Making Homemade Ice Cream 101

Let’s talk about homemade ice cream.  Some of us have better memories of homemade ice cream than others.  Remember how sometimes Grandma’s ice cream was a bit too sweet and icy?  Or it would leave that greasy film on the roof of your mouth?  Remember that?  Yeah…that’s why some people claim not to like homemade ice cream.

I’m going to show you how to make a perfect French-style custard base that makes a luxurious ice cream that is not too sweet and doesn’t leave you feeling like you just ate a gazillion calories, even though you did.  (I’ve included variations at the bottom of the recipe.)

Custards can be tricky, but not impossible.  All it takes is a bit of patience and a bit of babysitting. You’ll need a few special tools:  a fine mesh sieve or strainer and an instant read thermometer.  Why?  Well, you’ll see here in a minute.  (If you don’t, it’s okay, there are a few ways around it.)

Our cast of characters:  whole milk, heavy cream, egg yolks, granulated sugar, a vanilla bean.

Pour 2 cups each:  whole milk and heavy cream into a heavy-duty pot or pan. Then you’re going to split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise. 

Open it up and use the knife to scrape out the little seeds.

Both the vanilla bean and its innerds go into the milk/cream and the pot goes onto the stove.  Turn the stove on to a moderate heat.  We don’t want this to boil, but we want it to get hot.

Little bubbles will form around the edge of the pan and steam will rise from the surface.  Take the pot off the heat and let it steep for at least 30 minutes.

After you’ve let it steep for a bit, bring it back up to temperature, making sure not to let it boil.  Meanwhile you’ll start prepping the eggs and sugar.

Whisk the egg yolks into the sugar.  Don’t do this step more than a few minutes in advance because the sugar will “burn” the eggs. 

Keep whisking until you have a thick, light yellow mixture.

  While you are whisking, slowly ladle or drizzle a bit of the hot milk/cream into the eggs/sugar. 

This is called tempering, which brings the eggs up to temperature and helps prevent them from scrambling or curdling. 

Once all the milk and cream have been added, pour the mixture back into the pot. 

Place it on the stove and turn the heat on to medium. 

Stir constantly and cook until the temperature reaches 170 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.

Side note:  get an instant-read thermometer.  They cost about $10 and are invaluable in the kitchen.  The old “trail on the back of the spoon” trick for custard isn’t always so reliable.  A few degrees can also make the difference between a perfect custard and one that is full of scrambled eggs. Pour the cooked custard through a fine mesh sieve into a clean bowl. 

Side note:  get a sieve.  They are also pretty inexpensive.  If you don’t have one, you can use a splatter screen.  It works fine.  The reason you want to do this step is that you want to take out any lumps that could get in the way when the custard is churning.  Also, those little white things in eggs….not so tasty. Let the custard cool a bit and then chill it for at least 2 hours or until it’s very cold.  I usually try to let it chill overnight or for the whole day.  I find that the ice cream turns out better that way. Pour the chilled custard into your ice cream maker.  (I love my Cuisinart.  I will never go back to salt and ice again.)  Churn it according to manufacturer directions.

When your ice cream looks like this, it’s ready to be transferred or eaten.  It will be pretty thick–about like soft serve ice cream.

Make sure you put it into an airtight container.  If you know you won’t be using it right away, put some waxed paper on the surface to prevent hoar frost from forming. If you want to scoop the ice cream, give it a few hours in the freezer to firm up. This recipe makes about 1 1/2 quarts of ice cream.  If you are going to use one of the big ice cream makers, then you’ll want to make three times this recipe, and you’ll have a bit of extra custard leftover.  (Which is fine, my husband is always willing to pour it over fruit or something.)

Full recipe:  

Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

2 cups (1 pint) heavy cream, preferably not the ultra-pasteurized kind
2 cups whole or 2% milk
3/4 cup granulated sugar
4-8 egg yolks (depending on how rich you like it)
1 vanilla bean*
a pinch of salt

Pour the milk and cream into a non-reactive saucepan.  Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds.  Heat the cream and milk until very hot, but not boiling and add the vanilla bean to the pan.  Remove from the heat and let steep for about 30 minutes.  The longer you let it steep, the stronger the flavor will be. After the vanilla pod has steeped in the milk/cream, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until very thick and light yellow.

