When you think about cool, contemporary desserts taking the food world by storm, there are two words that likely don’t come to mind: soft serve. As in, soft serve ice cream. But while we were busy marveling at gooey-centered molten chocolate cake – and while molecular gastronomists were whipping ice cream over liquid nitrogen – soft serve ice cream was making a serious comeback, in New York, LA, Portland, and beyond. Here’s more on the trend – and two easy ways to make your own soft serve at home.
What is Soft Serve?
The origin of this soft-textured, ephemeral treat is debatable, with both Carvel and Dairy Queen claiming responsibility. In one story, Carvel founder Tom Carvel got a flat tire as he was driving in his ice-cream truck in 1934 in Hartsdale, New York. Always the entrepreneur, he began selling his melting product on the spot to passersby. Two years later, the legend says, he opened his first shop on the original site of his bad-luck tire incident. In the process, he also developed a low-temperature ice-cream maker.
In another version, Dairy Queen turned an “all-you-can-eat” experiment in 1938 into a groundbreakingly sweet moment when they sold 1,600 servings of soft serve in Illinois. A third account calls Margaret Thatcher — the former Prime Minister of England — the mother of soft serve, alleging that during her time as a food chemist, her company worked with Mister Softee to create a soft-serve recipe.
The New Soft Serve Craze
Whoever invented it, decades later, soft serve is having a moment. At New York’s Momofuku Milk Bar, James Beard award-winner Christina Tosi combined two nostalgic things — soft serve ice cream and the joy of slurping cereal milk — and created a cereal milk soft serve that kicked off a craze. At New York and Los Angeles’s Big Gay Ice Cream, soft serve cones are playfully piled with toppings like chocolate and caramel sauces, key lime pie sauce, and every imaginable sundae topping. And at newly opened Wiz Bang Bar in Portland, Oregon, crazy flavors (Smoked Oregon Ham, anyone?) are making their way into the mix. Wiz Bang Bar, located in Portland's newly opened Pine Street Market, is the brain child of Salt & Straw creator Tyler Malek, who says his priority is to create soft serve without the artificial ingredients often found in mass-produced commercial products.
Why is soft serve so appealing? It’s more fun to make! “Creativity is so much more instantaneous and fluid than with dipped ice cream,” Malek explains. “When you make scooped ice cream, you have to plan a day in advance, spin it the next day, wait for it to harden overnight, and then scoop it the next day, so it’s really a three-day process.” But soft serve offers the freedom to mix a few ingredients together, put it into the machine, and taste it five minutes later. “It’s so gratifying! We can make changes on the fly and are always experimenting in a fluid way."
Try Soft Serve at Home
To make your own soft serve, Malek recommends using your ice cream machine. Instead of freezing the ice cream for the recommended time, serve it when it’s in its soft state, just frozen enough to hold its shape. Just put it into a pastry piping bag and squeeze it out to get that classic soft-serve swirl.
Browse through our dozens of amazing ice-cream recipes here.
Roasted Strawberry Coconut Soft Serve by Wiz Bang Bar in Portland, Ore.
(Makes about 1 quart)
1 pound strawberries
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/3 cup water
1/8 tsp xanthan gum (a natural stablizer that's easy to find at specialty supermarkets)
1 cup coconut cream
Making the Base
Remove the green tops from the strawberries and slice them into perfect slices. Toss the berries in sugar until they are completely coated and cook in a 350-degree oven until they are perfectly cooked, slightly caramelized, and overwhelmingly aromatic, about 10 minutes. Remove the strawberries from the oven and allow to cool to room temp. Once the berries are cooled, puree them really well with a blender. Pass the berries through a fine mesh strainer to get out most of the remaining pulp and seeds.
Stir together about one fourth of the sugar with all of the xanthan gum in a small bowl. Pour the water in a small saucepan, add the sugar mixture and immediately whisk vigorously until very smooth (don’t fret over a few lumps). Stir in the corn syrup. Set the pan over medium heat and cook, stirring often and adjusting the heat if necessary to prevent a simmer, until the sugar has fully dissolved, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and immediately whisk in the strained berry puree and the coconut cream.
Transfer the soft serve base into an airtight container and refrigerate until well chilled, about four hours, or, for even better texture and flavor, 24 hours.
Churning the Soft Serve
Pour the soft serve base into a standard at-home ice cream maker and turn on the machine. Churn just until the mixture has the desired texture of soft serve, about 15 to 25 minutes depending on the machine. Use a spatula to scoop all of the ice cream into a piping bag and pipe the ice cream out into a cone! This soft serve could be stored, covered, in the freezer for up to two weeks but should be very tediously tempered before eating after being frozen.
The Science-y Way to Make Soft Serve: Dry Ice
The experts at Seattle-based food and technology company ChefSteps favor another approach to making soft serve ice cream: using dry ice. By mashing the dry ice and slowly adding it into an ice cream base in your blender, the home cook can keep the ice cream as smooth and soft as that found in restaurants. The key, according to ChefSteps, is to build a network of ice crystals that are as small as possible, by freezing the mix quickly, while it’s in motion. “This is why using super-cold liquid nitrogen or the more easily sourced dry ice results in a much better ice cream than is possible with most home ice cream machines, which simply cannot remove enough heat energy fast enough to quickly freeze the mix.”