F&W’s Masters Series: Lessons from Ice Cream Maven Jeni Britton Bauer
No one else makes ice cream like Jeni Britton Bauer. Based in Columbus, Ohio, Bauer has spent well over a decade perfecting her formula since opening her first shop called Scream in 1996. Since 2002 she has run Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, now with nine Ohio locations and two in Tennessee, and published an ingenious cookbook called Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home. Where most ice cream makers traditionally use egg yolks to thicken their bases—if not chemical emulsifiers—Jeni’s uniquely creamy base relies on high-quality milk, specifically the proteins and rich butterfat from grass-pastured Ohio cows. She flavors her ice creams with hand-selected, often local ingredients, and even makes sure every pint is hand-packed. Below, Britton reveals her techniques and every other secret to a happy life of ice creams, frozen yogurts and sorbets—from the right color of peppercorns to sprinkle on lemon frozen yogurt, to why you should never moisten your scoop before dipping.
How is ice cream made?
Most ice cream is traditionally made with a French custard base, milk thickened with eggs and sweetened with sugar, then frozen in a spinner. But I have this thing against egg yolks in ice cream. A small amount is a great emulsifier, but egg yolks interfere with other flavors. Egg yolks also have a fat that gets brittle when it’s frozen. More importantly, raw milk already has the proteins you need. We devised a system that uses only the milk proteins to thicken the base.
What is your special technique?
We start with raw, grass-pastured milk from the cows right at the dairy. The milk comes in, and we separate it in a centrifuge into heavy cream and skim milk. The cream goes into a tank. When I go to the dairy, that’s the first place I go—I take a ladle and sip it. It’s foamy, like a lightly sweetened whipped cream.
The skim milk goes through this nanofiltration system. And this is really cool, where old technique meets modern: The filtration system runs the milk across a membrane multiple times to remove about 60 percent of the water. Water is not good in ice cream because it makes it icy. Removing water also concentrates the proteins to give it more body and texture. We’re working with two proteins: the casein, the protein that you make cheese out of, and whey proteins, which give great smoothness.
So then we take this concentrated skim milk, containing proteins and lactose (the sugar in milk) and mix that back with the cream to give us a base of about 15 percent butter fat, perfect for ice cream. It’s still raw; nothing’s been cooked at this point. So then we add sugar and batch-pasteurize at only about 175 degrees. Ultra-pasteurized milks are heated to about 300 degrees plus, and they shoot them through a tiny pipe really quickly, which strips a lot of the flavor. Batch pasteurization gives the milk a nice cooked or custardy flavor and bonds the water to the proteins, butterfat and sugar.
Then we shoot it through a homogenizer while it’s still hot, so the butterfat is melted and looser. We homogenize it to make the butterfat molecules the same size as all the other molecules. If we didn’t, all those big butterfat molecules would find each other and make butter. The homogenizer shoots it through this tiny opening so the molecules all hit each other, rub each other and break each other up. I think of molecules like scaffolding: When they’re the same size, they work together to form a matrix, a nice, smooth, chewy body.
Finally it comes up to our finishing kitchen, where we give it any flavors and spin it. We fill all our pints by hand, thousands and thousands a week. There are machines, but they require a much thinner ice cream, so it never freezes up the same way ours do.
What’s the temperature in your production kitchen?
The kitchen is kept at 50 degrees; we basically work in a refrigerator. Our freezers are 20-something below zero. We have people who have to do inventory, and it turns their mustaches to icicles. In case they get stuck, we have this great big bell. It looks like the Liberty Bell, but it has to be low-tech, because if you get stuck in the freezer, we don’t want something computerized that could fail. If that bell ever rings, everyone is instructed to run—do not walk—to get someone out.
How do you freeze the ice cream?
We use gelato machines. American ice cream machines make ice cream that’s softer than a milkshake, which then has to go into a blast freezer. Classic American ice cream—not the super-premium stuff, but the grocery store kind—is 50 percent air. Gelato machines make much denser ice creams meant to be served every day right out of the machine. They’re also much more expensive because the motor has to be much bigger to spin that slowly. When you spin slowly you build more viscosity in the ice cream.
What distinguishes extraordinary ice cream?
Texture: We can tweak everything else but the texture has to be right. It has to have scoopability. But texture is the hardest thing. Sometimes an ice cream is too short, so it crumbles when you scoop it. Sometimes it can taste sandy or gritty from too much sugar or butterfat. If it has a lot of nut butter, it can even taste greasy. Soggy is another, or doughy, if it’s too heavy. All those things you want to avoid.
Flavor: This depends primarily on using best-possible ingredients. Of course we’re thinking about the balance of sweet, salty, bitter. But sometimes you have to be okay with sacrificing flavor to get the best texture. Like with strawberry ice cream: It’s very hard to get maximum strawberry flavor and still have creaminess. The more strawberries you add, the more water, the more ice crystals. Some ice cream makers decide they want an ice cream that tastes more like strawberries and they’re ok with a little iciness. We’re not. We’d rather it taste like strawberries and cream.
Body: The word I use all the time is "voluptuous." It should lie on your tongue and relax there. When that happens, the flavor of ice cream is released from the butterfat into your nose as it warms on your tongue.
Finish: Finish comes from your nose, as well as the taste on your tongue. Butterfat carries flavors as well as aromas, so a good ice cream should have plenty of both.
Temperature: Different ice creams with a different balance of ingredients will feel colder than they actually are, sometimes unpleasantly cold. That’s a problem I had a lot in the beginning.
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“I love all ice cream,” says Bauer. “When I go to a city I look for the longest line. I don’t think about business at all. I just go to enjoy the regional specialty, for the pure pleasure of it.” READ MORE »