Frozen Dessert Smackdown: Who Invented Soft Serve?

unprofessional cookery

Hello high summer!  Harbinger of vacations, ocean wading and ice cream consumption.  If you’re anything like me, your frozen dessert consumption has skyrocketed in recent months to epic proportions, much to your arteries’ dismay.  From popsicles to Italian ice (and everything in between), nothing is safe from this gaping yawp this time of year.  For me, a particular attention is paid to soft serve ice cream, my Achilles heel of cold desserts.

However, have you ever wondered where soft serve actually came from?  Who was the genius who invented that silky, luscious chilly dessert?  One night, over licks of vanilla whispered sweetness and crunchy corn air, I found out.


The history of soft serve ice cream is somewhat contentious.  Two camps exist on who created the frozen dessert originally but they play in perfect harmony today.  Also, Margaret Thatcher DID NOT invent soft serve, as you shall see.

If you’re on Team Carvel, you would say that soft serve ice cream is actually something of a happy accident rather than an intended goal.  Back in 1934, Tom Carvel had an ice cream truck and (unfortunately for him) on the Memorial Day weekend that year his truck broke down in Hartsdale, New York.  Mr. Carvel was sitting on a lot of rapidly melting ice cream in his hooptie, so rather than calling it a loss he just sold it as fast as he could before it all melted.  Customers loved the softer texture of his declining product and he sold all of his stock in that truck in two days flat.

Mr. Carvel was surprised at how well half melted ice cream was selling and knew it could be the next big thing in frozen desserts.  So for the next couple of years he developed a softer version of the hard stuff and called it a “secret recipe”.  In 1936 Mr. Carvel opened the first store of his namesake on that very same site in Hartsdale and its been growing like wildfire ever since.

HOWEVER, if you’re from Illinois and on Team McCollough, you may disagree with this story.

The other side of the coin traces the history of soft serve ice cream to John Fremont “Grandpa” McCullough and his son Bradley, founders of the Dairy Queen empire.  They claim that they were the inventors of soft serve with their version that debuted in their buddy’s ice cream shop in Kankanee, Illinois.  Sheb Noble (the proprietor) tried out the McCullough soft serve formula one day in 1938 and ended up selling 1600 servings in two hours.  Two years later the McCollough ice cream kingpins opened their own store in nearby Joliet and have franchised the hell out of their great idea far and wide (and especially in the state of Texas, which holds the record for greatest Dairy Queens per capita).

They claim to be the originators of soft serve, despite the lapse in time.  Of course, being impartial, I’m not to say who is technically right on this one…  but…  yeah.

So how does Margaret Thatcher play into the game?

Well, there are some sources (including this one, which I once thought was reliable) who claim that the Iron Lady invented soft serve.  She didn’t!  Although before she was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Ms. Thatcher did have a career as a research chemist and did help develop aspects of our beloved frozen treat in the fifties, she clearly did not invent the ice cream herself.  So ha ha, Kitchn, look up Wikipedia before you publish.

Anyways, while I’m on the subject, a note on how soft serve is made as that’s rather interesting as well.

Soft serve ice cream is made from a premixed dairy solution that is rapidly frozen at a very low temperature, about 25 degrees.  What differentiates soft serve from regular ice cream is the amount of air in the product (called overrun), which is introduced to the freezing dairy solution at the time that it is drawn from the pump.  The overrun in soft serve ranges from 0% to 60%, but the ideal range is really between 33-45%.  If the air quantity is less than that, the ice cream will be denser and have a richer flavor and color.  (This is a problem?)  If the air quantity is greater than that the ice cream will melt faster and have less of everything.

To prevent crystallization in soft serve ice cream the dairy mix must be frozen rapidly and served quickly.  Although most soft serve formulas include corn syrup and guar gum as stabilizers in the mix, as we’ve seen before ice cream settles and forms ice crystals because of what it is regardless.  Also, because soft serve ice cream across the board has a lower milkfat percentage than regular hard pack ice cream (3-6% on average compared to ice cream’s 10-16%), the ice crystals can form at lightning speed.  Cold comfort knowing that you’re eating a low fat treat, perhaps.

Anyways, regardless of your location worldwide or personal preference for taste, now you know how one of the icons of dessert came to be.  As you dip your toes into the cool waters of whatever shore that you’re near, your cone will prove more satisfying with your newfound knowledge.

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