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The Easiest Way to Make Vanilla Ice Cream at Home

Slideshow SLIDESHOW: The Easiest Way to Make Vanilla Ice Cream at Home

[Photographs: Robyn Lee, unless otherwise noted]

Come warm weather, there's nothing better than a frosty scoop of homemade ice cream pulled right from your freezer. It'll impress your friends. Frighten your enemies. And it'll keep you supplied with dessert all season long.

I know what you're thinking. Making ice cream is hard! It takes too much time! I can't afford an ice cream maker!

With all due respect to the doubters out there, I want to set the record straight: If you can bake a cake from a box, you can make ice cream from scratch. You may even have all the ingredients in your kitchen right now. And though yes, ice cream does require a piece of special equipment (or not), it's a 50-buck investment that'll last you endless summers of frozen dessert bliss.

The problem for beginners is that most ice cream recipes are more involved than they need to be. They throw around terms like "ribboning" and "tempering," use half a dozen bowls and pots, and demand ice baths and an expectation for perfect ice cream intuition. They read as welcoming as a handbook on disarming nuclear warheads.

But as far as desserts go, ice cream's incredibly easy. To prove it, I've laid out what I think is the easiest way to make vanilla ice cream* at home, step by step, ingredient by ingredient. You'll need less than 30 minutes of active prep time, a few hours to an overnight wait, and half an hour of effortless churn time. And that's it: start this recipe in the morning and you can have fresh ice cream for dessert that night.

* Egg-based ice cream, that is, as opposed to even easier—but far less common—"Philly-style" egg-free ice creams.

What You Need

What You'll Need

The ingredient list is so small and flexible it barely needs a formal recipe, but here goes. You'll need:

  • 2 cups of heavy cream
  • 1 cup of whole milk
  • 6 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup of sugar
  • Vanilla extract to taste
  • Salt to taste

Unlike a lot of baked goods, ice cream ingredient amounts have some wiggle room. To make a more rich and creamy ice cream, use a higher ratio of cream to milk, add an egg yolk or two, or use more sugar, depending on whether you want a milkier, eggier, or sweeter end result. Want a lighter ice cream? Just do the opposite. The base written above is plenty rich but not overwhelming, and sweet enough to carry flavors well.

Here's the equipment you'll need:

  • 1 decent, reasonably heavy-bottomed pot, two-quart capacity or larger
  • 1 bowl
  • 1 whisk
  • 1 wooden spoon
  • Measuring cups and spoons
  • A strainer
  • An ice cream maker (My favorite entry-level ice cream maker comes from Cuisinart. Amazon's price hovers around $50.)

That's it!

How to Make It

There We Go

The basic path to ice cream involves cooking a stirred custard, flavoring it, and churning it. You can break the steps down as follows:

  • Separate egg yolks
  • Whisk egg yolks and sugar together until completely combined
  • Whisk in your dairy until completely combined
  • Cook your base on medium heat until it forms a custard
  • Add flavorings
  • Strain into a container and let rest in fridge until cold, preferably overnight
  • Churn ice cream and harden it in the freezer
  • Eat

Get this technique down and any ice cream recipe is in your reach. Making ice cream with vanilla beans? Steep your dairy and vanilla separately, then add to the eggs and sugar. Want chocolate? Whisk cocoa powder into your yolks and sugar, then cook normally. Swirls and mix-ins are great, but you may find that your homemade stuff is so good that it doesn't need anything else.

Pitfalls to Avoid

Strain

Making ice cream is easy and forgiving, but there are some common mistakes to watch out for.

  • Make sure your eggs and sugar are well combined. Whisk them well until the mixture resembles the color and texture of lemon curd: a thick pudding-like goo with a pale yellow color. The mixture should fall from a whisk in one continuous "ribbon." In fancy ice cream talk, this is called "ribboning" the yolks, and it helps protect your eggs from curdling.
  • Stir your custard as it cooks. Not obsessively, but once every 30 seconds, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pot as you do so. Once again, this is all about keeping your eggs from curdling.
  • Use slow, even heat with a good pot. I never heat my ice cream base past medium heat, and I use a pot with a good heavy bottom. You don't need anything fancy, but slow, even cooking is the surest road to a good custard.
  • Don't overcook your base. Once you start to see steam rise from your custard, you can be sure your eggs are totally cooked, so you can taste and test for doneness at will. If you want to use a thermometer, 170°F is your target. To test that, dip a wooden spoon into your custard. If the custard coats the spoon's back and you can swipe a clean line across it (see above), you're done. If the line collapses, you have more cooking to do.
  • Strain your base. Once your base has finished cooking, strain it. It's a small step that eliminates any clumpy egg bits that made their way into your base.
  • Chill before churning. The colder your ice cream base is going into the churn, the creamier it will be. So chill it down in the fridge after it's cooked. As few as six hours may do it, but an overnight chill is even better. You'll need the extra time to make sure your freezable churning bowl is fully chilled.

What You Don't Need to Worry About

Finished

Many ice cream recipes are full of processes and terms you don't need to bother with. Such as:

  • Don't scald your dairy. "Scalding" dairy, or heating it to just below a simmer, is supposed to kill bacteria and denature dairy proteins. But since all commercial dairy has been pasteurized and homogenized—i.e. super-heated and emulsified—heating it up again doesn't really do anything. If you're not infusing your dairy with any flavors beforehand, just add it straight to your egg-sugar mixture.
  • Don't bother tempering your eggs. If you add hot dairy to egg yolks, even with the protection of sugar, your eggs will curdle. So recipes that call for scalding dairy also call for tempering eggs, or ladling a small amount of hot dairy into your yolks, whisking like a madman, and ladling again and again. It's messy work, and if you're not scalding your dairy, there's no reason to bother with it. If you've heated your dairy to infuse in flavors, like a vanilla bean or a bunch of mint leaves, let it steep off the heat. After an hour or two it'll suck plenty of flavor from those ingredients and will have cooled off enough that you can whisk it right into your yolks. Just whisk fast!
  • Don't make an ice bath: Some recipes tell you to cool your cooked custard in an ice bath before chilling in your fridge. This does chill your base faster, but I'd rather wait a couple more hours for a chilled base than bother—especially if I'm chilling it overnight anyway.

The Step by Step

For the full start-to-finish process, check out the slideshow above. Any lingering questions? Let me know in the comments.

About the author: Max Falkowitz is the editor of Serious Eats: New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @maxfalkowitz.

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