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The importance of sugar in ice cream

Just like fat, sugar is one those ingredients that we might want to cut out of ice cream. Or at least reduce. But just like fat, sugar is an essential component of ice cream. So while we can certainly reduce it, it's very difficult to cut it out altogether.

Because sugar contributes to ice cream in several important ways:

  1. gives sweetness to the ice cream
  2. adds body to the ice cream
  3. keeps the ice cream soft

Sugar adds Sweetness

All sugars are sweet. But different sugars have different levels of sweetness. This is really useful for us as it allows us to adjust the sweetness of our ice creams by using different types of sugar.

Palm Sugar ice cream: very sweet!

Palm Sugar ice cream: very sweet!

Levels of sweetness are measured against the sweetness of Sucrose (the scientific name for table sugar) and are referred to as "Relative Sweetness". Sucrose has a relative sweetness of 100. And all other sugars have values relative to that.

Most ice cream is far too sweet. To the extent that you can't taste any of the dairy flavors.  Just sugar. But by using different sugars, we can reduce the sweetness of our homemade ice cream to create much more interesting and less sickly flavor profiles.

Sugar adds Body

Sugars are mostly solids. And solids will obviously add body to ice cream. This body gives ice cream a firmness which resists the spoon and the tongue. Ice creams with lots of body start to get a bit chewy, which may or may not be desirable!

Gelato always has a lot of body

Gelato always has a lot of body

Solids also help reduce ice crystal size by absorbing water in the mixture, so it can't move about freely to join and grow existing ice crystals. So by increasing the levels of sugar in our mixes we can also control coarseness in our ice creams

Sugar adds Softness

Sugar also keeps ice cream soft. How does it do this? Well, it's a bit complicated. But it does this by lowering the freezing point of water...

Regular water freezes hard at 32 °F (0 °C). But when we add sugar to water, the sugar causes the water to freeze at a temperature somewhere below that. I'll explain how this works later on!

The exact temperature it will freeze at depends on how much sugar we add. But what's important is that a higher concentration of sugar means a lower freezing temperature.

Freezing point depression of sugar in water

As sugar concentration (molality of sucrose) increases, freezing point decreases

But what's this got to do with ice cream?

As we know, ice cream consists of three states: solid (ice), gas (air) and liquid (water), in a perfect balance. When we remove our ice cream from the ice cream machine, it's not yet balanced: it's still really soft because a lot of the water in the mixture hasn't frozen to ice yet.

This is because the ice cream maker isn't powerful enough to get the mixture cold enough. However, when we transfer the ice cream to the freezer which is much more powerful, more of the water in the ice cream starts to freeze to ice.

But remember, the water in ice cream isn't regular water. When we make the mixture we add sugar. So the water in ice cream is sweetened water with a much lower freezing point than regular water.

And as more of the water freezes to ice, the concentration of sugar in the remaining water increases, which reduces the freezing point of that water still further. Until at some point the concentration of sugar is so great that no more water will turn to ice even at the 0 °F (-18 °C) temperature in our freezers.

This is why even at very low temperatures a proportion of ice cream remains liquid. And it's this liquid proportion of ice cream that keeps it soft!

The things is: different types of sugar lower the freezing point of water to different extents. So we can also vary the types of sugars we use to make our ice creams more or less soft!

Soft ice cream

We can use sugar to make soft ice cream

The degree to which a sugar lowers the freezing point of water is called the "Relative Freezing Point Depression". Just like Relative Sweetness, Relative Freezing Point Depression is measured against Sucrose. So Sucrose has a relative freezing point depression of 1.0 and all other sugars have values relative to that.

Different types of Sugars used in Ice Cream

So, we know that sugars make ice cream sweet, give it body and keep it soft. And we also know that different types of sugars do these things to different extents. Let's now have a look at those different sugars...

Sugar

Relative sweetness

Total solids %

Relative freezing point depression

Sucrose

100

100

1.0

Dextrose

74

92

1.9

Fructose

173

100

1.9

Lactose

16

100

1.0

Maltodextrin

20

100

0.3

Honey

75

74

1.46

Invert sugar

125

77

1.9

Karo light corn syrup

33

80

1.9

Sucrose

Sucrose is table sugar. Granulated, caster, icing and brown sugar are all Sucrose. It's the most familiar sugar and is available everywhere. And in terms of sweetness and freezing point depression it's the base against which other sugars are measured.

Dextrose

Dextrose is ¾ as sweet as Sucrose but lowers the freezing point of water by almost twice as much. So by replacing some Sucrose with Dextrose, we can make our ice creams less sweet and more soft. It's often available in pharmacists, home brew shops and the baking isles of supermarkets. Dextrose is also known as Glucose.

Fructose

Fructose lowers the freezing point of water to the same degree as Dextrose. But it's really sweet: much sweeter than Sucrose. For this reason, I find it's less useful in homemade ice cream.

Maltodextrin

Maltodextrin is not very sweet and doesn't have too much effect on the freezing point of water. It's often used to bulk up mixtures that are otherwise low on solids. So it's ideal in sorbets made with watery fruit (such as watermelon), where if we made up the solids with other sugars, they would be too sweet. It's also useful in savory ice creams. 

