to pasteurize the cream and milk. Becoming licensed to pasteurize is onerous, to say the least, so ice cream makers are often beholden to a dairy like Palmer’s to blend and sterilize their ice cream base. Many simply work with a standard, widely available commercial dairy base . Not only do most of their flavors probably start with the same ratio of milk, cream, sugar, and maybe eggs, they potentially share that base with competitors who depend on the same dairy source.
Some ice cream makers are able to develop an original recipe for their base with a dairy partner, which allows them to retain more autonomy over their product. But they’re still dealing with a fixed entity, and ice cream, at its best, isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition: What works for peanut butter might not be optimal for mocha almond fudge. Some flavors, like strawberry, do better with less butterfat; or, like lemon, without eggs; if some of your mix-ins are particularly sweet (or salty) they require a more (or less) saccharine background. But if you’re relying on one or two premixed bases, you’re stuck. Either make do, or scrap your dreams of creating a new ice cream flavor.
For some ultra-premium producers, securing a dairy license for on-premises pasteurizing is a priority from the start. The license allows them to take raw milk and cream from their dairy source, then mix it themselves, so they can make as many different bases as they want, as long as they have the manpower, time, and equipment to handle it. Although Britton Bauer became certified in 2006 and previously pasteurized her bases in the back of her first Jeni’s store in Columbus, she’s found that doing everything at the dairy she collaborates with most closely yields better results. She uses the dairy’s facility to do everything herself, including the churning. “Their ice cream machines are better than any we’ve ever had,” she says.
It may be disappointing to learn that the machines are more important to how we physically experience ice cream than any perfectly calibrated ratio of butterfat to overrun, or the psychic well-being of the cows whose udders produced the milk and cream. A recipe is really just a measure of potential — of how good each bite-size gob could feel in your mouth, how its flavor might open up to you. If the recipe determines how much ice your finished product will have, the equipment used to process the ice cream determines the size of those crystals; the smaller the crystals, the better the ice cream.
The technology behind ice cream machinery dates back to 1843, when a woman named Nancy Johnson secured a patent for her hand-cranked “artificial freezer” that improved upon the jerry-rigged contraptions of the Ma and Pa Ingalls crowd . No more vigorously shaking a bucket full of salted ice one moment, then whipping and scraping the sweetened, flavored cream the next. This new device was the prototype for the familiar, ever-churning canister system widely used today . Explained by Laura B. Weiss in Ice Cream: A Global History, with Johnson’s invention, “all that was required of a cook was to give the crank several good turns. That action would turn the dasher, ferrying the ingredients from the edge of the freezer to the center and back again.” The mechanism, as detailed in U.S. patent No. 3254, functioned by “constantly allowing fresh portions of the cream or other substances to be frozen to come in contact with the refrigerating surface.”
In 2019, commercial-grade equipment is, obviously, electric, and can accommodate larger quantities of ice cream. You can program it for churn rate and length, and for the amount of aeration. But these systems operate exactly the same way and rely on the same architecture as Johnson’s: A canister filled with an ice cream base spins inside a larger vessel. Industrial-grade machines fall into two categories, batch freezers and continuous freezers. The first is smaller and demands more human attention on the inputting and receiving ends — to load your base into the canister, feed in the flavorings, and then to collect the ice cream as it snakes out of the spigot like cold, bloated toothpaste being squeezed out of a tube.
To make ice cream, you’re forced to complete an impossible task: Freeze a solution that, despite being called ice cream , is more than half full of water, all while avoiding the formation of ice
Today’s heroes of the artisanal startup brigade were batch-freezer babies, and Tyler Malek, the chef behind Salt & Straw, which he runs with his cousin Kim, remains faithful to the batch machine. He wants to figure out how to use its limited capacity and functionality to make the best ice cream, period. He claims he prefers it to the continuous freezer, equating the difference to hand-rolling pastry dough as opposed to sending it through a sheeting machine. “There’s something you can taste in ice cream when it’s handmade,” Malek says.
An asshole might ask, “What is handmade ice cream, really?” They would have a point. Anyone using an electric churner, whether a batch machine or continuous freezer, is not, technically, making the stuff by hand. What can be done by hand, as the ultra-premium parties tend to do, is make the mix-ins from scratch, and that Malek does, more meticulously — perhaps maniacally — than anyone. “The pint we’ve brought to market that had the most hands, was nine,” he says, before Kim explains: “He marks an ice cream by how many hands it takes to make it.” When he wants to put gummy candies in his ice cream, he doesn’t stop until he’s figured out how to build the chewy, waxy bears of his dreams.