Bring the milk/cream back up to temperature–hot, but not boiling.  Steam will start to rise from the surface and small bubbles will form around the edge of the pan. Slowly dribble a bit of the hot milk into the eggs and sugar to temper the eggs.  Once you’ve added all the milk, pour the custard mixture back into the pan. Turn the heat on to about medium.  Constantly stir the custard as the temperature rises.  Be sure to get the corners and bottom.  You don’t want it to burn.  As you stir (this might take up to 10 minutes or as little as 3 depending on how hot the milk was), periodically check the temperature using the instant read thermometer.  Take care when you’ve reached 160 degrees F.  You want to get it to 170, but not over 180. Remove it from the heat and pour it through the fine mesh sieve.  This will remove any bits of egg or other lumps.  You’ll end up with a perfectly smooth base. Let it cool to room temperature and then cover it with plastic wrap and chill for several hours or preferably overnight.  You want it to be super cold. Pour the base into your ice cream maker and process according to manufacturer directions.  Transfer to an airtight container and freeze until ready to serve. Makes 1 1/2 quarts.  

*Kelsey Nixon posted about her love of vanilla bean paste.  I love it too.  And it would be the perfect thing to add to this ice cream in place of the vanilla bean.  

Variations: We steeped the vanilla bean to infuse the custard with vanilla flavor.  You can do this with just about any whole spice or herb. My favorites are lavender, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, star anise, and citrus peel.  Chopped nuts are also fabulous choices–almond, pecan, pistachio.  The longer you let the herb, spice, or nut steep, the more pronounced the flavor will be.  Try fresh rosemary, thyme or basil for an interesting accompaniment to a summer fruit pie.  Just be sure to strain the custard before you churn it.

You can also play around with the sweetener–try brown sugar or natural sugars.  Use part honey or maple syrup.  Caramelize the sugar to make caramel ice cream.  (This is a great recipe.) You can also add 1 tablespoon of your favorite liqueur or a 1 tsp. of a flavoring of your choice–brandy, rum, coffee, coconut, etc. Of course, you can throw in chopped candy or chocolate a few minutes before the ice cream has churned completely.  Swirl the ice cream with fudge, caramel, or fruit sauce. The possibilities are truly endless.

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  1. Wow. I never even thought to use a seive. I like the picture tutorial, especially since we have the same ice cream maker. It made it seem much easier to make, for some reason.

  2. The pictures are great because you can compare step by step to see if it the concoction looks like yours. Thanks

  3. Wow!!! You should be featured in a cooking magazine! If you ever need a taste-tester – you know who to call!!! How do you do this with two little ones????

  4. I love your tutorial!!! It’s brilliant and professional and fab. Well done! I have a kitchenaid ice cream maker which is an attachment to the standing kitchen aid and I wonder if anyone out there has had any experience with it? I’d love to share ice cream recipes!
    Great pictures, and please post more (but don’t lose too much sleep!) Thanks again!

  5. Wow, I love it. Look at you — you are your own Cooks Illustrated! Now, how to talk Lane into investing in an ice cream maker. I’m sure if we did a cost-benefit analysis we would find… that we would eat too much ice cream!

  6. Thanks for all the sweet comments!

    I’ve totally been interested in the attachment you have. I was actually going to include it in my post over on DM. I would love to hear what you think of it. I thought it sounded like an awesome idea. I would love to try it out with my Kitchenaid–if my Cuisinart ever breaks down, that is.

    I’m going to post the recipe for the chocolate ice cream very soon. Maybe even today! I use really good quality bittersweet chocolate–the rest is very easy and simple. You’ll see. Stay tuned.

    You MUST buy one. And then you can create some awesome, creative recipes that I can copy. And really–is it possible to eat “too much” ice cream? I don’t think so.

  7. I just recently found your blog and have found so many recipes I want to make! I followed your tutorial for making homemade ice cream this weekend and everyone loved it! Thank you!!

  8. OK, I’m not a cook, but your instructions seem very simple :). However, when I cooked the custard at medium low, the temperature was only at 100-degrees. I turned up the heat to medium and by the time the temperature got to 120-degrees, the custard curdled. What am I doing wrong?

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