What is Frozen Custard?
Frozen custard is a very thick, creamy frozen dessert made with cream, sugar, and eggs. Like ice cream, it comes in a variety of flavors and can be served with pieces of fruit or candy mixed in, but there are certain ingredients that almost every frozen custard recipe includes. In general, frozen custards are richer than other frozen desserts because they tend to have a higher percentage of butterfat, must contain egg yolks, and are churned more slowly. They're most often made and served the same day to preserve the texture, and can be served in cups or cones, or used as a base for milkshakes, floats, or sundaes.
Though there are many variations on frozen custard, there are a few ingredients that are almost always used: milk or cream, sugar, egg yolks, and a flavoring, like vanilla extract. Like ice cream, it has to have a minimum of 10% butterfat, though some custards have up to 18%, which makes them very creamy. Concerns over the use of raw eggs has led some modern custard stands to eliminate the eggs from the recipe. Any product labeled as frozen custard in the US is legally required to have at least 1.4% egg yolk, however, although this can be lower for "bulky flavors" that include items like chocolate pieces or nuts.
How It's Made
The way frozen custard is made contributes to its density and texture. The beaters inside the chamber of a frozen custard machine turn more slowly than those in a soft-serve ice cream or frozen yogurt machine, preventing excessive air from being mixed into the custard as it freezes. As a result, the frozen desert is very rich and thick. Standard ice cream beaters are designed to incorporate air into the product, a process called "overrun." This makes the ice cream lighter and easier to scoop. Many premium ice creams have relatively little air mixed in, however, and may have a density comparable to frozen custard.
Since relatively little air is whipped into frozen custard, it doesn't spend very long inside the machine where it is made. Rather than being packed into a barrel or box as ice cream is, the prepared custard falls into a waiting chest freezer for serving. Frozen custards are typically served freshly made to preserve their texture; they are rarely found on store shelves, though they can be packed in dry ice for shipping.
The production process is labor intensive and time-consuming, which works for individual stands maintaining a limited supply, but not for a commercial production line. Most vendors limit their offerings to a few flavors, such as vanilla, chocolate, and a flavor of the day, although larger establishments or chains may have up to a dozen flavors, including items to be mixed in. The low number of varieties allows a separate machine to be dedicated to each flavor run, and helps maintain the quality of the custard. Consumer demand for a variety of flavors could make commercial frozen custards difficult to market.
Making It at Home
Though most commercial stands use a special machine to make their custard, it's not too difficult to make it at home. Many recipes call for mixing all the ingredients together in a pot on a stove until they boil, then freezing the mixture. To get a creamy texture, the custard must be stirred regularly as it freezes to break up the ice crystals. Some have an additional step of adding in more cream or flavoring after the mixture is partially frozen. Many countertop ice cream machines can also be used to make frozen custards.
Although there is conflicting information concerning the history of frozen custard, its invention is often traced back to the early 20th century in Northeast US. Custard mix recipes also vary widely, although the basic ingredients of cream, sugar and egg yolks remain consistent. After commercial freezer units for ice cream and custard became more widely available, a number of families in the Eastern and Midwestern United States started their own ice cream or custard stands during the 1930s and 1940s. Many of these early custard stands have become local legends, and still bear the original family names.
Types of Frozen Desserts
In many places, the term "ice cream" is used for almost any creamy frozen dessert, but there are some standard differences that make one a frozen yogurt and another a gelato:
- Ice cream — Includes at least 10% butterfat, and about 50% air.
- Frozen custard — Includes at least 10% butterfat and 1.4% egg yolk. Usually includes 20% - 30% or less air.
- Gelato — Typically has 8% butterfat or less. Some flavors include egg yolks, but not all. Typically made with 25% - 30% air.
- Frozen yogurt — Includes yogurt cultures, giving it a tangy flavor. Typically has less fat than ice cream.
- Soft serve — Usually has up to 6% or less butterfat and 45% - 60% air, making for a very soft dessert.
- Sorbet — Made only with fruit puree and no milk or other dairy products.
- Sherbet — Includes only 1%-2% butterfat, and may have more sugar than ice cream.
@Snow ear : I live in Lafayette and Igloo is just down the street from me! Love frozen custard!
I live in Bensalem PA (19020)and can't find frozen custard in stores although I haven't hunted it down in supermarkets. Does anyone know of a grocery chain that carries it? We have quite a few supermarkets here and in the Philadelphia area which is close by. --Janet
I have a friend who gets stomach cramps and pain if he eats local frozen custard (Meadows brand.) I'm sure the brand is fine (we all eat it), but what could be unique about frozen custard to cause stomach disorder? Incidentally, my friend does not have lactose intolerance (that he knows of.)
Snowbear: Just wanted you to know that I have great memories of the Frozen Custard in Lafayette from as far back as forty five years ago. It actually inspired me to open a frozen custard shop in Kennesaw, GA (N. Metro Atlanta). We call it LoriBell's Frozen Custard Creations and serve seven different flavors including a Chocolate that is just like I remember from Lafayette. Thanks for setting the bar!
You are right. The original article quoted the president of Dairy Queen, "If God were going to get an ice cream cone, He would get a frozen custard." My brother and I had just opened a frozen custard stand in Kokomo, Indiana the year before.
Growing up in Milwaukee, frozen custard was as much a necessity as it was a treat. There seemed to be as many custard stands as there were taverns at the time.
Copps Frozen Custard was the standard bearer at the time, along with Leon's. Now that we're in Atlanta, we can't wait to go "home" and get the rare treat of a custard cone.
As soon as we get to Effingham, IL, we know we're "up north" because that's where the first Culver's is. A butter burger and a cone lets us know we're on our way to a good Friday night fish fry somewhere in WI.
Snowbear: I grew up in Darlington Indiana and one of my childhood memories is going on Sundays to get a frozen custard. I live in Lafayette, Louisiana now and do not have any place to get any. I miss it so much and make sure when I come home to visit that I go the Lafayette to indulge!
Good article. My grandparents were one of the early innovators of frozen custard. My grandfather ran an ice cream factory in the 20's. When the depression hit, he decided to start the Original Frozen Custard in Lafayette, Indiana. It still operates at the same location today. We operated other stores as Snowbear Frozen Custard.
Once you have Frozen Custard ice cream is an after thought.
By the way, the "unknown" food critic was the President of International Dairy Queen quoted in an article by the Wall Street Journal in the summer of 1986. My mother was also interviewed for the article.
I remember having frozen custard on the Jersey Shore as a kid -- nothing compares to it in flavor or consistency. It is one of those childhood memories that I have tried (unsuccessfully) to revisit by going to other purported 'Frozen Custard" stands when I find one.
However - Ritters Frozen Custard here in the Broward County area (Atlantic Blvd in Pompano Beach) is pretty outstanding, if I may say so myself. I love their featured "Dog Night" on Monday - when you can bring your pooch along with you to enjoy a treat of frozen custard!! Now that is a great idea!
Frozen custard has higher butterfat than ice cream? Most of the recipes that are out there call for milk rather than cream. The caloric content of frozen custard is markedly less than that for ice cream. In fact, a number of frozen custard shops tell me that they think one of their product's selling points is that it is lower in fat and calories than regular ice cream.
Legally, custard stands cannot eliminate egg yolks. By FDA definition they must contain 1.4% egg yolks. These now are generally added by the dairy that supplies the mix. Some stores use powdered yolks, but there then needs to be an extra step in the store and the possibility of inconsistency - a huge no-no for franchises.
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