Talking Shop: How Ice Cream Works
Yet again, as it always is, springtime has returned like the swallows of Capistrano. No longer is it a requirement to wear our sleeping bags with armholes when scuttling about hurriedly from points A to B. In fact, it’s no longer much of a concern to get anywhere quickly now that the breezes are warm and the grass is no longer a spiky, muddy mess of the post snow season. You could just meander down to the park today, book in hand, to laze about in the dappled sunlight. Cloud gazing looks imminent. You will be one with nature, lolling around. The cold, cold sweetness of ice cream just begs to swirl languidly across your lips.
Oh, wait, an article. Gotta get that done first.
So, speaking of ice cream, growing up I was lead to believe that stabilizers in ice cream are bad. Real Bad. Like might-as-well-put-ground-glass-in-your-food-and-buy-your-burial-plot bad. If you had wanted to see the morning light, you had better not let an ice cream stabilizer come anywhere near your person. That meant me.
Needless to say, I was afraid of ice cream stabilizers. Real Afraid. I believed that every Breyer’s commercial was the gospel truth of desserts , that my veins would instantly be teeming with plastic if I ate anything close to artificial ingredients. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that stabilizers in ice cream were actually quite helpful and oftentimes made from nothing more than simple plant extracts. Could, could this be? Was is possible that I had believed an untruth about my frozen delight?
Indeed it was. It came up one day in a conversation with a pastry chef that I was having, how she groused that her employer insisted that she use no stabilizer in her ice creams and yet he blamed her when they were laden with fractals of ice the next day. “He wants ice cream like he had in Italy, but even ITALIANS use stabilizers!” she bemoaned. I remember laughing along with her but also being torn, having been led to believe that ice cream stabilizers were Real Bad and Should Be Avoided At All Costs.
Anyways, fast forward a few years and I see what this pastry chef was meaning in her gripe. She was utterly correct in her reasoning, stabilizers were essential to ice cream if you were planning on storing them or using them in a high volume environment (such as a restaurant). To save you years of misery and guilt, let me just explain to you what stabilizers do in ice cream and why they’re fairly benign.
Ice cream is nothing more than a colloid. This emulsion of milk, cream, eggs and sugar has a limited shelf life on its own as the ingredients don’t necessarily bond to one another on the molecular level readily. Instead of playing well with one another, the sugar and water molecules in ice cream essentially form a weak net around the milkfat to hold everything together.
As time goes by and repeated scoops are taken out of that ice cream tub, the ice cream colloid will begin to degrade and settle. In their nature (even in ideal conditions) colloids that are not stabilized will eventually do this but the addition of repeated warming and cooling only hastens this process. But, when a stabilizer is added to the ice cream it forms a gel colloidal network, which is virtually impervious to degradation under short term conditions. Those milkfat molecules are staying right where you want them!
Most of the stabilizers that you’ll find in ice cream actually come from very natural sources as well. (Breyer’s be damned!) Common examples found in ice cream include gelatin, xanthan gum, guar gum, locust bean gum and perhaps even cellulose derivatives (starch). I hardly think any of those substances will result in the instant plasticization of the blood coursing through your veins.
After all those years of being vigilant about avoiding unnatural ingredients in ice cream, it turns out that I may have been simply avoiding xanthan gum. Having fallen prey to an effective marketing scheme, I feel cheated, sheepish, defeated. A feeling of shame that only an afternoon spent curled up in the grass, reacquainting myself with a scoop or two can cure.
To McCarren, poste haste!