Soft-serve ice cream is the king of ice cream. Well, maybe not literally, but it’s certainly one of the most enjoyable varieties of ice cream. So enjoyable that two different major ice cream companies both claim to have invented the treat.
Regardless of whether Dairy Queen or Carvers first came up with our favorite summer treat, you’ve probably wondered if you can make soft serve at home. The answer is yes. It just takes some know-how and a few tricks to get it right.
Thus, to help you, we’ll cover how to make soft serve ice cream with a machine, right in the comfort of your home. We’ll also discuss some alternative methods, recipes, and the science behind this delectable dessert.
What Makes Soft Serve Different?
If you’ve ever compared the ice cream you buy at the grocery store with the ice cream at your favorite restaurant or local ice cream café, you’ve probably wondered why they’re so different. Ice cream is ice cream, right?
Soft serve differs from regular ice cream in a couple of key respects. The ingredients are similar, but the results are very different. If you want to know how to make soft-serve ice cream at the comfort of your home, you need to understand why those ingredients produce such different results.
Difference #1: Fat Content
This will probably surprise you. While soft serve ice cream feels richer and more buttery in your mouth, most soft serve has lower fat content than regular ice cream.
There are some types of soft serve, like super-premium ice cream (yes, that is the technical designation), that are exceptions. Super-premium ice cream has a fat content ranging around 20%. Regular soft serve is closer to 6% to 7% fat content.
The ice cream you buy at the store is probably closer to 10% to 15% fat content. That’s part of why the texture of the two ice creams is so different.
Fat content also makes a big difference in flavor. Soft-serve ice cream usually tastes sweeter than regular ice cream. But, soft-serve ice cream also usually has less sugar than grocery-store ice creams. That’s because higher fat content blunts the taste, which means you need more sugar for the same sweet flavor.
Difference #2: Overrun
Overrun is the technical term for how much air content has been whipped into the ice cream. Hard-scoop ice creams that you can buy at a store have lower air content than good soft serve.
Overrun is also the product of whipping air into your ice cream. Soft-serve ice creams are usually whipped much faster than other types of ice cream. Overrun is only the first reason for this; we’ll cover the other reason in a moment.
Commercial soft-serve ice cream often almost doubles in the whipping and freezing process. That extra volume is largely the result of overrun.
The air in the mix is part of what keeps the ice cream soft. It also makes the ice cream feel rich and buttery, without a ton of extra fat.
Difference #3: Ice Crystals
This is why carton ice cream can sit in your freezer for a long time without changing. It’s also why soft-serve ice cream can’t.
Soft-serve ice cream depends on incredibly small ice crystals, which are a natural by-product of the quick cooling and fast whipping of commercial ice cream makers. Unfortunately, this is the biggest barrier between you and homemade soft serve.
Most consumer ice cream makers aren’t designed for soft serve. They cool the ice cream more slowly. They also whip the ice cream more slowly. That means larger ice crystals, less overrun, and a denser product.
Since regular ice cream is denser and less naturally smooth, more fat is added to improve the texture. Regular ice cream also contains more sugar since added fat masks the sweet flavor. So, soft serve is a healthier version of ice cream in addition to tasting better!
How to Make Soft Serve Ice Cream with a Machine
We’re going to assume, for now, that you have a regular ice cream machine at home.
There are two things you need to accomplish to get soft-serve ice cream at home. You need to freeze it faster, but not as cold, and you need to be whipping the ice cream mix more quickly.
If you have a digital machine that handles those details for you, make sure you turn the temperature down as far as it will go, and the speed up as fast as it will go. If you’re using an ice and salt two-container model, things get a little more interesting.
1. Two-Canister Ice and Crank Machine
For the ice and salt model, reducing the temperature is easier. We’re thinking about a machine like this one, though they aren’t quite as common anymore.
Use small chunks of dry ice in addition to the ice and salt. That will help drop the temperature even lower.
Prepare the machine as usual, but early in the process, use a hand mixer or whisk and add a spoonful of crushed dry ice at a time.
Wait until the vapor is completely gone and repeat. Using the dry ice to speed things up will help you keep the ice crystals smaller.
You just have to keep your ice cream mix moving at the same time. You should only mix the ice cream for about 20 to 30 minutes instead of the full hour these machines usually use.
Mix it on high the whole time and take it out early. You should have a delectable soft-serve.
2. Digital Ice Cream Maker
We’re talking about the kind that sits on your kitchen counter and works without additional ice or outside help; like this one.
Avoid getting a “soft-serve ice cream maker” because the consumer versions will give you something, but it won’t be proper soft serve. Basically, you’ll get whipped and cooled dairy product somewhere between butter and ice cream.
That’s because countertop ice cream makers can’t cool the ice cream mix quickly enough while they’re whipping it. So, instead of forming tiny ice crystals and mixing in overrun, the machine also creates butter from your mix.
