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Chemistry in a Cone


Everything bagel ice cream from WD-50.  

Now that they’ve mastered the technique, readers love the recipe. They’ve posted primers on the many kinds of Methocel available from Dow, and offered reassurance that you’ve ingested this compound if you’ve ever swallowed a coated pill or eaten a Burger King onion ring. Talbot continues to get e-mails from amateur chefs who’ve come up with their own riffs on it, or from people who are wondering where to buy Methocel. (Try, a general store for molecular gastronomists.)

Talbot likes serving the ice cream to friends without telling them it’s hot. One oblivious friend sat there enjoying vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce and peppermint crisps. Finally, “We asked him, ‘Do you notice anything?’” Talbot says. “And he was like, ‘Holy shit! It’s hot!’” If this trick seems too clever, consider that unadulterated ice cream is also a mind game. All that smoothness? The whole point is to make you forget you’re eating ice.

Have a scoop of filthy Guinness.

These days, a savory ice cream is nothing to get too excited about. To push the flavor profile, you’ve got to get pretty creative. A woman in Bangkok is making cigarette ice cream. Momofuku Milk Bar in the East Village has offered soft-serve that approximates Lucky Charms. And for the past two years, an artist named Miwa Koizumi has been roaming the streets of Manhattan with homemade ice cream in the tastes of various neighborhoods. The Wall Street, for example, is said to taste like a “filthy Guinness” from a “shitty fake Irish bar.” You can now eat an entire brunch made of ice cream: At the Fat Duck outside London, waitresses carry flasks of liquid nitrogen and whip up bacon-and-egg ice cream at your table, and at WD-50 on the Lower East Side, bagel ice cream arrives on your plate looking exactly like an everything bagel—seeds and all.

The humble bagel posed a technical challenge. Many savory ice creams have “singular” flavor profiles; the goal with the bagel was to encapsulate something more complex. To create it, everything bagels are bought and toasted—“rather dark,” says WD-50’s pastry chef, Alex Stupak. Then they’re crushed into pieces, soaked in hot milk, and strained. The ice cream is made from the bagel-flavored milk. “You have the flavor of poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and onions all built into it,” says Stupak.

The pastry chef’s latest invention is something he calls inflated ice cream. A small scoop is blown up like a balloon, torn apart to showcase its aerated interior, and presented on a large plate looking like a pale yellow sponge. Eating it is “almost like breathing in cotton candy,” says Stupak, who achieves the funhouse effect by manipulating the percentage of air in the ice cream. The process involves a Cryovac machine—the Cuisinart of molecular gastronomy—and other secret steps Stupak is guarding.

Lowering fat by spreading out the molecules.

The number of ice-cream scientists is surprisingly small, maybe 100 in the world. And at the top of the list is Douglas Goff, a dairy-science professor at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, who has written reams of papers on ice cream for peer-reviewed journals and had a hand in nearly every major recent ice-cream development. His lab is like the Google of ice cream, a playland workplace for brainy innovators. One of his latest ideas is an ice cream you buy from the refrigerator instead of the freezer case. When you get home, you put it in your own freezer, and it turns into regular ice cream all by itself—no need for churning.

Much of the time, Goff has more practical preoccupations—like health. Diabetics want low-sugar ice cream, and most everyone wants to enjoy ice cream that’s low-fat. “Ten years ago, the quality of low-fat ice cream was pretty poor,” says Goff. “I always told people to eat half as much of full-fat ice cream.” But there have been breakthroughs since then. A few years back, a Swiss scientist discovered you could make low-fat ice cream taste creamier if you ran it through a snack-puff machine. Ice cream made this way is now identified with phrases such as double-churned, slow-churned, and creamery churned. And NYU chemistry professor Kent Kirshenbaum recently conducted an experiment to determine what gave a traditional Turkish ice cream called dondurma its taffylike texture. The answer turned out to be a polysaccharide called glucomannan, a soluble fiber which has been shown to reduce cholesterol. Kirshenbaum posits that glucomannans could be useful in making low-fat ice creams.

The latest research focuses on redistributing fat molecules throughout ice cream. One method Goff has studied is called high-pressure homogenization, which shrinks fat globules but spreads them out, ensuring that each bite still tastes creamy. The technique works, but it is expensive and has not been adopted commercially yet.

The reason it’s so difficult to make ice cream healthy is that the chemical structure itself girds against dismantlement. “You can take the sugar out of Coke,” says Goff. “That’s easy. But you can’t take sugar out of ice cream, because of the structural role it plays. It’s the same thing with fat.”

It’s kind of satisfying to know that, in the end, ice cream will not be completely compromised. We can inflate it, or weigh it down with pudding; we can infuse it with bagels, or with the proteins of fish. But ice cream has its own DNA—for decadence. Think of it as an evolutionary mechanism. It insures that no matter what else it becomes, ice cream will forever be an indulgence.


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