Monday June 20, 2011
Ice Cream. Social.
I quickly found myself answering emails, tweets, and messages from total strangers willing to participate. Some had never visited Wine + Market or Table 310 before. Some had never even heard of BraveTart, but learned about the tasting through Facebook. Some didn’t even live in Lexington. But they all wanted in. I set a date, only a week out, and immediately they grabbed up every available slot.
So one dreary Saturday, over twenty wonderful strangers braved a torrential downpour to hang out with a girl they’d never met, talk about local dairy and eggs, eat ice cream, and have their picture taken. Pretty much the best day ever.
Most people reserve blind tastings for beverages, both high and low brow. On one end, oenophiles hold them to compare wines without the preference for vineyard, varietal, or vintage tainting their opinion; on the other end, the Pepsi Challenge liberates us from the tyranny of brand loyalty.
In either case, the premise remains the same. How do we judge the flavor of a product we know nothing about? Information quickly prejudices our thoughts as we subconsciously yearn to like the “right” things. Taking away labels lets us evaluate flavor on merit alone.
I wanted to pit two vanilla bean ice creams against each other, each made with the same recipe and technique. One would utilize organic, non-homogenized, low temperature pasteurized milk and cream from a local dairy and organic, free-range eggs from nearby Elmwood Stock Farm. The other would contain homogenized, ultra-pasteurized dairy and conventional eggs. I made both with Tahitian vanilla; it has a milder flavor than traditional Madagascar vanilla and lets the character of the other ingredients shine through.
I imagined the “Kentucky Proud” ice cream the clear winner. But did it truly taste better, or did I want to believe that from my pro-local, pro-organic standpoint? Did it have a richer flavor, or does the fact that I know and love the farmers behind the ingredients bias my opinion?
While I may never untangle my emotions from my perceptions, I had over twenty volunteers with no opinions on the matter ready to give it to me straight.
First up, Ice Cream “A.”
I encouraged everyone to take notes during the tasting with the reminder that “good” tasting notes don’t require a complex vocabulary or special training. Only a willingness to experience rather than merely eat food. The difference between the two lies in cultivating an awareness of the sensations and feelings food elicits rather than rushing from one bite to the next.
As soon as everyone had a scoop of ice cream, a total silence settled over the room as everyone “experienced” the first ice cream.
People scribbled notes, took second bites, then drifted off in thought. A third bite, more notes. When it seemed everyone had formed an opinion, I asking people to share their thoughts.
Ice Cream A
- Rich, creamy; tastes full fat but not greasy. Floral.
- Custardy. Creamy.
- Creamy texture.
- Very creamy, mild vanilla flavor, rich but not heavy.
- A little bit thin.
- Almost tastes like “not homemade.”
- Fabulous butterfat.
- Seems to have “coated” my mouth, continues minutes after finishing sample.
Having no basis for comparison, everyone kept a fairly neutral stance on the ice cream. While Rosco graciously put down his camera to whisk away the empty ice cream cups (so not his job!), I brewed a quick pot of Moonlight White as a palate cleanser.
White tea has enough astringency to literally cleanse the palate, and a mild flavor that doesn’t linger or interfere. Most importantly, in contrast to a simple glass of water, it warms the tongue after the chilling of ice cream.
With palates cleansed and ice cream “A” fresh in everyone’s mind, notes for ice cream “B” contained fewer general statements and more direct comparisons.
Ice Cream B
- More of a creamy coating afterward.
- This one is better, no aftertaste.
- Could taste more diary.
- Much more custardy than #1. Richer, more eggy.
- Creamier. Lighter vanilla.
- Reminds me of a vanilla cookie.
- Denser. More flavor.
- Slightly more complex flavor.
- Like this one more.
- Stays longer on the tongue.
- More homemade tasting.
The former atmosphere of silence evaporated and everyone began chatting about how A stacked up to B. The consensus revealed that while ice cream A boasted a flawless texture, ice cream B had the superior flavor. A show-of-hands poll resulted in five people voting that I’d made A with the local ingredients, while fifteen believed that honor went to B.
Since I did make ice cream B with the local ingredients, my heart gave a little cheer that so many guessed correctly. But even I couldn’t ignore the allure of A’s almost supernatural creaminess. By itself, B seemed perfectly smooth, but in that side-by-side comparison it didn’t stand a chance from a textural standpoint.
The discrepancy between the flavor, texture, and color of the two ice creams underscored the reality that “local & organic” constitutes more than a philosophical difference. Dairy and eggs produced on the industrial scale differ in significant, quantifiable ways from their organic counterparts.
Industrially produced milk and cream undergo high temperature pasteurization and homogenization. While I could write an entire book on the pros and cons of those two procedures, for the purpose of this post I’ll only address their role in ice cream.