Invert Sugar

Invert sugar is a syrup widely used in professional cooking. It's sweeter than Sucrose and depresses the freezing point of water to the same degree as Dextrose. It has a significant effect on the texture of ice cream, adding body and reducing ice crystals. Chefs buy it pre-prepared in big tubs from brands like Trimoline. But we can easily make it at home.

Karo Light Corn Syrup

Karo Light Corn Syrup behaves in a similar way to Invert Sugar. However it's significantly less sweeter. It's also much easier to get your hands on the Invert Sugar! However, it does have a slightly metallic taste so it needs to be used in moderation with lighter flavors.

Honey

Honey is acts like a flavored invert sugar. Because basically, that's what it is! It's very sweet and often strongly flavored so we need to be careful how much we use. But it's great fun to experiment with different types and flavors of honey in ice cream.

Getting the proportions right

Using combinations of different sugars allows us to take complete control of the sweetness, body and softness of our ice creams. My ice cream calculator can help here.

Ice cream usually contains between 14 and 24% sugar by weight. Be careful with sugars that lower the freezing point of water more than Sucrose though, as if you use too much of these your ice creams won't freeze properly!

Below is a collection of the sugar combinations that I've come across in various books and websites. I'll keep adding to these as I find them. I think they can act as a useful guide!

Chef

Total Sugar

Individual Sugars

Notes

Dana Cree

20%

15% Sucrose
5% Dextrose

Philadelphia base 

Dana Cree

25%

15% Sucrose
10% Dextrose

Sherbet base 

15%

15% Sucrose

5% Karo Light Corn Syrup

Standard cream cheese base

18%

15% Sucrose
3% Dextrose

For high solids (>39%) or high fat gelato

18%

12.5% Sucrose

3.5% Dextrose

2% Maltodextrin

For medium solids (34-39%) gelato

18%

12.5% Sucrose

2% Dextrose

3.5% Maltodextrin

For low solids (30-34%) or low fat sorbet or gelato 

18%

15% Sucrose

3% Maltodextrin

For very low solids and alcoholic

13%

8% Sucrose
3% Dextrose

2% Invert Sugar

Standard ice cream base

Wrapping Up

Sugar is a essential component of ice cream. Rather than reduce it or remove it altogether, maybe we should try to embrace sugar and appreciate it for the great contribution it makes!

It adds sweetness, body and softness. And our ice creams would be bland, thin and icy hard without it! Yes we can make sugar free ice creams and I'll be covering this in the future. But generally, if we enjoy ice cream in moderation there'll be no problem.

Playing around with different sugars in different combinations enables us to take complete control over the texture and taste of our ice creams. So I'd urge you to experiment!

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 9 comments
Salvador - April 14, 2018

Hello,

In the case that I need an ice cream Made with splenda(sugar substitute), do you know what ingredient i shoud use to lower the freezing point of milk?

Reply
    Carl - April 14, 2018

    I’m looking into this at the moment Salvador. And I’m going to start with alcohol as it has the strongest freezing point depression. Vodka will probably be best as it’s relatively flavorless.

    Reply
Bjorn - May 17, 2018

I thank you for a very good and informative education on sugars. However I am not sure I will get the best result and need a little bit more information. I am interested in using as little sugar as possible without sacrifice taste, consistency and balance of the ice cream I make based on home made Greek yogurt. Do you have a suggestion?

Reply
    Carl - May 22, 2018

    Hi Bjorn,

    To reduce your use of sugar as much as possible you could try using a combination of stabilizers (to offset the loss of solids) and alcohol (to replace the softening effects of sugar). This is something I haven’t experimented with yet, but that’s where I’d start at least.

    I hope that’s helpful!
    Carl

    Reply
Francisco - June 29, 2018

You should see if Nick Morgenstern at Morgenstern’s in NYC will tell you his sugar%. He’s one of the only ice cream makers besides top pastry chefs who doesn’t make the product much too sweet. I’m looking at all this 20% sugar and thinking that’s disgusting!

Reply
Holly - August 26, 2018

Has anyone experimented with sugar substitutes? I’m very interested in how that turns out! Especially proportions of sweetener : bulking agent : alcohol (to lower freezing point)

Thanks!!

Reply
    Carl - August 31, 2018

    Hi Holly,

    So sorry about the late reply!

    I haven’t yet. But I’m going to.

    I’m thinking about Erythritol with a little bit of Liquid Stevia. Apparently the combination of the two nullifies any slightly unusal after tastes from either.

    I’m unsure about to what degree they will lower the freezing point themselves and whether we’d need alcohol.

    Halo Top uses the same ingredients and doesn’t use alcohol, so maybe the Erythritol lowers the freezing point enough.

    Please let us know the results of any experiments you do!

    Thanks

    Carl

    Reply
      Gary from Boca - September 6, 2018

      I use erythritol and liquid splenda in coconut mild ice cream all the time but it still freezes sold.

      If I understand your previous comments the only thing that keeps ice cream from going rock hard in the freezer is the sugar lowering the freezing point of the water. So I guess no mixture of gums will prevent freezing?

      Reply
        Carl - September 10, 2018

        No the gums won’t prevent freezing Gary.

        Your experiences with erythritol and liquid splenda are interesting though.

        Halo Top use the same ingredients (and very little sugar) but their ice creams are pretty scoopable… https://halotop.com/flavors/

        I suppose they also have far more air in them than we’re able to acheive at home and that will obviously keep them softer…

        Reply

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