Instant Gratification

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Following its scientific theme, Chill-N’s menu is designed like a periodic table, with the names of the flavors and mix-ins abbreviated to two letters like the elements. Cb (cake batter) and Nt (Nutella) are among the popular options available. (Photo by Merrett Fay)
Following its scientific theme, Chill-N’s menu is designed like a periodic table, with the names of the flavors and mix-ins abbreviated to two letters like the elements. Cb (cake batter) and Nt (Nutella) are among the popular options available. (Photo by Merrett Fay)
Following its scientific theme, Chill-N’s menu is designed like a periodic table, with the names of the flavors and mix-ins abbreviated to two letters like the elements. Cb (cake batter) and Nt (Nutella) are among the popular options available. (Photo by Merrett Fay)

A blast of liquid nitrogen spawns fresh, creamy ice cream in less than 90 seconds.

By Kirsti Correa

 

Ice cream can recall a whirlwind of emotions. For children, simply hearing an amplified tune from an ice cream truck signals the thrilling opportunity to sprint down the block, chasing after the beloved dessert. A tub of the treat can dry tears from a broken heart, while three scoops decorated with a slice of a banana, nuts, whipped cream, chocolate syrup and a cherry is an emblem of a celebration. For every occasion, there is ice cream.

It comes in a variety of forms—a cone, cup or even a shake—as well as myriad flavors that can astonish any sweet tooth. But today, ice cream makers enter a new era of the frozen treat, tempting the taste buds by crafting made-to-order ice cream with an unexpected ingredient: liquid nitrogen.

 

Just a Minute

The traditional ice cream recipe, which features a simple combination of milk, cream, sugar, salt, flavoring and, of course, ice, has undeniably left a lasting legacy across many generations. “Ice cream has been made the same way for hundreds and hundreds of years … [but] now we’re changing it,” says Chuck Woodard, the co-founder of Chill-N Ice Cream in Florida.

It only takes a 60- to 90-second blast of liquid nitrogen to concoct the perfect summer treat.
It only takes a 60- to 90-second blast of liquid nitrogen to concoct the perfect summer treat.

The addition of liquid nitrogen has taken a process that’s scientific and made it even more experimental—and for good reason. “Ice cream today … is tarnished with preservatives, emulsifiers and stabilizers,” says Robyn Fisher, founder of San Francisco-based Smitten Ice Cream. “I wanted to … get back to the pure product and make [ice cream] for taste, not shelf life.”

Fisher uses her high-tech, patented Brrr machine to perfectly churn a mixture of organic milk and fresh ingredients before unleashing the liquid nitrogen, creating ice cream with a defined, smooth texture. The smaller the ice crystals are in ice cream, the smoother the product will be, Fisher says, noting that liquid nitrogen enables smaller crystals because it instantly freezes ice cream at -321 degrees Fahrenheit.

The low temperature of liquid nitrogen also allows for the ice cream to be prepared in a short amount of time—typically 60 to 90 seconds—right in front of customers, according to Woodard. At Chill-N’s location in Miami, an ice cream base and flavor are fused together in a mixer; liquid nitrogen is then introduced and, in less than a minute, a 6-ounce or 8-ounce cup of creamy ice cream is ready to be enjoyed.

 

Creative Tastes

Liquid nitrogen, which is a freezing agent, means that not only can ice cream be made to order, but it can also be personalized down to its core ingredients. “Everything starts with the base, which is a light vanilla ice cream or yogurt,” Woodard explains. Then, customers can choose from an assortment of flavors and mix-ins.

In line with its scientific theme, the menu at Chill-N is designed like a periodic table, with the names of the flavors and mix-ins abbreviated to two letters like the elements. Cb (cake batter) and Nt (Nutella) are among the popular options available.

Smitten uses organic milk in its ice cream.
Smitten uses organic milk in its ice cream.

This summer, Chill-N is also experimenting with salted caramel and pistachio, in addition to offering classics like Vn (vanilla), Ch (chocolate) and Sb (strawberry). Customers can even create their own custom flavors by combining two choices from the 12 options available. Mix-ins range from traditional toppings, such as Rs (rainbow sprinkles) and Pn (peanuts), to more interesting ones such as Mw (marshmallows), Pt (pop tarts) and Kd (Krispy Kreme doughnuts).

In order to intensify the texture of its ice cream, Smitten specializes in seasonal flavors with fresh pairings based on what is available locally in the Bay Area. “Each month we choose the ingredient that is at its peak of ripeness,” Fisher explains.

During summer, customers can expect olive oil ice cream with lavender shortbread in June; a honey nectarine flavor—sourced from local orchards—in July; and a sweet corn ice cream paired with berries in August.

“All of our flavors are pretty special because we make everything from scratch as opposed to using a pre-made mix,” Fisher explains, adding that the ingredients are delivered to each store every morning. “Nothing is ever frozen.”

 

A Cool Impact

Though scientists and chefs alike have experimented with liquid nitrogen ice cream for years, bringing it to the masses is a relatively new concept.

A child is captivated by a fog of liquid nitrogen at Sub Zero.
A child is captivated by a fog of liquid nitrogen at Sub Zero.

One company that can take at least partial credit for popularizing the treat across the country is Sub Zero, a chain that opened its first store in Utah in 2005 and has since grown into a global sensation with locations across the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates. Founder and CEO Jerry Hancock says the Sub Zero experience allows customers to enjoy the wonders of liquid nitrogen in more ways than one.

“Customers appreciate that they are part of the entire experience,” he explains. “Because it’s not made yet, customers can really make it however they want. We have options from low-fat, dairy-free, soy and premium ice cream, yogurt or custard, and we can even accommodate allergies. … It’s a fascinating thing.”

It’s also the mystery of liquid nitrogen that captivates customers: A cloud of fog appears once the liquid nitrogen is released, and then a scoop of the dessert is revealed as it evaporates. “Liquid nitrogen will bring people in because it’s interesting to watch, so we have to make sure they’re coming back,” Woodard says.

“I don’t think it’s a fad; it’ll stick around,” he continues. “It’s a growing market without a doubt and you’re seeing the concept in almost every major city. People are doing it in different ways and more people will want to try it.”