It's an easy assumption, and one we're often told by food writers and ice cream makers: if you want the best ice cream, you have to make it with the best dairy. After all, a lot of my favorite ice cream is made with high quality, locally produced milk: Bi-Rite Creamery uses Straus dairy, Ample Hills buys from Hudson Valley, and the new Big Gay Ice Cream soft serve base is made by Ronnybrook. Premium milk is usually more fresh and it's pasteurized at a lower temperature, which preserves more of the flavor.
But what about for the home cook? Does fancy cream and milk make noticeably better ice cream? And is it worth the cost? I put it to the test to find out.
The short answer: it does, but subtly so, and not necessarily in the way you might think.
The test is easy to try yourself. Make two identical batches of ice cream, measuring your ingredients by weight and cooking your custards until they hit 170°F. As they churn, watch them increase in volume and keep them as close in added air—overrun—as possible. (My batches had a 5% difference.) Here's the ingredient list for my standard vanilla ice cream:
470 grams cream (2 cups)
253 grams whole milk (1 cup)
116 grams egg yolks (about 6 yolks)
153 grams sugar (3/4 cup)
2 grams kosher salt (1/2 teaspoon)
4 grams vanilla extract (1 teaspoon)
The only difference between the two batches was the dairy: one got conventional cream and milk; the other got Battenkill dairy, the runner up in our New York milk taste test and one that we liked for its sweetness and body.
Freshly churned ice creams in hand, I delivered them to the Serious Eats staff for a blind tasting. I secretly divided the two batches into smaller pints and laid three of them out—two conventional dairy, one Battenkill—to see if tasters could pick out the premium batch. The staff thought they were trying three different ice creams.
The data showed a small but clear preference for the Battenkill ice cream, both in overall impression and creaminess ratings.
But that's where the differences end, at least with our relatively small test group; the ratings on flavor show no clear trend one way or the other. So all else being equal, ice cream made with premium dairy is creamier, but it doesn't necessarily taste better; the subtle nuances of Battenkill's fresh flavor got lost in the chill and sweetness of the ice cream. And the clear differences (one point higher on a seven-point scale for overall impression and creaminess) aren't huge.
Milking the Truth
There are three elements in cream and milk that affect an ice cream's texture: fat, natural sugars, and dissolved milk solids (like the proteins that make up powdered milk.) So what made Battenkill's milk stand out? The likely candidate is fat: Battenkill milk and cream is full of it.
According to Seth McEachron, one of Battenkill's founders and owners, Battenkill whole milk ranges from 3.9 to 4.2% fat; their cream hovers at 40%. By comparison, the FDA's minimum fat requirements are just 3.25% for whole milk and 36% for heavy cream.
If additional milk solids or sugars also had an effect on texture, they weren't substantial enough to impact the ice cream's flavor. But the likely answer—according to this test at least—is that premium milk is better for ice cream not because it's fresher, but because it's fattier.
If you're wondering, this doesn't mean that more fat = better all of the time. Too much fat can dull an ice cream's flavor and leave a waxy feeling on the tongue. Gelato, for instance, typically has less fat than ice cream, which is one of the reasons its flavors are so clear.
So is it Worth it?
So should you make all of your ice cream with the freshest, fattiest milk you can buy? Well, that's up to you, and it more or less comes down to an economic question. A quart of conventional cream and milk cost me $4 and $1.19 respectively at my local supermarket. By comparison, my pint of Battenkill cream and a quart of their milk cost me $5.50 and $4 (glass bottle deposit included). That's almost a 300% premium for a small improvement in ice cream texture.
On the question of taste alone, there's nothing like fresh high quality milk. But if I'm paying a premium for it, I want to use it where it'll count the most. To me that means cereal and whipped cream-topped everything, applications that truly let the dairy shine. Ice cream may not be one of them.
Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.