The extremely high temperature of the ultra-pasteurization process destroys the delicate, nuanced flavors of dairy. Ultra-pasteurization inevitably results in milk and cream best described as flavor-neutral. This isn’t a subjective assessment, but a known side effect of the process. (Short answer here, long answer here.)
Homogenization did give ice cream A an advantage: its ultra-silky mouthfeel. Homogenization physically reduces the size of fat molecules, allowing them to freeze into imperceptibly small ice crystals. Ice cream B contained non-homogenized dairy with larger fat molecules that froze into particles big enough to feel on the tongue. Yet these same “icy” fat molecules gave ice cream B its long lasting finish as they slowly melted.
The organic and conventional eggs accounted for the visual difference between ice creams A and B. Generally, even recipes that give ingredients in weight measurements call for eggs by the each. But to account for any discrepancy in size between the two kinds of eggs, I measured the yolks by weight also: 8 ounces per batch.
I needed seven yolks to reach eight ounces for ice cream B. Interestingly, it took ten yolks from store bought eggs to achieve eight ounces. So even though ice cream A contained three additional yolks, it literally paled next to ice cream B. The difference wasn’t visual alone, tasters commented on the “clean” flavor of ice cream A and the “custardy” flavor of ice cream B.
My take away from the event?
That rather than vilify industrially produced ingredients or sing the praises of organics, I’d prefer to consider the unique qualities each posses. By understanding how and why one type of milk differs from another, or how eggs can change the flavor profile of the finished result, I can use these ingredients as means to an end.
Regardless of ingredients, classic vanilla ice cream has a unique ability to make us smile. It evokes a nostalgic response, reminding us of happy childhood memories. Whether of summers on Grandma’s back porch, enjoying an old fashioned scoop made with farm fresh eggs, or summers in the Dairy Queen parking lot licking the curlicue off an impossibly tall cone of soft serve.
I don’t want to judge those summertime memories, I want to celebrate them.
37 comments and counting
Jun 20, 2011 · 10:37 AM
I really like this side-by-side taste testing. Local, for the win! Nice write-up and beautiful photos.
· Carrie @ poet in the pantry · http://poetinthepantry.com
Jun 20, 2011 · 10:42 AM
Thx Stella, I felt the same about Madagascar vs. Tahitian but ruled myself NUTS for making such a distinction, so phew on that! While I like vanilla ice cream, ice cream in general I do not like milk straight up, but this year started buying this WF milk as opposed to a different WF milk that J went gaga over said he never tasted anything as silky like that. It’s local & something about the pasteurization so you are absolutely right on both counts but you already knew that lol.
· foodwanderings · http://www.foodwanderings.blogspot.com
Jun 20, 2011 · 12:06 PM
Really neat project and love the writeup. You inspire me to do something similar here in Portland.
I make cheese, and have had similar results in my own experience. The low temp pasteurized, non-homogenized milk makes cheeses that have a more complex flavor. The differences in texture that your group noted in ice cream also happens in cheese; however I think with cheese it is a beneficial difference that helps with crystal and filata structure.
One thing you may want to experiment with, is aging the farm milk/cream a little while in your cooler. I have no scientific proof, but it seems to me that the fat structure “breaks down” a little, and makes a slightly finer curd, when the milk is a week or 10 days old.
· KitchenCru · http://www.KitchenCru.biz
Jun 20, 2011 · 12:35 PM
What a cool idea-looks like everybody had a great time. I am sure that I would have been pleased with the taste of both! Nice analysis-thanks for sharing.
· flourtrader · http://flourtrader.blogspot.com
Jun 20, 2011 · 2:05 PM
This post totally satisfied my inner science geek. I love blind taste tests and really appreciate the effort and attention to detail you put into this. Luckily there are benefits (taste!) to using local, organic ingredients beyond being a more sustainable human. Hopefully that helps lure more minions to our side. muhahaha.
· Terris @ Free Eats · http://www.freeeatsfood.com
Jun 20, 2011 · 7:40 PM
Great post! I’ve wanted to do a blind tasting to compare the impact of different types of chocolate on desserts/cakes etc. Might actually try that now. Agree that sometimes, the “lower quality” product isn’t necessarily bad, just different. So cool, enjoyed this very much. Love your experiments
· Chocolate Chilli Mango · http://chocolatechillimango.com/
Jun 20, 2011 · 7:58 PM
I have always thought that the cream I use from the store was not the best option for homemade ice cream, but I don’t know where to find fresh dairy cream. Thanks for this post, and thanks for all your effort to show the differences.
· sophistimom · http://www.sophistimom.com
Jun 20, 2011 · 7:59 PM
Not that I expected anything less, but grats on keeping this post fairly neutral but still interesting and useful.