Like Miley Cyrus, Malek seems to enjoy the climb . He loves hand-packing pints — “scooping the ice cream in, ladling in the caramel, adding nine pieces of ganache to each” — and he and his cousin refuse to adjust their local point of view even as they expand the eight-year-old Salt & Straw beyond Portland, Oregon, to Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco. Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group has invested in the company, allowing them to grow their business at their own leisurely pace. If the only way to move forward is to think inside the box, chefs like Malek are taking that to its farthest conclusion; you could call it thinking inside the coffin. Who’s to say it can’t lead to lead to better results?
McConnell’s Palmer, for one. “The term ‘small-batch,’ people think it refers to those tiny batch machines,” he says with exasperation in his voice. “I will tell you it’s an awful way to make a very good, consistent product.” This is why, he adds, “so many people co-pack.”
Co-packing — using a third-party contract manufacturer — is the workaround for anyone without the capital or space who wants to scale up their production and access a continuous freezer. Jake Godby and Sean Vahey of San Francisco-based Humphry Slocombe continue to use a batch freezer at their first, freestanding location, but they have turned to co-packing to expand their business into supermarket aisles. “Since we don’t have enough equipment capacity for grocery, we have partnered with a co-packer in the East Bay to help make our pints,” Vahey said. “Our production team prepares all of the ingredients, and the co-packer runs it through their machines for us.” He insists that they work “very closely” with the co-packer to insure the “quality and taste” in their pints is up to par with what they scoop out of their storefront.
It’s even possible that the quality and taste of those grocery pints surpass that of their shop scoops. Because, hold on to your hats , “ice cream should get better if you scale up,” says Ben Van Leeuwen, co-founder of the eponymous brand. After getting his start selling ice cream out of a pastel-yellow truck in Brooklyn in 2008, he and his partners now operate a bi-coastal empire . The enormity of Van Leeuwen’s continuous freezer strikes you immediately when you walk through the company’s Brooklyn facility , which Ben and his business partners Pete (his brother) and Laura O’Neill (his ex-wife) leased in 2015 and upgraded in 2016. At 5,000 square feet, the factory is more than six times the size of their previous space. A continuous freezer is self-loading, self-depositing, and yields consistently better results: Bigger machines are able to freeze ice cream more quickly, and the faster it freezes, the smaller the ice crystals — and the smaller the crystals, the smoother the ice cream. “We joke it’s kind of like Walter White’s lab,” O’Neill said, standing among the large, stainless-steel cylinders connected by overhead pipes. As you look at them, you begin to understand this isn’t as simple as buying just one (huge) piece of equipment — it requires an entire family of machines, such as special clean-in-place food-grade piping to transfer bases from pasteurizer to freezer, with numerous procedural stations along the way.
Due to its capacity, size, and cost, installing and operating a continuous freezer is only an option for brands that aim to produce vast quantities of ice cream. In the not-so-distant past, among super-premium brands, that mostly meant Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs, outfits that have the demand and distribution to justify (and afford) continuous freezers. Van Leeuwen’s growth in New York, LA, and Whole Foods global allowed the business to invest in the new factory and equipment, which currently produces around 2,000 gallons per day.
‘Should we define super-super premium by the size of its batches? The art in “artisan” is how you scale your product’
There’s a point where that kind of setup begins to pay for itself. Before that, though, there’s a tentative phase where batch equipment doesn’t cover the desired output, but demand isn’t quite high enough to fully support the cost of the tricked-out gear. Brian Smith of Ample Hills was in that kind of growing-pains stage when he moved his Gowanus-based operation into a larger space in Red Hook, with a brand-new continuous freezer. Before that, he was at capacity with his batch freezer, doing 450 to 500 gallons a day, or 12 to 15 gallons every 15 minutes. His latest facility will allow him to increase that tenfold and beyond .
Each batch freezer costs $36,000, Smith says. A continuous freezer is a lot more — he wouldn’t say how much his new one cost, all told — but it’s a behemoth. It will, he says, “allow us to regulate it and make it more consistent. The machine itself makes a creamier product. It will include a homogenizer, which we don’t have now.” The homogenizer is the second step — and piece of equipment — in the ice cream-making process; it comes after the pasteurizer. Think of it like a rock tumbler for fat molecules; it blasts them into small, evenly sized particles, which will more readily emulsify (or divert) the water. After it’s been blitzed in the homogenizer, the base is transferred to an aging vat, where it cools to a churnable temperature and its flavors have more time to develop.
An added perk of the continuous freezer is its fruit feeder, which allows mix-ins to be mechanically incorporated. Now, no one needs to stand by to collect the finished product, so Smith can cut down on manpower and rest assured that the contents of each pint are uniformly distributed. “I went from being terrified that we wouldn’t be able to make a better product,” he said. “Now I’m excited we can make a better ice cream at scale … and be able to lower prices.”
