Pre-chilling an Ice Cream Mix

It is a standard practice when making ice cream to pre-chill the mix before adding it to an ice cream maker to freeze. There are a few reasons for this.

  1. The faster an ice cream freezes the smaller the ice crystals will be. Tiny ice crystals translate to smooth ice cream without a noticeable grain, or worse, big, very noticeable pieces of ice.
  2. Immediately pre-chilling a mix after taking it off the stove stops it from continuing to cook. This is particularly important for egg custards, for which those extra few minutes of being hot might mean the difference between ice cream or scrambled eggs.
  3. With freezer canister style ice cream machines you don’t have any choice but to pre-chill the mix to as close to freezing as possible. If the ice cream mix isn’t really cold you run the risk of ending up with a cold ice cream soup.
  4. Pre-chilling for hours potentially allows the ingredients to combine more completely and taste better.

Well, except for number 3 I think all these reasons can be taken with a large grain of salt. Not that there isn’t any truth to them but that you can make perfectly delicious ice cream with no or minimal pre-freezing. Lets review our options.

Skip Pre-Chilling

With my Simac Il Gelataio built-in compressor ice cream maker I often go from stove to ice cream maker with no pre-chilling and have not had any problems with either egg custards over cooking or ice crystals ruining the resulting smoothness of the ice cream. Every model ice cream maker is different of course so you will have to experiment with yours to see if you can do the same thing. Remember you can not do this with a freezer canister style maker.

Ice Bath Pre-Chilling

Unless you are unlucky enough to have a canister machine with a canister that is starting to get tired or needs a mix to be close to freezing in temperature to work; pre-chilling as I’m about to describe is the best bet for most situations.

  1. Create an ice bath in a large bowl. If you don’t have access to a lot of ice you can accomplish sort of the same thing by filling your sink with the coldest water you can. In this case the Ziploc bag method works the best.
  2. Pour your mix into either a large Ziploc bag (Thank you Jeni Bauer) or a bowl preferably with a water-tight lid. Immerse the container in the ice bath. If you don’t have a water-tight bowl rest it on the ice as deeply as you can.
  3. Stir contents occasionally to help it dissipate the heat.
  4. With a Ziploc bag your mix will be cold in about 20 minutes. With a bowl of ice it will take around 30 minutes.
  5. Pour into your ice cream maker. If using a Ziploc bag it is a little easier to cut off one of the bottom corners to release the mix.

Refrigerator Pre-Chilling

This is the old fashioned, standard way of pre-chilling an ice cream mix and it will take at least 4 hours to end up with a cold mix. It does have some of advantages if you are in no hurry to make ice cream. For one thing it’s very easy. Just pour your mix in a bowl from the hot saucepan. Cover the bowl and place it in your fridge. It also has the advantage of allowing the ingredients in the mix to bond together more completely. If you want to maximize this effect, you can refrigerate the mix overnight. I am of the opinion this will improve the taste of your ice cream marginally if at all but I might be wrong.

Freezer Pre-Chilling

For some reason no one seems to recommend pre-chilling a bowl of mix directly in your freezer. I’m not sure why. Unlike the set and forget refrigerator method you would have to keep an eye on it and stir pretty regularly to prevent the mix from actually freezing (think big bad ice crystals). The use of a good instant read thermometer would be useful for this. One would think you would be able to cut the pre-chill time to between 30 minutes and an hour using this method. An experiment worth trying.

A freezer can also be helpful if you own a very temperamental canister ice cream maker. After getting your mix cold in the refrigerate, move it into the freezer for 20 – 30 minutes before you are ready to make it. If you have a thermometer you want the mix to be within a few degrees either side of freezing 32º F /0° C before moving it into your ice cream maker.

If Pre-Chilling Why Not Just Make Ice Cream?

Let’s say you are using the ziploc bag in an ice bath method. Well if you have some rock salt you can take this one step further and just make the ice cream! Read about it here.

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