So, turn the temperature all the way down, the speed all the way up, and only whip it for about 20 minutes. The resulting soft serve may not have enough overrun in it, depending on your machine. If it doesn’t, you can quickly whisk in some more before moving the ice cream to a piping bag to serve.
Soft Serve Mix Recipe
Now that you know how to make soft serve ice cream with a machine, here is a basic soft service recipe to get you started:
- 1 ½ cups whole milk
- 1 ½ cup half and half
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- ½ to ¾ cup of sugar
- Pinch of salt
- One to two teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 1/3 cup nonfat dry milk powder
Mix all of the ingredients with a blender or hand mixer. You can whisk this mix, but be sure to get all the milk powder clumps.
Why add powdered milk? It’s a way to get the milk solids you want without adding to the fat content of the mix. It also concentrates milk solids since you’re not adding any more liquid. That way, your mix is much more flavorful.
Variations on the Recipe
If you want a super smooth version of soft serve, gently heat this mix on the stove. Heat over low to medium heat just until the liquid is completely smooth. Don’t let it start to simmer. You’ll need to cool this version in the fridge or freezer before using it.
We also encourage experimenting with the general mix. Depending on the machine you’re using, you may be able to incorporate more fat into the mix. Try decreasing the milk in half and increasing the heavy cream. Be sure to add a little extra sugar if you increase the fat content.
You can also play with the amount of vanilla you add. We found that one teaspoon was a good amount of vanilla to use as a base for other flavors like almond, mint, or chocolate. Adding fruit flavors to your soft serve is a little more complicated, especially when using real fruit.
Soft Serve with Fruit and Fruity Alternatives
Of course, soft serve with fruit is one of the best summer treats out there. Unfortunately, making fruity soft serve at home is a little trickier. If you want to learn how to do it, check out this recipe for mango soft serve.
Another fun alternative: this banana cherry garcia soft serve will make you feel like a true culinary master!
Of course, if you’re looking for a soft-serve alternative, fruity “ice cream” is a great way to curb your sweet cravings without the extra calories. Check out this recipe for a fruit soft serve alternative.
Problems with Your Soft Serve and How to Troubleshoot Each
Like any new culinary experience, there is room for your soft serve to go wrong. Especially the first few times you make it!
If your soft serve isn’t quite what you wanted, this section will help you troubleshoot what went wrong.
1. Small Butter Balls
Also called buttering out, this is one of the most common problems with homemade soft serve. The fats in your soft-serve mix have separated themselves from the other ingredients to create butter. Meanwhile, the rest of the mix seems more like ice crystals and less like ice cream.
There are two reasons this can happen. The most common one is too much fat in the mix. This isn’t necessarily a straight metric. After all, super-premium ice cream has a much higher fat content than you’re likely to make at home.
Instead, the amount of fat you can use is directly proportional to how quickly you’re able to freeze and whip the mix. If you’re not freezing fast enough, the whipping action will create butter before ice crystals have a chance to form.
The other is that your machine simply isn’t freezing the soft serve fast enough. If it takes more than 30 minutes to create soft serve with your machine, you’re much more likely to butter out.
You can fix the first problem fairly easily, though there isn’t a solution for the second. If you’re consistently buttering out, and you’re already at the coldest setting on your ice cream maker, try lowering the fat content of your mix.
Are you still having problems? Keep the temperature low but turn the whipping action down slightly. You’ll probably want to whip the ice cream a little right before serving, but you’ll get much closer to soft-serve texture.
2. Your Soft Serve Isn’t Sweet Enough
We hear you; ice cream is an indulgent treat, so you want it to taste bright and sweet and sugary.
But, you probably don’t want to add a lot of extra sugar. For one thing, more sugar changes the texture of the ice cream. For another, it adds more calories than you want.
The solution is simple. Reduce the amount of fat in your mix slightly. We’ve already mentioned that fat hides sweet flavors. Cutting the fat will let the sugar shine through for a sweeter taste.
Another alternative, if you can, is to increase the whipping speed. Whipping the mix faster will add more overrun. More overrun will expose your tongue to the sweet sugar molecules more than the fat and increase the overall sweetness.
We’ve gone over the differences between soft-serve and regular ice cream. You’ve got a fun new recipe to try and the know-how to make it work.
Can’t wait to get started? We’re confident you have what you need to make great soft serve at home!
Tired of plain old vanilla? We’ve also provided links to several other recipes for fantastic soft serve. But, we’d also like to encourage you to experiment with your own soft serve recipes.
A big fan of mint and chocolate? See how a little extra sugar, some cocoa powder, and some mint extract treat you.
Have ideas for the next great ice cream flavor? Feel free to get creative and make your own. And don’t worry; we won’t tell if you decide to make yourself some soft serve every day this week.