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What Is Ice Cream?

May 22, 2017

Sweet. Creamy. Delicious. Yes, ice cream falls into all three categories, but what exactly makes ice cream, well, ice cream?

While ingredients can vary from recipe to recipe or brand to brand, ice cream (whether homemade or commercial) includes at least three ingredients: milk (and/or cream), sweeteners and flavorings/mix-ins. Commercially made ice creams also include stabilizers and emulsifiers. Here’s what all of that means:

Of course, the main ingredients in ice cream come from milk–and the most important part of that is milkfat, which gives ice cream its smoothness and creamy texture. In fact, in order to be called ice cream, the USDA requires it to contain at least 10 percent milkfat, which can come from milk or cream.

When it comes to sweetening ice cream, ingredients can range from cane or beet sugar to sweeteners or even honey. Stabilizers, such as plant-based gums (e.g. guar gum) are sometimes used to help prevent the formation of ice crystals and to give the ice cream its smoother texture. Similarly, emulsifiers (originally egg yolks) keep fat and water together and make ice cream more uniform as it freezes.

And ice cream just wouldn’t be ice cream without your favorite flavorings and mix-ins. From vanilla to green tea, there’s no limit to how you can flavor your ice cream!

As we mentioned, ice cream needs to contain at least 10 percent milkfat in order to be called ice cream, and there are similar guidelines for other frozen dairy treats. For example:

  • Soft serve includes the same ingredients as ice cream, but the soft serve machine adds air while freezing, which makes it “softer” than ice cream.
  • Like ice cream, frozen custard needs to contain at least 10 percent milkfat and also has 1.4 percent egg yolk solids.
  • Sherbets contain a minimal amount of milkfat – usually 1 to 2 percent. (Meanwhile, sorbets don’t contain any dairy ingredients!)
  • Frozen yogurt is similar to ice cream, but the ingredients have been cultured.
  • Gelato, Italian-style ice cream, contains less fat (milkfat) and is churned slowly, which results in a denser taste. 

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