Last week, I had a rough day—money stuff, work stuff, house stuff, health stuff—and so I turned, as one does, to my freezer. The week before, I purchased a pint of Jeni’s Salty Caramel. If you’ve never had the pleasure, it’s “extra salty,” made with Madagascar Bourbon vanilla extract, sea salt, and sugar caramelized “in a kettle over fire.” I ate some, popped the lid snugly back on, and tucked it into my freezer. But on my no-good, very-bad day, I opened that sucker back off and found a delicate layer of pretty, godforsaken crystals. I did what I always do in moments like that and scraped the freezer burn off before digging in.
Yet, it still wasn’t right. I don’t know if the freezer burn actually affected the flavor, or if I simply expected it to taste funny, thus creating the experience I hoped to avoid. Turns out that, according to Jeni’s founder Jeni Britton Bauer—the Jeni—it might be both.
“Even if it is psychological, it’s still true from a sensory point of view. What you believe can really affect what you taste,” she wrote me via email. “To me, a freezer-burned ice cream tastes like paper. You know the smell of ‘freezer air’? It tastes like that. Either way, avoid it. Take care of your ice cream.”
Sun Tzu suggests that it’s best to know one’s enemy, so my first step was to have an expert or two explain exactly what freezer burn is, and how it’s caused. Frederick Aquino, pastry chef at The Standard, High Line in New York, put it succinctly: “Freezer burn is caused by air, water evaporation, and improper storage.” His explanation was echoed by Britton Bauer, who also cited handling and air flow as possible causes. Basically, once you put ice cream (or gelato, or sorbet, or frozen yogurt, or sherbet, etc.) in the freezer, the clock is ticking, and any number of things could trigger its decline. She writes:
If ice cream has melted and refrozen several times, then it will become icy. The science behind this is really fun and it’s sort of the reverse of how we bring ice cream to life. We work hard to bind up all the water molecules when we create ice cream (cream is 60 percent water). If those bonds are broken, even a little, and water gets free, then it will form an ice crystal, which then attracts more water/ice to break free and grow. In other words, once the bond is broken in one part of the pint, it will continue to grow ice crystals throughout the pint, even at low temperatures.
In the industry we call that heat shock… but most people use the word freezer burn, so we’ll use it too.
As it happens, there are no easy ways to “save” freezer burned ice cream—though Britton Bauer has a couple of suggestions, which we’ll get to in a bit—so prevention is key.
First, it’s useful to know which kinds of ice cream are most susceptible to freezer burn (or heat shock, if you prefer). Aquino suggests that ice creams with a lot of overrun—the amount of air pushed into the ice cream as it’s being made—are most at risk. Britton Bauer goes deeper, noting that flavors with more sugar and alcohol can be troublesome, and that “ice creams lower in fat tend to heat shock more than higher fat ones.”
So we now know which ice creams are most in need of a little extra care—but how should that care be taken? The most important factor, both Aquino and Britton Bauer agree, is temperature. “Make sure your freezer is set at its coldest temperature,” Aquino advises, noting that a sub-zero temperature is best. Britton Bauer wants you to go even lower: “20-25 degrees below zero… That is the temperature at which water in ice cream freezes. But if you treat the ice cream right and store it properly, it should be fine for at least a week” in a freezer that’s set to below zero.
For proper storage, “Store ice cream in the coldest part of your freezer, which means never the door,” Britton Bauer says. (At this point, I rearranged my freezer.) “Don’t open the pint until you are ready to eat it—and, when you do, scoop it and put it right back.” Any part of the ice cream that melts can trigger the process of heat shock.
You can also slow down the process with a piece of plastic wrap or parchment. “[T]ry to flatten the ice cream before putting on the plastic [or] paper, so it will sit flat on top of the ice cream,” Aquino advises, adding, “If you have a vacuum sealer, use it for this purpose.”
Let’s assume you’ve done your ounce of prevention, but you still wind up needing a pound of cure. The first step is to look at the ice cream. “If you scoop down well below the textural changes, you may find a core that looks unchanged,” according to Britton Bauer. “Look closely at it. Often if it looks perfect, then it will taste good. That isn’t always the case, but often is. Then taste it. Certain flavors hold up better under these conditions—like dark chocolate. But the truth is, once an ice cream is badly broken, it does usually affect the entire pint, whether or not you can perceive it. In that case, if it’s a small problem, I like to use it to make a sundae with a very dark hot fudge, a lot of salted roasted nuts, and some whipped cream.”
If it’s not a small problem, you can take desperate measures—Britton Bauer tells us that she’s “put frozen ice cream into my food processor, then refrozen it, and gotten texture back”—but if the freezer burn is advanced, “the flavor will be affected and there is no recovery.”
Aquino’s advice is much simpler. “I would say eat from the bottom of the carton,” he says, adding that if we learn any practical tricks, he’d like us to pass them along.
So, have at it, commenteriat. Any favorite ways to turn back time on freezer-burned ice cream?