Everyone seems to have scale on the brain — not just how to do it, but the optics of the endeavor. “Should we define super-super premium by the size of its batches?” Palmer asks. The real “art in artisan,” he asserts, “is how you scale your product.” This flies in the face of everything we’ve been taught as consumers of specialty goods. “There’s this automatic — you would defer to the smaller brand’s quality, thinking, ‘Oh, if they’re smaller, they must be better,’” Ben Van Leeuwen complains.
You can see how this looks: A generation of ice cream makers develops their products, builds their brands, and cultivates their followings in thrall to a zeitgeist whose most hallowed values upheld the handmade over the mass-produced, the local over the (multi)national, and the notion that smaller isn’t just better, it’s the best. Now that they stand on the brink of potentially becoming the next Häagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s, they’re declaring that actually, maybe, that’s all wrong. For ice cream, unlike cult breads or heritage meats or hand-jarred jam, they’re saying, perhaps bigger really is better.
Anyone who makes ice cream, whether they have the most ramshackle of rigs or the newest gadgetry on the market, is fighting the same battle: against time. Ice cream is best the instant it leaves the machine; every second after that, it’s a little worse than it was before. No one, not even Michael Laiskonis, the James Beard Award-winning pastry chef who, as creative director of the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, spends his days contemplating the molecular structure of ice cream, can escape this ironclad law of dessert thermodynamics.
Every time Laiskonis pumps a soft inflated, nougat-thick ribbon out of his commercial-grade batch freezer for testing, he is reminded of his friend, a fellow pastry chef, who once confessed how profoundly sad it left him, knowing that the people he made ice cream for would never taste it at its peak.
This is just as true for the most incredible ice cream as it is for the worst; you could eat whatever just came out of a Halo Top or Turkey Hill spout and it would probably still be terrific. That’s because ice crystals are at their smallest at the moment the ice cream meets the world, just as it crowns and leaves the machine, where it turned over and over so that its water content was unable to clump together and seize up into crunchy ice. The second the water begins to freeze, Laiskonis says, “you’ve lost the battle.”
Ice cream is best the instant it leaves the machine; every second after that, it’s a little worse than it was before
Things only get worse from there. The machine – any and all of them — is designed to create a certain, fixed number of ice crystals, explains Salt & Straw’s Malek. “Regardless of how cold your freezer will be going in, your crystal count drops immediately,” he says. “So if we start with 1000 ice crystals, as soon as you pull it from the machine, you drop and start losing the smallest ones and say you drop down to 900. Then you put it in a holding freezer and it drops to 800 and then it travels to another really cold freezer and it drops again to 750. … The biggest crystals that are left grab up that water, suck it up, hold it in and you get really large crystals.” Every time you open the door to a freezer, in your kitchen or at your local supermarket, you injure your pints, loading them down with ever larger, smoothness-shattering crystals. There’s only one proven, if partial, remedy: stabilizers.
Stabilizers were introduced to ice cream around the time we started pumping it full of air. After World War II, Americans lost interest in soda fountains and ice cream parlors, and grocery stores became the primary point of purchase as people brought their cartons home rather than socializing over ice cream. By the mid-1980s, as the New York Times reported , more than 80 percent of all ice cream sales were transacted at convenience stores or supermarkets. The rise in mass production brought the ubiquity of the carton, which needed to hold up for a lot longer than the scooped-to-order ice cream on a cone.
It should be obvious but may require saying: The primary job of stabilizers is to keep whatever solution they’re added to stable. And yet people seem to dislike stabilizers, or the idea of them. They get lumped in with the phrase “artificial additives or preservatives,” the lists of ingredients that no one can pronounce or spell, which must surely describe something unnatural and evil.
Yet ice cream makers who proudly — and often self-righteously — trumpet their avoidance of stabilizers and insist that their said absence improves the product and makes it more “natural,” aren’t being entirely straight with us. By and large, these additives are derived from natural ingredients and as long as they’re used in the correct, small doses, they can produce ice cream better suited to withstanding the journey from the factory to your freezer without becoming too haggard.
A few hours with Laiskonis might disabuse the stabilizer truthers of their contempt. “Most of cooking is trying to manipulate water,” he says. He could, he suggests, write a single-subject cookbook about that element. Ice cream, which is 60 percent water, would definitely get its own chapter. To make it, you’re forced to complete an impossible task: Freeze a solution that, despite being called ice cream , is more than half full of water, all while avoiding the formation of ice. Ice is, well, icy — it’s watery and crunchy, two attributes that make for a shitty pint. As your base churns in its chilled container, it begins to freeze, and thickens as it does so, in part because that water is forming crystals. If you can keep the crystals to a minimum number and size, you will produce decent ice cream.
