Ice Cream

I had the idea of making sugar-free ice cream, and then after doing some research I decided I'd have a go at making completely unsweetened ice cream. I wanted something that I could add whatever flavour to and change the sweetness as I fancied, while it still being the right texture and everything.

Why?

Sugar gets added to nearly all prepared food you can buy, and things that were already sweet are now insane. I find it annoying.

Below the recipes I've got more info on what happens when you remove sugar from things and what you can replace them with. I opted for a thickener. If you're worried about novel ingredients, both have a long history of use in food - Agar has been used in Japan since the 1660s and Carrageenan in China since 600BC (and Ireland since 400AD).

Here are three recipes. The first is roughly a traditional custard-based ice-cream one but using a bit of the thickener to replace the sugar. Agar has amazing gelling power so use a tiny amount - a bit on just the tip of a teaspoon handle will do. Carrageenan use a little more, but only half a level teaspoon or so.

The second one is a lot simpler and makes really, really nice ice cream.

The third one is amazing, and easy, and has just one ingredient.


Egg Custard

  • 500ml double cream
  • 500ml whole milk
  • 6 egg yolks
  • A tiny, tiny bit of Agar Agar powder or half a teaspoon of Carrageenan

Optional:

  • Vanilla to taste
  • Sweetener

Mix the milk and cream in a saucepan. Add the Agar or Carrageenan and make sure they're blended in well.

If you're using a vanilla pod, add it to the milk now, otherwise leave adding the extract til later. If you add it now you'll make the room smell nice, but at the expense of it being in the custard.

Then heat the mix. The instructions for the powders say to go to over 70°C so you can measure that if you like, but just heat it to where you think it might be close to boiling.

Put the egg yolks in a bowl and beat them a bit so they're smooth. If you're using a sweetener you can add it here if you like, or add it to the milk mix.

Pour some of the hot milk mix into the eggs and mix well. Add a bit more. Mix again. I use a ladle for this. It's all about raising the temperature of the eggs gradually so you don't scramble them.

If you're using vanilla extract, now's a good time to add it.

Get a wooden spoon. Have it right there and ready. Put all the mix back in the pan, and then over a low heat. Stir, stir, stir, stir, stir, don't stop stirring, stir, stir… you can stop to check how thick it's getting.

Wooden spoons are great for this. The back will have the mix on it. Run your finger down the back of the spoon, and if it leaves a clean edge it's done. If the liquid starts flowing back over the bit you wiped off, it's not done.

Get it off the heat as fast as you can, pour (through as sieve, just in case) into a bowl. I normally chuck it straight in the churner at this point.

You could add other flavours before now, but this is a good time to add them. To avoid icy grittiness, add as little water as you're able to - so instead of coffee, make an insanely strong espresso, and instead of a fruit purée, cook it down as much as possible. Melted chocolate can just go in as-is. If this is where you're adding sweetness (say, with a syrup) then the anti-freeze nature of sugar will help.

I have an ice cream maker that has a freezer bit built in and does all the churning for you. I've had good results with the type where you put the bowl in the freezer as well though, so you don't really need the pricey one (but it is easier). I tried the more manual methods and didn't get great results, even with a regular full-sugar recipe. Your mileage may vary, of course.


Cashew & Coconut

  • 150g raw cashews
  • 360ml water
  • 400ml full-fat coconut milk
  • A tiny, tiny bit of Agar Agar powder or half a teaspoon of Carrageenan

Optional:

  • Vanilla to taste
  • Sweetener

You need a very good blender for this.

The thickeners need heating up, but they don't mix well with hot water. Mix them with some of the cold water and heat it up in the microwave.

Put everything but the coconut milk in the blender.

Blend for a while.

Then add the coconut milk and blend some more.

Put it in the churner. This makes amazing ice cream. It's also vegan.


Pure Banana

  • Bananas! Sliced, then frozen.

Optional:

  • Vanilla, maybe
  • You really don't need any sweetener

You need a very good blender for this one too.

Put the frozen sliced bananas in the blender and blend them like crazy. It's noisy.

After a while you get the best banana ice cream you ever had - no churner needed.


Some background

What happens when you take out the sugar

Sugar is more than a sweetener, it has physical properties that affect what you make. It interacts with fat, gluten and other proteins in interesting and useful ways. In baking it can add strength, preventing cakes from collapsing or it can make things less elastic, making pastry more crumbly.

In ice cream it acts as an anti-freeze. What that means is the ice crystals that form are small and the overall texture feels smooth and creamy.

If you take out the sugar, you don't get this effect and you can have a gritty ice cream that feels like you ground up ice cubes in a blender. Not so nice.

The physics of sugar are fascinating, and there's loads more on Wikipedia and so on.

Replacing sugar with alcohol

Alcohol also has an anti-freeze effect, but can be hard to judge how much to add. Also, liqueurs have a load of sugar in them so if you want anything fun like cherry, amaretto or whatever, you might as well have just added the sugar. Without a load of sweetness the alcohol comes through a lot more in the ice cream and can be really harsh and unpleasant. That's why creamy cocktails are so sweet.

If you're avoiding sugar for any kind of metabolic reason, you won't want to replace it with alcohol.

In my non-sweet experiments I tried whisky, vodka and gin. I got the whisky one to work by adding in artificial sweetener (Splenda) so that it was more like Baileys, but it felt like cheating. I ended up making a sorbet out of gin, lemon juice and home-made tonic water (more sugar-avoidance) and it was pretty special. Bitter, but good.

Artificial sweeteners

Some sweeteners have some of the properties of real sugar. Maltitol, xylitol and isomalt work to varying degrees, but they all have side effects. Maltitol in particular is notorious for its gastric effects, with lurid (if entertaining) reviews of sugar free gummy bears on Amazon, if you care to look for them.

The only artificial sweeteners I use now are sucralose (i.e. Splenda) and stevia, and even then not so much. It depends on how much of a sweet tooth you have.

Thickeners and stabilisers

Commercial ice cream is often made without eggs so has thickeners added to improve the texture, and sometimes to allow more air to be whipped into the mixture, a lot more, sometimes.

The two I looked into were Agar Agar and Carrageenan. They both work about as well as each other. Carrageenan comes in three varieties, kappa, iota and lambda. I got iota, but I think lambda would work best - I couldn't find any to buy though. Looking for instructions really showed how few people had actually tried to use it, they all say "Use a ratio of 0.4%". Oh how helpful. What's that in teaspoons per litre? Cos that's a couple of tablespoons and if I used that much I'd end up with a rubber ball, not ice cream. Grr. The answer is to use a tiny pinch of Agar or a half teaspoon of Carrageenan for a litre of liquid. Any more and it gets a bit gloopy.

Conclusion

So there you go! Ice cream. I prefer the recipe with cashews and coconut milk as it's a lot easier to do and takes on other flavours pretty well; the coconut flavour is pleasant as is, but is mild enough not to interfere with other things.