Modern technology allows us to make ice cream at the press of a button with an ice cream maker, but this was not always the case. Thousands of years ago before electricity and refrigeration had been invented, people used the technology of the day to create and consume all kinds of iced desserts.
The simplest recipe was snow mixed with honey and fruit. This was enjoyed by the ancient Greeks, Persians as well as the ancient Romans who also used ice and snow to chill wine. For a long time this simple combination of ice and flavors was incredibly popular and available to people from every walk of life.
It’s widely thought that at around 200 BC the Chinese discovered that mixing salt in water lowered its freezing point down to 10°F or below. This allowed flavored water to be frozen and scraped off the sides of a bowl – a process called churning. It took a very long time however for this technological breakthrough to reach Europe, in particular Italy and France. By the 16th to 17th centuries water-based desserts such as sorbettos and granitas were very popular and could now be created without refrigeration.
Ice cream, as we know it today, seems to have been developed shortly afterwards. Instead of using water, ice or snow as a base for a dessert, milk, eggs and cream started to be used instead. In fact, ice cream as we commonly think of it is essentially frozen custard. Many ice cream recipes consist of cooking a custard using milk and eggs, adding flavoring, and then churning it in an ice cream maker.
The first recipe in America for ice cream was published in 1792 by Mrs Elizabeth Raffald, an English housekeeper, businesswoman and author. The recipe consisted of crushing ripe apricots in a mortar, adding sugar, cream and pressing it through a fine sieve. The mixture was put aside to allow the flavor of the apricot to mix with the cream before being poured into moulds. A mixture of salt and ice in a large bowl was used to freeze the moulds to create the ice cream.
From the 20th century and onwards, the invention of cheap refrigeration allowed ice cream to be made, stored and transported on a large scale. Today ice cream is available pretty much everywhere, at supermarkets, corner stores, coffee shops, and of course at home any time you like. It’s possible to eat ice cream every day of the year, although that’s probably not advisable due to its high sugar content.
In this post-modern age, chefs have invented recipes and techniques for creating ice cream that involve adding liquid nitrogen, or using dry ice to bring the temperature of the mixture down to below freezing in only a few minutes. Freeze-dried ice cream, originally developed as a food to be consumed by astronauts but never actually used, is another unusual variation of creating and consuming ice cream. This method is not really available to the average home cook however.
Most people though, are happy with being able to create ice cream at home, at a cost competitive to or better than what you buy in stores, using an ice cream maker.
If you’re interested in more information about the history of ice cream, I recommend reading Lynne Olver’s excellent Food Timeline FAQs: ice and icecream which contains many interesting facts and trivia about ice cream, as well as recipes from the day.