Jun 20, 2011 · 8:05 PM
You might get around the fat-molecule-size issue by using goat milk instead of cow milk, since goat milk is naturally homogenized. I have also seen very different numbers for goat milk fat than is posted on Wikepedia. Saanens, which are the largest goat breed, produce the lowest fat (but the most volume) at an average of 3.5%, while Nigerian Dwarfs, the smallest breed, average 6.5%. Of course all of these numbers depend on both the genetics of individual animals and the content of their feed.
I LOVE that you took the time to do this taste test.
Jun 20, 2011 · 9:10 PM
This is a really interesting comparison. I think the taste of the milks alone would be quite different.
· jillian · http://www.butterandsugar.org/blog
Jun 20, 2011 · 9:28 PM
@Carrie, yeah, Rosco captured some great images that day! I especially love the side-by-side stuff.
@Shulie, I’d love to hold a vanilla tasting sometime, to Madagascar, Tahitian, Mexican (the obvious 3) but then also do Tonga, Indonesian and maybe India. It’d be awesome, but I think it’d wear most people’s palates out. Haha.
@KitchenCru, that is definitely a factor I had not considered, intriguing! I have some milk and cream in my fridge now, I’ll give ‘em a few more days. (With a vanilla bean in the jar… Everyone was so excited to do the tasting and people wrote such wonderful note, I think you’d have a great time doing a similar project with a cheese tasting.
@Vicky, thanks babe!
@flourtrader, glad you enjoyed reading about the results. Thanks!
@Terris, go Team Science!!
@Viviane, Team Science is in the house today! I think it’d be great if you did a scientific post, yeah! I’ve done a similar project with chocolate cake before, but I was the only taster, so I don’t know if it was proper science or just a binge. XD
@sophistimom, visit localharvest.org, you may be able to find some great dairy farm in your area with a similar philosophy & great products.
@Zo, I think it’s too easy to “hate” on grocery store stuff. If only our biggest culinary problem was that people were buying off-brand cream for their baking projects.
@Sally, wow, thanks so much for that spectacular information. I’m fascinated! I’ve made ice cream with goat milk in several occasions, and it is wonderful. Now, if only I could find someone selling milks from various breeds. . .
@jillian, tasting the milk side-by-side is almost shocking. The homogenized/high temp pasteurized milk tastes comparatively like water. If you can find some good local dairy for your own taste test, you’d be in for a treat.
Jun 20, 2011 · 9:41 PM
Woah. Ice cream galore in the Midwest! Do you need a prep cook? I can wash dishes also for ice cream. I don’t care if it’s melted ice cream, I’ll drink it.
· Nelly Rodriguez · http://www.cookingwithbooks.blogspot.com
Jun 20, 2011 · 9:50 PM
I looove food experiments and blind taste tests – great post Stella! The ice cream looks divine. I’ll have to let the BF know it’s time to whip out the ice cream maker
· cathy · http://www.savorynotes.com
Jun 20, 2011 · 9:53 PM
Wow! Great Idea, sorry I couldn’t participate. Great explanations and pictures. Thanks for sharing!!
· Alan Cooke · http://www.cookedwithluv.com
Jun 21, 2011 · 12:13 AM
@Nelly, you bring the hibiscus syrup, we’ll make sexiest sundaes!
@cathy, oh, it’s always time for the ice cream maker.
@Alan, wish you couldda been here, we all had a blast.
Jun 21, 2011 · 5:24 AM
What an informative post! I’m taking away so much, maybe I should do my own mini tasting to experience the two differences.
· Jessica · http://www.jessicasdinnerparty.com
Jun 21, 2011 · 6:37 PM
I didn’t realise how much of an effect the ingredients could have on ice-cream. A fantastic account of a well-thought out and genuinely interesting blind tasting!
· JaseP · http://gemsofadvice.com
Jun 21, 2011 · 8:50 PM
Love this post! I’m so happy you shared the results with us and really wish I could have been there!
· kaitlin · http://whisk-kid.blogspot.com
Jun 22, 2011 · 10:07 AM
@Jessica, oh, you definitely should! I’ve had both kinds of dairy before, in a glass and in ice cream, so I understood their differences, but I’d never tried them side by side. My mind was blown. Let me know if you ever try it.
@JaseP, pretty crazy, huh? So glad you enjoyed, thanks for stopping by.
@Kaitlin, gah, what if you could have been there? That would have rocked.
Jun 22, 2011 · 10:18 AM
Very interesting, I am intrigued by the differences your taste testers found….also wishing I lived remotely close to come grab a bite of that!
· Lauren · http://www.bytes-from-texas.blogspot.com
Jun 23, 2011 · 7:17 PM
Aren’t you really Princess Bubblegum?
