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The meaning of the phrase ,,ice cream" varies from one country to another. Phrases such as ,,frozen custard", ,,frozen yogurt", ,,sorbet", "gelato" and others are used to distinguish different varieties and styles. In some countries, such as the United States, the phrase "ice cream" applies only to a specific variety, and most governments regulate the commercial use of the various terms according to the relative quantities of the main ingredients, notably the amount of cream. Products that do not meet the criteria to be called ice cream are labelled ,,frozen dairy dessert" instead. In other countries, such as Italy and Argentina, one word is used for all variants. Analogues made from dairy alternatives, such as goat's or sheep's milk, or milk substitutes (e.g., soy milk or tofu), are available for those who are lactose intolerant, allergic to dairy protein, or vegan.
Ice cream may be served in dishes, for eating with a spoon, or in cones, which are licked. Ice cream may be served with other desserts, such as apple pie. Ice cream is used to prepare other desserts, including ice cream floats, sundaes, milkshakes and even baked items, such as the Baked Alaska.
Before the development of modern refrigeration, ice cream was a luxury reserved for special occasions. Making it was quite laborious; ice was cut from lakes and ponds during the winter and stored in holes in the ground, or in wood-frame or brick ice houses, insulated by straw. Many farmers and plantation owners, including U.S. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, cut and stored ice in the winter for use in the summer. Frederic Tudor of Boston turned ice harvesting and shipping into a big business, cutting ice in New England and shipping it around the world.
Ice cream was made by hand in a large bowl placed inside a tub filled with ice and salt. This was called the pot-freezer method. French confectioners refined the pot-freezer method, making ice cream in a sorbetière (a covered pail with a handle attached to the lid). In the pot-freezer method, the temperature of the ingredients is reduced by the mixture of crushed ice and salt. The salt water is cooled by the ice, and the action of the salt on the ice causes it to (partially) melt, absorbing latent heat and bringing the mixture below the freezing point of pure water. The immersed container can also make better thermal contact with the salty water and ice mixture than it could with ice alone.
The hand-cranked churn, which also uses ice and salt for cooling, replaced the pot-freezer method. The exact origin of the hand-cranked freezer is unknown, but the first U.S. patent for one was #3254 issued to Nancy Johnson on 9 September 1843. The hand-cranked churn produced smoother ice cream than the pot freezer and did it quicker. Many inventors patented improvements on Johnson's design.
In Europe and early America, ice cream was made and sold by small businesses, mostly confectioners and caterers. Jacob Fussell of Baltimore, Maryland was the first to manufacture ice cream on a large scale. Fussell bought fresh dairy products from farmers in York County, Pennsylvania, and sold them in Baltimore. An unstable demand for his dairy products often left him with a surplus of cream, which he made into ice cream. He built his first ice cream factory in Seven Valleys, Pennsylvania, in 1851. Two years later, he moved his factory to Baltimore. Later, he opened factories in several other cities and taught the business to others, who operated their own plants. Mass production reduced the cost of ice cream and added to its popularity.
The development of industrial refrigeration by German engineer Carl von Linde during the 1870s eliminated the need to cut and store natural ice, and, when the continuous-process freezer was perfected in 1926, commercial mass production of ice cream and the birth of the modern ice cream industry was underway.
In modern times, a common method for producing ice cream at home is to use an ice cream maker, an electrical device that churns the ice cream mixture while cooled inside a household freezer. Some more expensive models have an inbuilt freezing element. A newer method is to add liquid nitrogen to the mixture while stirring it using a spoon or spatula for a few seconds; a similar technique, advocated by Heston Blumenthal as ideal for home cooks, is to add dry ice to the mixture while stirring for a few minutes. Some ice cream recipes call for making a custard, folding in whipped cream, and immediately freezing the mixture. Another method is to use a pre-frozen solution of salt and water, which gradually melts as the ice cream freezes.
Ice cream can be mass-produced and thus is widely available in developed parts of the world. Ice cream can be purchased in large cartons (vats and squrounds) from supermarkets and grocery stores, in smaller quantities from ice cream shops, convenience stores, and milk bars, and in individual servings from small carts or vans at public events. In 2015, US produced nearly 900 million gallons of ice cream.
Today, jobs specialize in the selling of ice cream. The title of a person who works in this speciality is often called an 'ice cream man', however women also specialize in the selling of ice cream. People in this line of work often sell ice cream on beaches. On beaches, ice cream is either sold by a person who carries a box full of ice cream and is called over by people who want the purchase ice cream, or by a person who drives up to the top of the beach and rings a bell. In the second method, people go up to the top of the beach and purchase ice cream straight from the ice cream seller, who is often in an ice cream van. In Turkey and Australia, ice cream is sometimes sold to beach-goers from small powerboats equipped with chest freezers.
Some ice cream distributors sell ice cream products from traveling refrigerated vans or carts (commonly referred to in the US as ,,ice cream trucks"), sometimes equipped with speakers playing children's music or folk melodies (such as ,,Turkey in the Straw"). The driver of an ice cream van drives throughout neighborhoods and stops every so often, usually every block. The seller on the ice cream van sells the ice cream through a large window; this window is also where the customer asks for ice cream and pays. Ice cream vans in the United Kingdom make a music box noise rather than actual music.