Fresh scoop! How ice-cream makes it all the way to you

For most of history, it was a treat reserved for royals and the elite. In this month’s column for HT Wknd, Swetha Sivakumar takes a look at how ice-cream is kept frozen today, why the fat content is key, and what it looks like under a microscope.
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Updated on Nov 06, 2021 03:21 PM IST
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BySwetha Sivakumar

Every year during Onam, my family would visit the beautifully decorated Kanakakkunnu Palace in Thiruvananthapuram. We would walk around to see the vibrant streets and the palace floors decorated with atthapookalam or rangoli flower patterns.

On the way back, my two siblings and I would always want to stop at one of the ice-cream vendors lining the streets. My dad, trying his best to stay within budget, gave us a simple choice: pick an ice-cream each or take an autorickshaw home. Our home was a 30-minute walk away, but it didn’t matter; we always picked the ice-cream.

History is filled with stories of people who went the extra mile to get ice-cream. In ancient Mesopotamia, slave runners were sent to collect snow from mountaintops to be added to flavoured drinks at royal celebrations. Stories tell of the Roman emperor Nero (37 - 68 CE) sending slaves to fetch ice and snow from the mountains, to be served with honey and fruit pulp. The Ain-i-Akbari, a 16th-century account of Mughal emperor Akbar’s rule written by historian Abul Fazl, devotes several pages to meticulously detailing how snow and ice were bought from the Himalayas on boats, in carriages and on foot. The precious cargo travelled as much as 500 miles so that palaces could make an early version of an ice-cream India still loves: the kulfi.

For most of history, ice-cream was made for and enjoyed exclusively by royals and the elite. It was not until the 19th century, with the invention of industrial refrigeration by Carl von Linde, that ice-cream slowly began to make its way to the common man.

Making it is still a tricky process. To end up soft and creamy, the ice crystals in an ice-cream should be 10 to 20 micrometres in size. Crystals larger than 50 micrometres will feel grainy in the mouth. During production, ice-cream manufacturers freeze the base quickly, while constantly stirring to prevent large ice crystals from forming. Once the ice-cream is made, the next worry is maintaining its quality during storage, ensuring that the ice crystals don’t grow and that the creamy texture stays. This is why mass-manufactured ice-creams often contain stabilisers and emulsifiers, aside from the basics of milk, cream, sugar and flavourings.

Emulsifiers can come from a natural source such as egg yolk or buttermilk, or they can be chemically extracted like mono and diglycerides, lecithin, polysorbate 80 and others. Whatever the source, these emulsifiers are used to prevent fat globules in the ice-cream from coalescing and rising to the top over time. Emulsifiers coat the fat globules and keep the fat and whipped air well-distributed through the ice-cream.

Stabilisers such as guar gum, locust bean gum and sodium carboxymethylcellulose are often added to increase viscosity and prevent ice crystals from becoming larger during temperature fluctuations. Most of these gums are derived from plants.

For those who would like to avoid the stabilisers — ice-cream connoisseurs are not fans of the slightly chewy texture it creates; other consumers worry about what’s in a stabiliser — there are premium variants that come without, though they do have almost double the butterfat content (16% to 20% instead of the average 10%).

For those who would like to avoid the sugar, there are sugar-free ice-creams too, but they’re not as creamy. Sugar lowers the freezing point of a mixture. In ice-cream, this helps keep parts of the ice-cream in the liquid phase at freezer temperatures, making it easier to scoop and smoother on the tongue.

Some manufacturers replace butterfat with non-dairy fats, either to cut costs or to appeal to vegans. These products are tagged “frozen desserts”, not ice-creams, under the norms of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India. Coconut milk and cashew cream frozen desserts can be quite good; those made using cheap refined vegetable oils are typically not, so read the labels carefully.

Whatever your preferred variety, whatever your favourite flavour, as you tuck in just be thankful we no longer live in a time when only the royals got a scoop.

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Saturday, December 04, 2021