Love all your stuff! Hope you add video soon!
Jun 23, 2011 · 9:06 PM
@Lauren, awww…wish you could have been here! We had so much fun.
@shuckydurn, oh holy cow, thank you for introducing me to Princess Bubblegum!!!!!! That was one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a while. Oh man, I wish I were PB.
Jun 26, 2011 · 4:06 AM
What a great idea! I drive 30 minutes to get eggs that were laid yesterday from happy chickens who are outside eating bugs all day. It makes a difference.
· Maureen · http://www.orgasmicchef.com
Jun 26, 2011 · 12:46 PM
@Maureen, the color difference was so pronounced. I always knew there was a big difference, just from experience with both types of egg, but to see them side by side was truly impressive.
Jun 26, 2011 · 10:58 PM
Such an interesting experiment. I’m such a texture person that that is what I usually judge first when critically examining ice cream. An impossibly creamy texture was what was ingrained in me during my pastry training. But it wasn’t until I tasted local, organic milk that I realized that milk actually has depth of flavor. Hmmm tough choice.
· Ashley · http://notwithoutsalt.com
Jun 26, 2011 · 11:49 PM
@Ashley, me too. CIA beat it into us that texture was tantamount, but when I discovered fresh milk, it turned everything upside down. Since this post, I’ve been introduced to a method that allows me to have both! A friend in Portland told me to “age” the local dairy for a week or more before usage, and that this would improve the texture. I tried his experiment and it worked! Perfectly creamy, amazing flavor. Neither of us know why, but it works!
Jun 27, 2011 · 2:09 PM
OK I couldn’t stand not knowing the “why” behind this. I did a little research in my books (McGee, cheese making manuals) and online. While no one really addresses the topic directly, I think I understand what is probably going on. If you are ready to be geeked up on dairy, read on.
What I know: Raw milk fat molecules are surrounded by a membrane. The globules are fairly large in size. Homogenization breaks down the membrane, which leads to smaller globules. The smaller globules are necessary for ice cream, which is basically a matrix of network fat molecules and minute ice crystals, along with unfrozen water suspended in sugar. Larger molecules will clump, or ‘agglutinate’ to the point that a smooth matrix cannot form, therefore grainy ice cream. BTW agglutination is what causes cream to rise in raw or cream line milks.
What I theorize: Aging the milk for a shortish period weakens the fat globule membrane, due to natural enzymes that still exist in raw and low temp pasteurized milk. So the fat molecules can be broken up, either by those same enzymes, or by the churning process (kind of a homogenization process). The smaller molecules can then be incorporated into a smoother matrix made of smaller ice crystals as well. Goodbye graininess and icy texture, hello dense creaminess and meltability.
Makes me want a sundae for lunch today.
· KitchenCru · http://www.KitchenCru.biz
Jun 27, 2011 · 10:38 PM
@KitchenCru, I can totally buy your theory. I’ve made two “aged” batches now, both silky smooth. Something is clearly at work. Both times, I brought the dairy to a simmer with the vanilla bean, then cooled it down to room temperature, then refrigerated for 5+ days. I wonder if the heating, cooling, and ultimate re-heating might play a role?
Jun 28, 2011 · 2:22 PM
I think it probably all adds to the weakening of the FGM (fat globule membrane). Curious, did you re-heat the base twice for the taste test batch, or only for the aged batch? The second heating is a variable I hadn’t considered. Why are you doing that?
Oh man, I love pistachio ice cream! Too bad you weren’t in LexKy during my former IBM career when I visited there once or twice a year.
· KitchenCru · http://www.KitchenCru.biz
Jun 28, 2011 · 3:09 PM
@Rosco, that was without question my favorite line!
@KitchenCru, yes, sir. Same process for both, just the original batch steeped a few hours, the batch made with your aging plan, a few days. I always reheat after the steep, because I almost always steep for 4+ hrs, mostly because it’s convenient to start steeping and the projects I bang out during that time take longer than 1hr. By the time I get back to it, it’s been chilled down & the fat has formed a deliciously creamy raft.
Alas! Lexington had a much more grim restaurant scene at at time, I’m sure.
Jun 28, 2011 · 9:47 PM
I’m definitely jealous of that select few that got to experience this first-hand! I love the side by side comparison and so glad that local wins the majority! =)
· Peggy · http://mybflikeitsoimbg.blogspot.com
Jun 29, 2011 · 10:32 AM
@Katie, stay tuned, I’m sure this fall such a thing will appear.
@Peggy, I always announce these tastings on Facebook, so stay tuned there for the next one. It was pretty wild to see them side-by-side.
Apr 10, 2012 · 11:24 AM
@Junglegirl, I mean, I could just use a PacoJet too. Just trying to stick to options the home cook has easy access to.