Types of Frozen Desserts

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by Tim Nauman
Frozen custard relies on simple, whole ingredients.

Good cream is tasty all on its own — in frozen form, it’s downright irresistible. The same is true of fresh fruit. The best ice cream and the best frozen fruit desserts are pristinely simple in their ingredients.

Many commercial frozen desserts contain stabilizers and thickeners to enhance texture and body, preservatives for extended shelf life, and low-quality, industrial ingredients such as milk powder and corn syrup. It wasn’t always so. When ice cream was first introduced to the world in the 17th century, recipes called for cream, sweetener and whatever additional flavors were desired. The transition to an industrialized U.S. food system led to an emphasis on consistency, texture and volume — and, of course, additives.

Some modern ice cream artisans are ushering in a return to frozen-dessert purity. Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream in New York City makes ice creams with hormone- and antibiotic-free ingredients, mostly from small producers in the Hudson Valley.

In Columbus, Ohio, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams also makes an extraordinarily pure treat. Its website boasts: “Every single thing we put in our ice cream is legit. Generic chemist-built ice cream bases and powdered, astronaut-friendly gelato mixes? No, ma’am.”

The popularity of these two companies proves that making better ice cream pays off. (Find artisanal ice cream at I Scream, You Scream Find Artisan Ice Cream!) You can do this at home, as well. Gather an ice cream maker (manual or electric) and the freshest ingredients you can find: milk and cream from pastured cows; eggs from pastured hens; and local, seasonal fruits and herbs. You’ll find recipes for all the types of desserts described at the end of this article.

The Science of Frozen Desserts

Cream and fruit frozen by themselves are rock-solid. The addition of sugar softens the mixture, but reduces its freezing point. Additional water (or the water present in the ingredients) helps ice crystals form, which give the finished delicacy its structure. The Culinary Institute of America’s textbook on frozen desserts explains that the first role of sugar is to sweeten, and the second role is to lower the freezing point to about 14 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.

The textbook breaks it down further:

“This creates a product that doesn’t freeze too hard, which would render it difficult to scoop, and difficult and unpleasant to eat. The sugar keeps a certain amount of water unfrozen (about 28 percent) by retaining it, which keeps large ice crystals from forming or binding to each other. The sugar sits between the ice crystals, holding them together but keeping them from touching each other so they won’t fuse into a larger ice crystal.”

Most types of frozen desserts are made by churning liquid in an ice cream maker. Some ice cream makers use an insulated bowl that contains a fluid with a freezing point lower than water, while with other ice cream makers, you sprinkle salt over ice in order to make the slushy mix freeze at a lower temperature. Either way, your sweetened base freezes.

The churning action incorporates air, which gives the final product its body. Ices and granitas are not churned and so have a crunchier texture.

Pick the Right Frozen Dessert for You

Frozen fruit and cream come in many variations. Jay Tovar-Ballagh, the award-winning pastry chef at Pachamama’s in Lawrence, Kan., lets the complex frozen mousse called semifreddo shine as a stand-alone dessert. He uses sorbets, granitas and ice creams to complement other flavors: sorbet and granita to offset rich desserts like cheesecake, and ice cream to melt into warm cakes and tarts. (To try Tovar-Ballagh’s Manhattan Ice Cream Recipe, go to the end of this article.) To determine which treat to make, answer these three questions:

  • How much time do I have? The simplest types of frozen desserts from the list to follow are ice and granita; followed by ice cream, sorbet and sherbet; and finally gelato, frozen custard and semifreddo.
  • Which ingredients do I want to use? If you have impeccable seasonal fruit, make sorbet or sherbet. To make an alcoholic treat for happy hour, try a granita. If you have a good source of grass-fed milk and cream, go for ice cream or gelato. Have access to eggs from pastured hens? Make frozen custard or semifreddo.
  • Which texture is most appealing? If a bowl of crunchy ice crystals sounds like a refreshing end to a rich meal, make an ice or granita. If your dessert will be paired with a baked treat, offer traditional ice cream. If a rich, smooth and creamy dessert that stands alone will finish off your meal nicely, go for gelato, frozen custard or a semifreddo.

A Primer of Types of Frozen Desserts

Think about frozen desserts in family groups: those with dairy, those with something else, and those completely solo.

  • Ice Cream. Cream (and sometimes milk) is mixed with sugar, then frozen while being churned to incorporate enough air to make it fluffy. Ice cream is the perfect cold, creamy and smooth counterpart to warm desserts, such as cobbler and pie.
  • Ice Milk. Made with less cream than ice cream, ice milk includes more additives to improve its texture. The result has fewer calories, but where there is less cream, there is also less creaminess — the texture is definitely not as smooth.
  • Frozen Custard. Ice cream made with eggs is referred to as frozen custard or French-style ice cream. The custard must be cooked first to denature the egg proteins and disperse them throughout the mixture. The cooked custard lends a rich, eggy flavor to the finished result. Frozen custard is a thick, satisfying dessert all on its own. Topping with seasonal fruit or a simple sauce will add a delightful twist to your custard.
  • Gelato. Though gelato seems richer than ice cream, it has less butterfat. Gelato recipes call for whole milk rather than cream. Gelato’s density comes from slow churning without whipping in much air. You can do this manually with a regular ice cream maker by churning more slowly, or opt for a gelato-making machine. Gelato is usually served slightly warmer than ice cream.
  • Semifreddo. Ice cream or gelato combines with whipped cream and sometimes meringue in this Italian treat. The “half cold” or “semifreddo” result is something like frozen mousse. Semifreddo is served in slices like cake. The marshmallowy texture of a well-made semifreddo is divine.
  • Sherbet. The creaminess of sherbet is achieved by mixing a little bit of milk or cream with sorbet. Make sherbet when you have delectable seasonal fruit, but you want the softness of ice cream. Try the recipe at the end of this article for a melon sherbet.
  • Sorbet and Sorbetto. Sorbet is made from fresh fruit and water with optional added sugar and acid. Sorbetto contains less water and thus has fewer ice crystals, so it is somewhat softer and more intensely flavored. Both are whipped to incorporate air. Sorbet and sorbetto are classic palate cleansers between courses.
  • Ice. An ice is usually a simple frozen fruit purée that is not finely textured. Ices are always nice on a hot day. Try making them with vegetable purées, too — frozen puréed cucumber is refreshing.
  • Granita. This sorbet with larger ice crystals is simply frozen, without much stirring and without a special machine. Scrape it up with a fork a few times during freezing. The resulting texture is similar to shaved ice. Granita recipes often call for alcohol, coffee, tea or other beverages.

Frozen Dessert Recipes

Melon Sherbet Recipe
Manhattan Frozen Custard Recipe With Bourbon Cherries
Backyard Mint Ice Cream Recipe
Lemonade Watermelon Sorbet Recipe
Peanut Butter Gelato Recipe
Peach Sherbet Recipe
Coffee Granita Recipe
Pear Sorbet Recipe
Lemongrass Semifreddo Recipe

Read more: Find out how you can make more cool treats using refreshing summer melon in Summertime Means Eating Melon.

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