How To Make Classic Ice Cream at Home

Knowing how to make a basic vanilla ice cream will serve you well in life. This is what makes a slice of birthday cake, a wedge of Thanksgiving pie, or even a simple banana split on a hot summer night feel extra special and extra memorable. Plus, once you master this recipe, you’re well on your way to inventing your own flavors and making the ice cream of your dreams.

Vanilla ice cream with an egg custard base isn’t particularly hard, but it can feel that way the first time you make it. Here’s a straightforward guide through all the tricky steps so you know exactly what to do and what to expect along the way.

Making Ice Cream with an Egg Custard Base

This ice cream is a classic, if not the classic. It uses egg yolks to both thicken the milky ice cream base and give the finished ice cream a richer taste and creamier mouthfeel.

The more egg yolks you use, the richer and creamier your ice cream — use fewer yolks and your ice cream will taste lighter and more milky, but will also be a bit less smooth. Personally, I like a ratio of four yolks to three cups of dairy. I think this makes a solidly decadent ice cream without making it taste overly eggy.

Watch Out for Curdled Eggs

Using eggs to make ice cream, while delicious, does requires some caution. When heating the eggs along with the milk and sugar to make the base, it’s easy for your attention to wander, resulting in little curdles of cooked egg in your ice cream.

But never fear! There are a few built-in safeties to prevent this from happening:

  • Temper the eggs: After warming the milk on its own, whisk just a small scoop of the hot milk into the eggs and sugar. This warms the eggs just a bit, making them less likely to curdle when you stir them into the pot with the rest of the milk and then start cooking everything over direct heat.
  • Heat the base slow and low: Once you start cooking the ice cream base — the mix of milk, eggs, and sugar — on the stove, keep the heat low and heat everything slowly. Keep stirring, scraping the bottom and sides of the pot, so the mixture cooks evenly and the bottom doesn’t scorch. It’s tempting to turn up the heat to make this step go faster, but try to resist! Keep slowly cooking the base until it’s thickened enough to coat the back of the spoon.
  • Strain the finished custard: As a final fail-safe, just in case your eggs did start to curdle a little, strain the base before churning the ice cream. Any accidental bits of curdled egg will get caught in the strainer — not in your ice cream.

This is all to say, don’t let the fear of curdled eggs keep you from making this ice cream. Keep your wits about you and an eye on the pot, and you’ll be fine.

If eggs just aren’t your thing, try this egg-free version:

Churn, Then Freeze

The finished ice cream is a two part process: First you churn the ice cream base in an ice cream maker until it’s roughly the consistency of soft-serve, then you freeze it until hard. Of course, if you want soft serve, then you can eat it right away! But most of the time, you’ll want to transfer the just-churned ice cream to a freezer container and freeze it at least four hours or overnight (which is even better) before serving.

Why Churn the Ice Cream at All?

Churning begins the freezing process, breaking up ice crystals as they form and incorporating some air into the thickening ice cream. If you freeze the ice cream without churning, it will freeze into a solid, icy brick — not very conducive to scooping out perfect ice cream balls for your sundae.

Don’t Forget to Freeze the Ice Cream Bowl

If your ice cream maker has a bowl that needs to be frozen before churning, be sure to stash it in the freezer at least 24 hours before you plan to make your ice cream. If that bowl is less than ice cold, the ice cream won’t churn properly and will harden into a solid brick in the freezer instead of a scoopable frozen treat.

Making Other Ice Cream Flavors

Once you have this basic method down, it’s easy to branch out into other flavors. The best place to start is by infusing the milk with things like fresh herbs (mint!), spices (cinnamon!), coffee beans, and cacao nibs. Add any of these along with the vanilla, and by the time you strain the base before churning, the ice cream will be infused with their flavor.

You can also add mix-ins — like chocolate chips, chopped fruit, or toffee bits — in the last few minutes of churning, or layer them into the ice cream when you transfer it to the freezer container.

Have you made any ice cream lately?