Ice cream is faded memory in the form of perfectly smooth, barely frozen butterfat; its flavors, no matter how long you infused those tea leaves, are always fuzzy around the edges
Along with acting as thickening agents, stabilizers bind water that would otherwise turn to ice. Their binding properties allow them to do more than impair water’s ability to freeze; they keep it tied up so that the fluctuations in temperature that would cause your ice cream to begin to melt, then subsequently refreeze and form new icicles, have less impact. And today’s stabilizers derive from plant-based ingredients. Those most commonly deployed for ice cream are locust bean and guar gum, and they tend to be used in tandem. Their names sound scary, and the inclination is to assume they’re artificial chemicals. But the layperson’s term for locust bean is carob bean. Guar’s a plant, too. Another common stabilizer, carrageenan, is seaweed-based. Options that sound even more science-y, like xanthan gum and pectin, come from natural sources.
The better ice cream stabilizers are blends — those from Italy developed for gelato are thought to be the best. They generally incorporate emulsifiers (elements that fuse otherwise incompatible compounds like water and fat), so they’re all the more efficient. Used correctly, they “increase viscosity” and give you a “creamier mouthfeel,” Laiskonis says. “Too much gets you something gummy, and increases overrun, too.” That’s what gives stabilizers a bad rap: Several mass-market brands cut costs by using less-expensive stabilizers in place of milk fat, milk solids, or eggs.
Laiskonis has determined that perfection is achieved when stabilizers comprise less than half a percent of the base (“typically 0.2-0.4 percent if we’re getting technical”). At such a low concentration, your taste buds won’t detect any of it. Your mouth will pick up on a more substantial, appealing texture in the ice cream — that slight “chew” that gives the impression of extra-lusciousness. If you want to know what stabilizers taste like when there are enough of them present, just ask Britton Bauer. She calls it “a mouth-watering metallic flavor” that “has a slight bitterness.” If you haven’t experienced that flavor, eat a Twinkie, she advises. Laiskonis insists you’d need to add a hell of a lot of them for your taste buds to register what Britton Bauer described. She concedes that “the natural ones are fine,” but where many would argue that, when used wisely, they improve the texture, and possibly flavor, she thinks the former suffers for them and the latter is muted.
She has sympathizers, Ben Van Leeuwen and Palmer among them. Van Leeuwen, for his part, likes to remind everyone that Häagen-Dazs doesn’t use stabilizers either; Palmer admits that leaving them out of his pints gives him less control over their fate once they leave the McConnell’s facility. Still, it might leave you wondering why you’d spend so much money on something that will never be as good as it once might have been.
That is the question , after all: Is the $10 pint worth it? And how different are these ultra-premium products from each other — or the rest, really? You’d think a blind taste test would help answer those questions. It did not.
Some of New York City’s finest ice cream minds — and palates — generously volunteered their services and were put through a rather rigorous two hours of eating and assessing ice cream. Max Falkowitz, editor, journalist and ice cream expert? Fany Gerson of La Newyorkina? Meredith Kurtzman of gelato ? Natasha Pickowicz of Café Altro Paradiso and Flora Bar? Alex Stupak of Empellón? Nancy Druckman (ice cream fanatic and definitely a relation of the author — i.e., her mother)? Laiskonis? All present. There were numerous flights, and the judges were asked to consider each item they tried on the basis of the intensity and quality of its flavor, its texture, and its finish. Samples of Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s were slipped into each round to determine how the ultra-premium products compared to those in the price bracket beneath theirs.
The results of this test were hilariously ambiguous and mostly inconclusive. The tasters barely agreed on anything, except that none of them was particularly excited about a single item he or she tasted. Opinions varied, not just from one brand to the next, but from one flavor to the next of a single brand. Common complaints were of samples having “no character” or being “too sweet.” A tester who will remain nameless (okay, it was the mom) said it was the first time she had ice cream that “tasted terrible.” Possibly the most telling information to emerge was that, out of nine vanillas, Häagen-Dazs came out on top, and it wasn’t very close. (One of the test coordinators decided they liked the Van Leeuwen vanilla best because it tasted like marshmallow, which makes you wonder if anyone knows what vanilla tastes like, and why that company doesn’t name that flavor “marshmallow.”) In related news: Ben & Jerry’s chocolate chip cookie dough scored solidly, too.
