Earlier this month, dozens of ice cream fans filed into the Salt & Straw R&D Kitchen in Portland, Oregon, for a cooking class hosted by none other than Tyler Malek, co-founder and head ice cream maker. The class was part of this year’s Feast Portland lineup, which, in addition to other culinary classes, included themed main events (grand tastings with food and drink by chefs and makers from across the U.S.), fun-size events (smaller, more curated tastings), a dinner series (each with a different theme and mashup of chef talents) and drink tank panels covering industry issues and trends.
Malek kept the class light, generating plenty of laughs throughout his lesson – it is just ice cream after all – which ended with pints of ice cream containing flavors that didn’t make the cut or were in need of some additional tweaking being passed around the room in a delightfully chaotic fashion. In between the laughs were some helpful tips for making ice cream magic at home.
When it comes to great ice cream, it’s all about that base.
Malek explained that in the ice cream industry, most people use foundation recipes and he is a huge advocate of starting with a stock recipe. “I think of it like making soup,” Malek said. “You always start with a chicken stock, beef stock, mushroom stock, etc. and various stocks are better than others – ours is the best. Once we start with a really strong foundation I can have as much fun with it as I want.”
For the demo, Malek roasted strawberries and prepared his go-to ice cream base to make a strawberry balsamic black pepper ice cream; recipes that can be found in the Salt & Straw cookbook. In the Salt & Straw kitchen, Malek and his team have about 20 different stock recipes which have been used to create approximately 1000 different ice creams.
Sugar is key, and only partially for the reason you think.
Malek’s ice cream base is surprisingly simple, with “secret” ingredients like whole milk, heavy cream and sugar. “Sugar does a lot for us; it’s one of the most magical ingredients in ice cream,” Malek said. “Probably the biggest misconception is that it’s just there to sweeten your ice cream, when in fact that’s a tertiary thing that it’s providing.”
It turns out that sugar is the reason the ice cream in your freezer stays smooth and creamy. “[Sugar] is the most delicious anti-freeze out there,” Malek said. “There’s a handful of edible anti-freezes, really three big ones that you’d be accustomed to: sugar, salt and alcohol.” He uses a mix of cane sugar and organic corn syrup or organic tapioca syrup, as the inverted sugars of the latter lend a dynamic texture to the final ice cream without intense sweetness (as they have a lower relative sweetness compared to cane sugar).
Don’t be afraid of xanthan gum.
The last ingredient Malek added to his ice cream base was a common vegan egg replacer called xanthan gum, “and it’s really scary because it starts with an ‘x’ which is horrible branding but it’s actually one of the coolest ingredients you can get,” Malek said. “It’s actually corn starch that’s been put through this fermentation process, so it doesn’t quite have that slick shininess of corn starch but it gives us a little bit of water binding.”
There are several ways to integrate flavors into ice cream.
Out of the box flavors are a Salt & Straw signature – from classics like Arbequina olive oil and honey lavender to seasonal specials like The Ballistic Bagel (cream cheese ice cream, everything bagel seasoning, bagel chip and candied salmon praline) – and Malek has a handful of go-to techniques for integrating flavors into ice cream, like steeping.
For flavors like lavender, Malek likes to make his own flavoring syrup because it gives him more control. Rather than adding lavender directly to ice cream base, where fat has the tendency to grab onto the oils in lavender and result in a soapy flavor, he steeps it in honey and water to get a more subtle tea effect. In culinary school Malek added Flamin’ Hot Cheetos to ice cream base, let it steep overnight, and strained out the pieces before putting the mixture into an ice cream machine – another way of steeping.
Texture is another common technique for building flavor in the Salt & Straw kitchen, and ingredients are still layered by hand by employees. While frozen strawberries don’t have a lot of strawberry flavor, ingredients like strawberry jam don’t freeze – thanks to their high sugar content – and deliver those flavors quickly. “On the opposite end, if I want flavors to release after you eat your ice cream, I can trap them in something that’s got a lot of fat in it like chocolate ganache,” Malek said.