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Introduction to vegan ice cream – by Chiara Ghiron

Plant-based (vegan) ice cream (gelato)

Making a good vegan ice cream is by no means trivial. Ice cream is a complex food and my first attempts were really terrible. When approaching a plant-based diet it is necessary to let go of the memory and cultural imprints that keep us bound to what we have grown up with. Textures will be different; flavors could become more muted. This may be even more noticeable in ice cream as most of us grew up with the flavor and texture of milk, cream, eggs defining our favorite scoops.

To explain further: our palate is accustomed to animal-derived textures. It takes an effort of dis-habituation, because the perceived temperature, the structure, the flavors, are almost inevitably different. At the same time, I believe that understanding plant-based cooking principles and selection of ingredients is a really enriching experience for anybody interested in food. If we open our mind to a very different palette there are an almost infinite possibilities in what we can do. So, the question is not only technical but also philosophical: do we want to imitate the experience of traditional ice cream in all aspects, or do we want to open ourselves to new textures, new intensities and new sweetness? This does not mean that ‘anything goes’ or that we can accept sub-par results, of course.

My approach is ‘nutritional’ in the sense of analyzing the composition of typical homemade milk-based ice cream in order to understand its characteristics in depth, for example how the ratio of sugars, fats, proteins and other non-‘traditional’ components translate into the taste experience.
Take fats, for example. Their structure determines their melting point and consequently impacts on the stability of the air bubbles which are blended into the mixture during the freezing-churning process. Which fats perform best in plant-based ice cream?

The impact of protein origin is important, as some behave less like those of milk and eggs in terms of foaming properties, for example, and can react differently to the heating process.
The type of starches and fibers have a generally heavier influence in a plant-based ice cream, not only for the nature of the ingredients but also as they enter the ‘total solids’ equation we need to make up for the lack of solids traditionally contributed by low-fat skimmed milk powder. But starches and fibers of different sources can behave very differently so we need to monitor their behavior closely. How much water do these components absorb? If our ice cream hardens, is it because of ice formation or other reasons? Does the ice cream remain soft or does it crumble upon storage? Does the structure improve or worsen over time due to our choice of ingredients? These thoughts become translated into recipe formulation. These considerations do not exist ‘in a vacuum’. There is a close interdependence between the ingredients in the mixture. Consequently, in my experience it is neither easy nor useful to have a standard base to which we can then simply add, for example, pistachio, or hazelnut paste, or cocoa mass and a little sugar. Because if we look at these ingredients carefully, we find that they have a different chemical composition and therefore behave differently. I cite these flavors as traditionally they tend to be the most difficult recipes to perfect – precisely because we often overlook the structural (i.g. chemical) aspect that impacts on ice cream structure.

In my approach you need to arm yourself with nutritional databases, create excel tables full of vlookup functions (a spreadsheet search function) or rely on Patrik who took care of many of these aspects for many of us, and created a wonderful Calculator. We could open a chapter on the use of isolated ingredients (proteins, for example) to be used as structural additives with excellent results, or the challenge of using whole ingredients, with their nutritional pros and structural component cons. In the beginning I used isolated soy protein for example. I also clashed with some awful-tasting vegetable proteins and decided to go back to whole ingredients as much as possible. In recent years I have developed two main approaches from which I often digress to then come back with variations born of new experiences, in an iterative process.

In the first approach I work with commercial soy milk that, it must be admitted, is magical and which taste has also vastly improved recently. In the second approach I work directly with water-based mixtures. Depending on the specific recipe, I tend to use cashews and coconut oil in different proportions to balance the characteristics of the other ingredients. It is a 5000 pieces puzzle even with the handful of ingredients we commonly use.

Plant-based ice cream also encounters difficulties of a different kind. Many ingredients elicit negative, psychological or allergic reactions. And the ice cream lover who is attentive to animal exploitation should not forget that some alternative plant-based ingredients are obtained through the exploitation of human beings, or at a high environmental cost, so it becomes important to be able to trust the supply chain to remain consistent with one’s idea of the world.

My approach may sound too elaborated, and I think plant-based ice cream or gelato are not as cheap as milk and cream (but think about how the subsidies to this industry mask the real cost of these ingredients) so probably more suited to restaurant preparations than to an ice cream parlor where competitive pricing is a prime concern. However, not hard-wiring anything really stimulates creativity, and considering that ice cream is for me as much a research project as a commercial (through consultancy) endeavor, that’s fine. I believe that collaboration is the basis of knowledge and that is why I have always left my approach very accessible, and why I have decided to collaborate with Patrik in the setting up of the vegan section of his calculator.

But I still need financial support so I invite you all to take my online courses, which can be consulted on my pages. You will not regret it! (be patient, my web site is a bit slow to open, I am a food-loving chemist by training and a self-taught web designer) You can also find me on Facebook where I post plenty of recipes and ideas:

2 thoughts on “Introduction to vegan ice cream – by Chiara Ghiron”

  1. Hi I’m looking for a vegan whippy recipe made with rice flour. If you can help I will gladly pay you for your time and knowledge. Thank Gari Federici UK

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