Possibly the most telling information to emerge was that, out of nine vanillas, Häagen-Dazs came out on top, and it wasn’t very close
Whatever the answer to the question of “worth it” may be, Britton Bauer doesn’t “see ice cream going back to $5 from here.” And why should she? She’s been making and selling a lot of it, and her success shows no signs of slowing. But she wants to change her pricing model: Why not, she asks, charge by the flavor? Special flavors that are limited by access to products or require extra manpower should fetch a higher price than some of the less complicated, perennial offerings . You could “find a pint at $9.99 at Whole Foods, or one that’s close to $15 at a specialty market for a more labor-intensive pint,” she suggests, quick to mention that distributors determine prices. “I think $9.99 is pretty great,” she says. For now, when you order through the Jeni’s Splendid website, $12 is the damage per unit.
Ample Hills is distinguishing itself by going low when everyone is going high. Smith decreased the price of his pints in groceries in early 2018 from $9.99 to $8.99, and his latest packaging uses hand-drawn cartoon animals that have been part of the company’s in-store and online imagery since he and his wife Jackie Cuscuna opened their first location in Prospect Heights in 2011. The look suits the brand’s ongoing Disney affiliation; in addition to special-edition Star Wars pints , Ample Hills opened a storefront at Walt Disney World Resort nearly three years ago. “We’re making ice cream that’s more geared [to] a Ben & Jerry’s Version 2.0,” Smith says.
Smith sees Ample Hills as less “intellectual” than the brands with which he shares retail real estate, and believes this curtails his ability to charge as much as they do. At the same time, he sees a gap in the high-end market where outstanding quality and kitsch overlap. He doesn’t use the word “stoner,” but it’s easy to infer that Smith is speaking to the more laid-back foodie who doesn’t take himself too seriously and digs artisanal junk food. “Our goal is not to be the most expensive pint in the freezer. As long as we’ve got Jeni’s to the right of us at $11.99, we feel at least we’re not out there on a limb.”
Cracking the mass market will require a slightly different algebraic set. “If we’re in Target, it’s going to be the most expensive pint by far. The goal then will be $7.99. But that’s a ways off. You can’t go up in price.” Van Leeuwen, which took on investment last year to fuel national expansion , is now regularly $7.99 at Whole Foods, but it’s using a trick pioneered by its forebears — one of its “pints” contains just 14 ounces of ice cream, not 16. It’s a clever way to raise prices, or keep them the same while becoming more accessible; people rarely notice when a pint isn’t a pint, as long as it looks like a pint.
‘Even the cheapest, crappiest commodity stuff is good on a summer day, because it’s still ice cream’
Some might say no matter how delicious the ice cream or how big the pint, $10 is an absurd amount. Britton Bauer confesses, “I think $15 is too much for a pint.” Others might be offended by the very idea that any American could be priced out of enjoying this once-accessible treat. We have a right to happiness; ergo, we have a right to ice cream.
Maybe the truth is that all ice cream, even the worst, is good enough. Ice cream tastes like something forgotten. It’s a perfect example of synesthesia — faded memory in the edible form of perfectly smooth, barely frozen butterfat. Its flavors, no matter how long you infused those tea leaves or spices in its base, are fuzzy around the edges. When we indulge in it, we’re not looking to experience the purest, most concentrated version of a bunch of fresh mint leaves, or for the deepest expression of caramel with salt. We do so to access a feeling. That is why, as Smith says, “even the cheapest, crappiest commodity stuff is good on a summer day, because it’s still ice cream.” And if you grew up on that cheapest, crappiest commodity stuff, you might even prefer it, because its familiarity makes that nostalgic connection stronger. Or, to put it more cruelly, a line from Sam Lipsyte’s novel The Ask : “It was horseshit, of course, nostalgia for a nonexistent past, but it warmed the cheap parts of me.”
Ice cream reduces grown people to the children they once were. It’s why the entrepreneurs who have committed to improving or “elevating” ice cream stubbornly, maybe irrationally, believe in their fool’s errand. It’s why those who are willing — and able — pull out their wallets for $10 pints, convinced that what’s inside is worth it. Our faith in heaven may be long gone, but we haven’t given up on ice cream, even if packaging is all it is. Here, the frames are often the content, the source of a holy commercial aura that comforts and drives us. It’s the American Way.
Charlotte Druckman is a journalist who lives in Manhattan, the island on which she was born and raised. The co-founder of Food52’s Tournament of Cookbooks, her unconventional anthology Women on Food (Abrams) arrives on October 29, and her second cookbook Kitchen Remix (Clarkson Potter) in April 2020. Party of One is Brooklyn-based collaborative creative studio founded by Melissa Deckert and Nicole Licht . Fact checked by Samantha Schuyler Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter
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