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
- 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.