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3 Killer Recipes…and one STEM experiment…for Homemade Ice Cream

homemade ice cream

Nothing beats a bowl of frosty homemade ice cream on a hot summer day! Obviously, with all the great local ice cream shops around it’s pretty easy to BUY a scoop of ice cream, but sometimes it’s more fun to make your treats at home. 

When I was a kid, homemade ice cream was considered a group activity…ideally reserved for summer troop meetings with my Girl Scout buddies. Why? Because my mom had an old school hand crank churn! And since no one wanted to crank that monstrosity all by themselves, homemade ice cream required a team effort. Each kid would spend a couple minutes cranking away at the churn until we finally had something resembling ice cream. 

(Since we’re talking STEM…ever make a brush bot? We did!)

hand crank ice cream maker

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I can’t believe you can even BUY a hand crank ice cream maker these days! Thank goodness for the electric ice cream maker!

I’ve been researching homemade ice cream–both online and in the kitchen–to see what makes the best ice cream recipe. Wanna see what I’ve learned so far?

The Magical Science of Ice Cream

kid in mad scientist costume with goggles, rubber gloves and lab coat

The magic–or rather, science– of making homemade ice cream is in the ice and salt, not so much in the ingredients. Well, you do need the right amount of fat in the base…otherwise you’re making Ice Milk and ewwww…who wants that?

Mixing salt with ice lowers the temperature where water freezes–the freezing point of the ice is lowered to below 32℉ and helps freeze the ice cream. And yes, I actually looked up the freezing point of milk and its -0.5400 C, or 31.02800 degrees Fahrenheit–just a pinch cooler than ice cubes. 

ice cream sundae with homemade ice cream

If you really want to dive deep into the science of ice cream, here’s a fun little post from the American Chemical Society about the chemistry behind ice cream. It’s a good read for students into STEM.

Can I use Table Salt to make Ice Cream?

Not really. You want to use “Rock Salt” (or ice cream salt) in your ice bath for the best results. Table salt is too fine and can make your ice cream freeze too fast…resulting in ice crystals and a rough texture. 

The spinning action on the churn moves the warmer creamy goodness from the center of the machine’s container to the outside–letting your ice cream freeze evenly. It also adds a bit of air to the mix–otherwise the ice cream would be an unscoopable block of sugar milk. The chemistry people say that ice cream should be 30 to 50% air, which explains why your finished ice cream takes up more space than the unfrozen base. 

Do I really need an Ice Cream Maker?

During my research, I found two recipes that don’t require an ice cream maker. One involves whipped cream and sweetened condense milk…and about six hours in your freezer. The other is a science experiment for kids like something we did at scout camp.

ice cream ball

If you think you want to make a LOT of homemade ice cream this way, Amazon sells a…I kid you not…rubber ball ice cream maker. You can roll it back and forth with the kids while it makes yummy yummy ice cream.

Recipe: American Ice Cream

There’s no eggs in American style (sometimes known as Philadelphia style) ice cream, so you don’t have to cook the base first. Just stir up the ingredients, pour into your machine and off you go!

  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup milk
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Mix all the ingredients in a bowl using a hand mixer, or just a whisk if you feel like channeling your inner Julia Child. Pour the ingredients into your ice cream maker and follow the directions for your device to set it up. Mine said to layer a “tray of ice cubes” with a 1/3 cup of ice cream salt, then repeat until you’ve reached the top. Then add a cup of water, place and lock down the motor and plug it in.

home made ice cream

Recipe: French Ice Cream

Also known as a custard style ice cream, this one involves eggs–and cooking!

  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2/3 cup sugar

First, prep an ice bath: a big popcorn bowl with water and ice. You’ll need this to cool your base down before adding it to the ice cream machine. Don’t make the ice cream maker do ALL the work, you’ll end up with ice crystals if the machine can’t freeze it fast enough.

Whisk the eggs and sugar until the eggs become a pale yellow color. Add the milk and stir–you can use a hand whisk or mixer, whatever floats your boat. Pour the mix into a sauce pan and slowly warm the liquid until it thickens–don’t boil! It just needs to thicken enough to coat the back of a spoon.  (Or 170 degrees on a candy thermometer). Take off the heat and add the heavy cream. Pour the mix into a bowl and drop that sucker in the ice bath for 20 minutes.

homemade ice cream

Once it’s nice and cold you can add the mix to your ice cream maker. Follow your machine’s directions and layer your outer tub with ice, salt and water. Mine said to layer a “tray of ice cubes” with a 1/3 cup of ice cream salt, then repeat until you’ve reached the top. Add a cup of water, lock down the motor and plug it in.

Recipe: Sicilian Gelato

When I was doing my research, I was disappointed to learn that homemade gelato isn’t very different from the “French” custard ice cream. Turns out gelato is just the Italian word for ice cream, and like a good pasta sauce, there are several ways Italians make ice cream. Everyone seems to agree that gelato should have less milk fat than standard American ice cream, so here’s a Sicilian style recipe that uses whole milk and no cream. It’s thickened with…corn starch. Note: I haven’t tried this one yet.

  • 3 cups whole milk
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 3-4 tablespoons of corn starch
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla 
ice cream in a sprinkle bowl

Whisk one cup of milk with corn starch, then set aside. Blend remaining ingredients in a sauce pan, then warm until steaming hot–not boiling. Add the milk/corn starch mix. Cook until it barely reaches a boil–just enough to thicken. Take off the heat and cool the mixture in the frig for at a few hours. Once cool, place in your ice cream maker and follow the directions. 

Harden in the Freezer

Whichever recipe you use, you’ll end up with a soft-serve kinda ice cream–you can spoon it into a bowl if you really want, but it will look–and maybe taste better–if you let it harden in the freezer. I like to transfer my ice cream to a couple plastic containers and put in the freezer for a few hours before serving.

kid with magnify lens

These recipes make about quart of ice cream–around four cups. Once you find a style you like, I’d suggest doubling the recipe!

Trouble Shooting Your Ice Cream

Though ice cream recipes start to look the same after awhile, you’ll want to avoid improvising too much. There’s a science to the proportions of cream and milk to sugar and eggs. Or no eggs. I recently tried to double a batch of ice cream and just through in an 4 cups of half & half with 4 cups of heavy cream (yes, an entire quart of each). The resulting ice cream was tastey…and a little, er…waxy? Probably too much fat in the mix.

Here’s a good post for trouble shooting your ice cream efforts from Food52.

ice cream cone

And something from Fine Cooking on getting your texture just right

Serving Sizes for Homemade Ice Cream

ice cream cones

I should point out that all three of these recipes start with 3 cups of dairy. The one’s that I’ve made created about 4 cups of ice cream. A cup of ice cream is maybe one decent scoop.