Dairy, sugar, and cold. Those simple ingredients are all that’s really needed for ice cream to be ice cream. But even at its most basic, ice cream is really anything but simple.
The ancient origins of ice cream
It’s impossible to pin ice cream’s heritage precisely, but its ancient ancestors didn’t bear much resemblance to the modern treat.
Around 200 BC, people in China were leaving a mixture of buffalo milk and rice outside in the winter to freeze. That was mainly all the ingredients it contained; unsweetened, it wasn’t really a dessert.
As far back as 500 BC, Ancient Persians would gather mountain ice in the summer to be flavored with fruit juices, saffron, or honey. Not long after, people in ancient Greece and India were also experimenting with flavoring and sweetening snow.
King Solomon is mentioned in the bible enjoying cooled drinks in the summer. Alexander the Great is said to have brought the concept of sweetened ice to Europe. Though this knowledge was mostly lost with the fall of the Roman Empire.
In medieval times, Arabs began to drink a sweetened, icy beverage called sharbat. (A word the English language eventually adapted into “sherbet.”)
The Arabic drink was reintroduced to Europe at some point during the late middle ages. One story claims that Marco Polo himself brought sherbet to Italy. Another legend is that when Italian duchess Catherine de’ Medici married into the French royal family in 1533, she insisted on bringing the recipes for fruit sorbets.
Dairy-based AND sweetened frozen desserts didn’t appear until the 17th Century. Antonio Latini, living in Naples, Italy, created the oldest known recipe for “sorbetto,” in which ice was sweetened with sugar, rather than fruit juice or honey. Latini wrote a cookbook, called Lo scalco alla moderna or “The Modern Steward.” He included several recipes for sorbetto, including one that utilized milk as a base.
Ice cream as an authentic custard—a combination of milk, sugar, and eggs—began to appear in Italy and France not long after that. It was made by constant, vigorous stirring in a metal bowl placed in a larger container of salt and ice. Salt was a necessary component because it lowers the freezing temperature of ice. When ice cream is made at normal freezing temperatures, it becomes gritty and unpleasant.
The challenge of frozen food
Ice itself, for most of history, was a luxury. Storing and transporting it was difficult and expensive. It was only enjoyed by the upper classes. Wealthy families would own “ice houses,” which were buildings explicitly designed to store ice. In the winter, ice and snow would be gathered from frozen bodies of water, packed tightly in an ice house with sawdust or straw. This would keep the water insulated and frozen for months.
Archaeologists have found evidence of ice houses from before 1100 BC, and this method continued well into the 20th Century.
In the United States
The first mention of ice cream in the USA was in 1744, while it was still a British colony. For many years it remained a rare indulgence for the wealthy. In the summer of 1790, president George Washington spent about $200 on ice cream. That’s around $5,000 today!
In the 1800s, new techniques were developed that made it easier to build ice houses. As the ice began to be transported and sold commercially, it also became affordable for the middle and working classes.
The first ice cream maker
Strenuous stirring in a metal bowl placed in a bucket of ice still meant that making ice cream was labor-intensive and time-consuming. In 1843, a woman named Nancy Johnson patented the hand-cranked churn. It was a simple but ingenious creation: two cylinders, one filled with ice and salt, with the other, nestled inside it, containing the ingredients for the ice cream. A paddle in the second container was turned by a crank to scrape the walls, freezing the ice cream evenly. It meant ice cream could be made more quickly and easily. Ice cream became more affordably, as well, since the churn needed less ice and less salt to be effective.
There are even earlier known devices like Agnes Marshall’s Patent Freezer which were also developed as a freezer to make ice cream and frozen desserts. Agnes was known as “The Queen of Ice”
First commercially sold ice cream
Ice cream had been sold in shops and cafes for many years. Commercial success was only really achieved in 1851, when a Pennsylvania dairy distributor, Jacob Fussell, built an ice cream factory. His new business was a success, but even during the early 20th Century, ice cream was mostly made and eaten at small confectionaries and soda shops.
New breakthroughs came in the 1870s when commercial refrigeration meant people could finally make their own ice. After the technology was perfected in the 1920s, ice cream started to be mass-produced. The industry has been growing ever since.
Modern ice cream
In the US, the term “ice cream” can only legally be applied to products containing at least 10% dairy milkfat, and no more than 50% air by volume. (All ice cream has a little bit of air to keep its fluffy texture—even the densest “super-premium” ice creams will contain about 20% air).
An average American consumes about 4 gallons of ice cream a year, and the US produces about 1.7 billion gallons annually. Most of that ice cream is sold in cartons as pints and gallons in grocery stores. Ice cream shops and cafes are also big businesses with more than 14,000 of them in the USA. The largest chain, Baskin-Robbins, operates about 2,500 stores in the USA and owns 5,000 more around the globe. Baskin-Robbins made more than 162 million dollars in revenue in 2018. A combination of shops and grocery stores brought in more than 2 billion dollars for Haagen-Dazs, the best-selling ice cream brand in the US.
Ice cream is popular everywhere Western or Middle Eastern cuisine has spread.
Iranian faloodeh comes from one of the birthplaces of ice cream. Where they still enjoy a very traditional frozen concoction of sugar and rose water. Bastani is made from milk, eggs, sugar, rose water, saffron, vanilla, and pistachios. It is also known as Persian Ice Cream.
