Stabilizers don't make bad ice cream. Bad technique makes bad ice cream.
When you strike out on your own to start a food company, you do so with some guiding principles. For your typical small batch ice cream maker, that often means buying premium dairy, making denser (but costlier) ice cream and—one that usually makes its way onto labels for all consumers to see—not using any ice cream stabilizers. This can be a huge mistake.
Here's the thing. Ice cream is full of water that turns into crunchy ice crystals when it freezes. Churning your ice cream as it freezes helps break up those crystals; so do ingredients like sugar and fat. But the real trick to creamy ice cream is emulsifiers like egg yolks, which keep fat and water bonded together on a molecular level and shrink ice crystals even further. (There's more on the chemistry behind creamy ice cream right this way.)
Stabilizers, including natural, plant-derived ingredients like guar gum, xantham gum, and carageenan, are just another kind of emulsifier that manipulates ice cream texture. (And FYI, egg yolks are a kind of stabilizer.) And not only do they emulsify fat and water, but they improve the stability of an ice cream, which means a) it's less likely to melt, and b) when it does melt, the fat and water don't break out of emulsion, so when the ice cream re-freezes it doesn't turn icy. Use stabilizers right and they make small but noticeable improvements to an ice cream base. Use them wrong and they can make ice cream oddly gummy and chewy.
Now plenty of people assume that stabilizers = OMG BAD because chewy, super-stabilized texture is the hallmark of some national ice cream brands who cut costs on fatty cream and eggs. That's good for a company's bottom line, but not for a consumer who wants rich, fatty, fresh-tasting ice cream.
So okay, stabilizers can mean mediocre ice cream, and yes, the very best ice cream I've eaten, which is all characterized by a dense, rich texture and a clean, fresh flavor, is stabilizer-free. But so is some of the worst. Who makes it? Not some big national brand—I'm referring to several well-meaning craft ice cream companies who have high ideals...and icy, crunchy ice cream. Because stabilizers don't make bad ice cream. Bad technique makes bad ice cream.
Most of the great stabilizer-free ice cream I've eaten came not from pints, but rather restaurants and scoop shops where freshly churned ice cream goes into a freezer and doesn't come out until it's ordered. By far, the best time to taste any ice cream is right out of the churn or on the day it's made. Ice cream wholesalers, whose products need a longer shelf life, face more difficulties. Here's why.
When you sell ice cream to grocery stores, you play a game of Russian roulette with your product. Even small changes in temperature can drastically alter an ice cream's texture—if it warms up a few degrees and starts to melt, it'll turn icy when it refreezes. A delivery truck could stall on the highway, or once it's made its delivery, the ice cream might be left sitting out on a hot curb. A grocery store might have problems with their freezer, say a temporary power outage or even just a poorly calibrated thermometer. With just one fault along a supply chain, that ice cream's perfectly creamy texture melts down the drain, and once it does it never comes back.
Stabilizers offer insurance: as emulsifiers, they keep the fatty part of the ice cream base enmeshed with the watery part, so when partially melted ice cream re-freezes, it stays pretty creamy. This isn't lost on major manufacturers who know that people still enjoy super-stabilized ice cream but refuse to tolerate icy, grainy ice cream. The team behind High Road, a serious craft ice cream company based in Atlanta, stabilizes their ice cream too, because that's the only way they know it'll arrive in stores around the country in peak condition. Would the ice cream taste even better without stabilizers? Maybe. But great manufacturers recognize that distribution and storage matter just as much as the quality of your machine and ingredients.
Serious ice cream fan Ed has asked me repeatedly how Haagen-Dazs, which is probably our favorite big national brand of ice cream, can get away with not using stabilizers in their product. No one but the company knows for sure, but when I posed the question to High Road's scoopmaster Keith Schroeder, he came up with a compelling answer: not only are they making dense, fatty ice cream that's resistant to melting, but a company of that size can probably control its own distribution channels. That means using refrigerated delivery trucks optimized for ice cream and ensuring the product isn't subject to any melt-inducing high temperatures.
As of now, smaller craft ice cream companies don't have the same luxury, which means they need to work with the distributors available to them. When handled right, stabilizers offer an invisible or barely noticeable way for these companies to drastically improve their products. And there's no shame in that.