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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Vanilla Ice Cream - The Complicated Classic

Ice cream aficionados insist that you can tell the quality of a person’s ice cream by the taste of their vanilla. It is such a simple and pure flavor that making it incorrectly is very noticeable.

The well kept secret to good vanilla ice cream is knowing the right vanilla to use. I have been told by a couple of professional small batch ice cream makers that there is a relationship between vanilla extract and butterfat content. There was a study published in the Journal of Dairy Science in 1997 that proved that as fat increased, vanilla flavor decreased in ice cream (you can find the study here). This means that when you make high fat ice cream at home you have to either increase the quantity of vanilla or find a stronger vanilla extract.

Another little secret of the ice cream manufacturing world is that they all use vanilla extract to flavor their ice cream. It is rare to find a manufacturer who uses beans for flavor. Those little flecks in your commercial ice cream are from vanilla beans, but they are added for appearance. Those specks do not add any perceptible vanilla flavor.

Through my experimentation, I found that Madagascar bourbon vanilla extract works the best for my formulation. It gives a deeper vanilla flavor when compared to using an equal amount of the ubiquitous McCormick brand. If you don't know any better, McCormick tastes fine, but in a side by side comparison its flavor is sweeter and lighter in the finished product.

My vanilla ice cream is “French Vanilla” because of its eggs. Cook’s Illustrated performed a blind taste test on commercially available ice creams and French Vanilla was not the winner. The taste testers preferred the Philadelphia style ice cream that does not contain eggs. You can find the article here. Of course, they were testing store bought brands which have other additives to help control texture and improve shelf life. Homemade ice cream is missing those ingredients so the use of eggs helps yield a better texture. Personally, I prefer the flavor and texture of the eggs because they add a bit of decadence that elevates vanilla beyond the ordinary.

Vanilla Ice cream

2 cups whole milk
2 cups cream
1/2 cup Sugar
6 egg yolks
1 TBL vanilla extract
pinch of salt (optional)

1. Pour the milk and cream and half of the sugar into a pot and bring to a slight simmer stirring occasionally.
2. As the milk and cream are heating, place the egg yolks into a bowl with the sugar (and salt if using) and beat until it is a pale, frothy liquid.
3. Once the milk/cream mixture is simmering remove it from the heat and temper the egg mixture by adding a small amount of the hot milk/cream and stirring thoroughly. Repeat this process a couple of more times to ensure that the eggs have warmed up. You should use about 1/3 of a cup of hot cream mixture in total. Then pour the complete egg mixture into the cream pot.
4. Return the pot to the heat and stir constantly until the custard reaches 175 degrees Fahrenheit.
5. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the vanilla.
6. Cool the custard to room temperature and then refrigerate overnight.
7. Freeze in your ice cream machine.

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