Italian gelato is one of the better-known kinds of ice cream. It is denser and less fatty than most ice creams in the United States.
Japanese mochi is cooked rice pounded into a chewy paste, traditionally filled with sweet bean paste or fruit. It is used to encase bites of ice cream.
German Spaghettie is a whimsical optical illusion made of vanilla ice cream pressed through a pasta extruder, topped with strawberry sauce.
The best-selling ice cream flavors in the USA are vanilla, chocolate, mint chip, cookies n’ cream, and cookie dough.
Although not “ice cream” by technical definition under the USDA, there are a growing number of frozen desserts replacing dairy with plant-based kinds of milk. They also replace sugar with sucralose or stevia, so that ice cream can be enjoyed by people with dietary restrictions.
Many companies are also making overall changes based on public health views. Fewer ice cream manufacturers are coloring their mint and strawberry flavors with intense green or pink artificial dye. While milkfat is a fundamental component of ice cream, most brands have reduced “trans-unsaturated fatty acids,” or trans fats. Scientific studies are emerging about their association with increased cholesterol and other health risks.
Ice cream preferences, for the most part, are highly individualized, and the endless variety is part of the appeal.
Outrageous recipes and innovative equipment
While nothing the big brands roll out is going to shock anyone, smaller makers have begun experimenting with wild new flavors. An ice cream maker in Alaska reported that their “roasted turmeric and ginger” ice cream was one of their most popular flavors. Another in Colorado sells “goat cheese and beet swirl.” Several specialized ice cream makers offer variations on curry, wasabi, or charcoal.
Some flavors are highly regional. Most people in the Midwest know what “blue moon” ice cream is, but few people on the coasts have ever heard of it. Likewise, grape-nuts flavor (the malty, not-really-sweet cereal) is popular in New England and unknown just about everywhere else. Alabama is partial to butter-pecan, and Pennsylvania to teaberry. In Connecticut, ice cream flavored with beer is oddly popular.
Sometimes those experiments seem wildly unappetizing. In Maine, a shop sells lobster flavored ice cream. In New York, you can buy a horseradish-flavored scoop. An Oregon shop created an ice cream flavored with kimchi, the fermented Korean vegetable dish.
In 2018, the existence of mayonnaise ice cream in a shop in Scotland briefly took over the internet, with dozens of websites posting either in disgust or intrigue.
In Nevada, you can find ice cream made with durian, the pungent, love-it-or-hate-it Asian fruit with a smell that’s been compared to socks and turpentine.
Ice cream makers are also experimenting with new technology. The chilled and scraped barrel has not changed much since the early 1930s, but specialized shops are branching out. Popular in malls and theme parks, Dippin’ Dots are tiny spheres of ice cream flash-frozen using liquid nitrogen. Some ice cream shops use cold marble or metal slabs, where a customer can choose candy and fruit to be mixed in as they observe.
Astronaut ice cream is the crumbly, freeze-dried blocks sold in science museum gift shops—and a pure work of fiction. No astronaut has ever reported eating the stuff in space.
Psychology and science
There are several reasons ice cream is so popular.
Finding a favorite
Fans of wasabi, mayonnaise, or durian ice cream will tell people not to knock it until they’ve tried it. And almost nobody who regularly enjoys ice cream will fail to have a top choice that they’ll return to again and again.
Grocery chains have learned that advertising sales on ice cream aren’t as effective as it is with most other foods. That’s because consumers also tend to have a lot of brand loyalty. Even when they like to vary the flavors, they aren’t like to buy a discounted alternative brand. Afterall it’s human nature to enjoy picking sides!
On the other hand, one of the appeals of ice cream is the endless array of flavors and the never-ending opportunity to try something novel and different. Loyalty is a human impulse, but so is a desire for exploration. Ice cream brands take advantage of the human desire for newness by releasing seasonal and limited edition flavors. The biggest US ice cream shop chain has built its reputation on offering thirty-one flavors. A handful of those is regularly being rotated and replaced. This tactic has brought Baskin-Robbins so much success that it speaks to the human desire to always try something new.
Emotional attachment and simple pleasures
There is also something comfortingly familiar about ice cream itself. In one form or another, if a frozen dairy treat brings someone pleasure, it has probably done so since they were young. Fond associations built on childhood memories are very strong. Ice cream is usually associated with happy celebrations and family togetherness. Cake and ice cream are a birthday party classic.
Ice cream is also listed as one of the most common “comfort foods.” After a big disappointment, a breakup, or a hard day, people report that ice cream is one of the most common indulgences they crave.
Beyond the emotional connection and nostalgia, there is a biological reason for the love of ice cream. For most mammals, high calorie, high fat, high sugar, and energy-dense foods activate the reward and pleasure regions of the brain. The same ones triggered by drugs, alcohol, and sex. It’s not just the high-fat, sugary content alone that accounts for ice cream’s popularity. If it were just the milk fat and sugar, room temperature custard would be just as effective.
The delicious combination of cold and sweetness was discovered millennia ago. Once dairy was added to the equation, a favorite was born, and it will probably be cooling people’s mouths and lifting their spirits forever.