The good news – when you make your own ice cream, it is you who decide exactly what goes into it … and what doesn’t!
Obviously, those with particular food concerns should avoid whatever ingredients they can’t stand: nuts, certain fruits, plants or other problematic foodstuff. That vegetarians ought to avoid the peculiar Egg and Bacon-ice cream likewise comes as no surprise.
It is thus fairly straightforward when it comes to deciding on the flavouring ingredients but what about the very (often dairy) ice cream base? In other words, is it possible to do without milk and cream? Or would you have to stick solely to sorbets? And what about sugar-free ice creams?
Making sorbets (sugar, water and flavouring) is certainly one possible solution but it is possible to make good ice cream too. If the reason to avoid dairy is an intolerance or allergy, the replacement options would have to be guided by that: those troubled by lactose should try to get hold of lactose-free milk and/or cream, which generally can be used in exactly the same manner you would use “ordinary” milk and cream. Even the taste tends to remain the same 🙂
Some people who do not tolerate cow’s milk have instead been able to use goats’ milk (or even camels’ milk, apparently also quite popular in parts of the Arab world as an ice cream-ingredient in its own right!). If available, sheep’s milk and water-buffalo milk can also be used to make ice cream. These milks from the Animal kingdom contain roughly the same amount of fat (or even more) than cows’ milk.
Also, particularly if dairy itself is the problem, you could consider replacing the core dairy products with soy milk, rice milk, almond milk, almond-cashew milk, coconut milk or other such “non-dairy” types of dairy substitutes. (Soft) Tofu also works well in ice cream (see for example this recipe). While it could be argued that these replacements do have a somewhat different taste than “ordinary dairy”, they (or some of them) can still make it possible for many people who otherwise would find it problematic to enjoy ice cream (such as those with cow’s milk protein intolerance, where the allergy is caused by certain proteins in dairy which must be avoided, along with soy products).
Three general points to keep in mind when making ice cream:
Do you like the taste?
While non-lactose (dairy-based) milk and cream typically tend to taste about the same as “ordinary milk”, a product like soya milk typically has a quite characteristic “soy milk” taste. If you like it, fine. If not, try combining it with “heavy” flavours like chocolate or tasty fruits which might serve well to “overpower” the basic taste. The particular flavour of coconut milk, however, tends to be quite persistent.
Any significant loss of fat needs to be compensated for
Dairy replacements from the Plant kingdom (like soya milk) seldom contain the same amount of fat which you would find in cows’ milk and cream. While this might seem like a positive thing for the waist line , it creates difficulties for making a good ice cream. Ice cream normally requires a certain amount of fat – not only for the taste, but also for the consistency of the final product. In other words, if you do not compensate for the relative lack of fat, your ice cream risk ending up not only less palatable, but also less smooth, less solid and with a more “icy” and coarse texture.
The solution? Add more fat, or another stabiliser/emulsifier!
A couple of extra egg yolks could well do the trick. If you have issues with eggs, however, you might want to consider adding something else, like some suitable starch (you will find some very good recipes here). Ice cream stabilisers (and emulsifiers) will be covered elsewhere but there are many to consider, such as starch, gelatin (won’t do it for many vegetarians), pectin, sodium alginate, soy lecithin and many others. In order to soften otherwise icy textures, you could also add some inverted sugar (glucose syrup, also known as corn syrup, is one. Honey is another. You can even make inverted sugar yourself – go here!). Another thing to try is adding bananas, which improves both consistency and sweetness (at the prize of adding some banana-flavour, of course).
Any significant loss of sugar (lactose) needs to be compensated for
Lactose is not only the triggering agent for dairy allergy/intolerance, but is also a type of sugar in its own right. Sugar is important in ice cream production for more reasons than just creating a sweetness, and affects texture and consistency. For one thing, too little sugar is likely to bring about a (too) hard, less scope-able, ice cream. If lactose is removed, it is therefore important to compensate for the loss of sugar that may be the result! Adding some inverted sugar might be one way to achieve more “softness” without sweetening the mixture as much as with ordinary caster sugar. Xylitol (birch sugar; see below under “replacing sugar”) might also be considered. A little alcohol could also help to ensure that ice cream does not freeze quite as hard as it otherwise would.
Note that the above applies to non-dairy lactose-free “milk”. If dairy-based lactose-free milk or cream is used, no extra sugar would normally be required – in the process of making those products lactose-free, the lactose will be broken down into glucose and similar sugars (usually being much sweeter than lactose …).
While eggs in ice cream traditionally serve a number of important purposes that affect both taste, texture and “mouthfeel”, they can be omitted, unless you would be aiming for Italian or French style ice cream. Ice cream already rich in dairy (i e high content of milk fat, usually in the form of cream), such as American style ice cream, in many cases do not even contain eggs, or will anyway turn out quite nicely even without added eggs.
Broadly speaking, the departure of eggs from a non-dairy (or low milk-fat) recipe therefore require the addition of some types of stabilisers/emulsifiers (see above) to make up for the loss of structure-building fat. Sicilian gelato-style ice cream uses starch to do this without eggs, and is an excellent alternative!
For lovers of sorbet, there are good news! Instead of using classic Italian meringue (or a whipped-up egg white) to improve your sorbet – try vegan-approved aquafaba meringue! All the advantages and is even much simpler to make than egg-based meringue!
Artificial sweeteners’ potentially negative impacts on human health has come to be debated quite a lot recently (as has, with a vengeance, the dangers of consuming “normal sugar” …). Leaving that aspect aside, however, one big problem with most artificial sugar substitutes (like certain sweeteners) is that they usually do not really work so ‘structurally well’ in ice cream. Most artificial sweeteners simply do not “build up” ice cream as well as sugar does. Stabilisers (see above) are likely to be necessary in order to maintain the shape and texture of the ice cream.
Another aspect is the flavour. Many artificial sweeteners have a rather characteristic, somewhat ‘metalic’ aftertaste which many do not like very much. Still, there are some good and even ‘natural’ non-sugar sweeteners well worth considering when it comes to ice cream-making:
Another interesting sweetener well worth looking into is xylitol (a k a birch sugar), which has virtually no aftertaste (no small feat when it comes to sugar replacements!). Otherwise very “sugar-like”, Xylitol is supposed to be safe for diabetics, low on calories and good for your teeth (!!). Just don’t share it with your dogs, as dogs just can’t handle it. Go here for a post where I put xylitol to the test!
One common consequence of lack of sugar in an ice cream is that it is likely to freeze rock-solid. Xylitol (see above) is actually one of the few ‘alternative’ sweeteners that contributes to the so-called freezing point-depression (i e the process whereby an ingredient – in ice creams, typically sugar – acts as an antifreeze, preventing too solid freezing). Apart from using xylitol, adding some alcohol to the ice cream base could make the ice cream freeze less hard (something a stabiliser also would help with). Another strongly suggested idea would be to simply enjoy the ice cream very soon after making it – that way, it won’t really have time to freeze too solid.
If you want to avoid both added standard sugar and artificial/alternative sweeteners, an alternative could be to test using bananas (inherently sweet) as sweetener. Bananas actually work pretty well in ice creams, and can add both to the sweetness and the general consistency of ice creams (and not just banana-flavoured ones!). Another example is this simple “healthy Banana ice cream“ which does not require any added extra sugar (not counting the fructose in the bananas themselves, of course). This splendid tofu-based recipe for strawberry ice cream also contains some bananas, to great effect.