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The importance of sugar in ice cream

The importance of sugar in ice cream

Last Updated on January 27, 2024 33 Comments

Just like fat, sugar is one of 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.

This is because sugar contributes to ice cream in several important ways:

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

Sugar adds Sweetness

All sugars are sweet. But different sugars have different levels of sweetness. This is really useful, 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 icy 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 (or solid) 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 thing 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 take 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

130

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 sweet. It's also much easier to get your hands on than Invert Sugar in the US! 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 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, 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

Sugar in Ice Cream: Final Thoughts

Sugar is an 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!

About the author 

Carl

Wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, I'm always looking for the perfect ice cream. The "dream scoop". I document my findings, my successes and failures here...

  • 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?

    • 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.

  • 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?

    • 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

  • 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!

  • 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!!

    • 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

      • 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?

        • 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…

  • Your comment on Halo Top staying soft is interesting, as I’ve bought it a few times to taste the sugar combo and even in the freezer above my fridge it freezes into a hard brick. It’s definitely not scoopable or enjoyable from my freezer until it has been warmed on the counter.
    And thanks for this informative post 🙂

  • Hello, is it correct that invert sugar has a freezing point depression of 1.9? I looked it up but 2 other sources say it is more like 1.12?

  • Hello Carl,
    I really appreciate your work, i found many useful informations. The thing i would find helpful would be some post about balancing between fat and sugars, and how they impact on themselfs.
    Realy good work.

  • I have discovered “Monk fruit sweetener” There is no after taste like other sweeteners. It says to substitute 1 cup monk fruit for 1 cup sugar. It seems a little sweeter. Can it be used to make ice cream? I think that I might need to reduce the amount of sweetener. I have a KitchenAid ice cream maker.

    • Hi Diana,

      I haven’t used monk fruit sweetners myself. However they are supposed to be 100 – 150 times sweeter than sugar so if it says to substitute 1 cup for 1 cup of sugar then yours must have something else added?

      You can certainly use it to make ice cream: several commercially available ice creams use it.

      But if you want to reduce the amount, then it may effect the texture of the ice cream.

      Try replacing the amount you remove with some skimmed milk powder. And let me know how you get on!

      I hope that helps
      Carl

  • I tried Stevia and Splenda. I ended up with product so had it broke stainless steel trying to chip at it. I experimented with frozen peach and vodka. I ended up with high alcohol, rock hard popsicles. I heard sucralose may be of assistance but have not tried it yet.

  • Thank you so much for the great information. I’m trying to learn to make dairy free ice cream at home from the ground up and this is easily the best article about sugar I’ve seen.

  • Hi there
    I was wondering if you had any resources or information on the anti freezing (PAC) of alternatives to sucrose, I.e dark brown sugar, coconut sugar, or other unrefined sugars??
    Cheers

  • Carl, I am more of a baker than ice cream maker. I’m going to try my hand at ice cream. I’ve read the comments about sugars use in ice cream and all the comments for trying to reduced sugar ending up in a hard ice cream. In baking, to lower the amount of sugar without losing taste or texture, I use half sugar recommended and substitute Stevia for the rest asked for in recipe. I wonder if in ice cream because sugar is necessary in freezing point, could it be that substituting 1/4 if the sugar say in preparing a Coconut Yogurt ice cream might work. I do like your idea referencing reduction of sugar in preparing ice cream by mixing in skim dry milk for added creaminess I presume..

    • Hi Susannah,

      You could try adding some Erythritol or Glycerin. Both of these will lower the freezing point.

      Thanks

      Carl

  • Hi Carl
    Thank you so much for all the good work. I am wondering about the best sugar for soft serve ice cream. I tried putting 20.25% table sugar and it is still not that solid. it melts so fast

  • Hi Carl
    I’m not sure if I understand well. Please let us know, if the sugars in Your table above, shows all the sugars in the ice cream base? Does they include also lactose from milk and cream?
    So when We see above the total sugars amount = 20% (for example in Philadelphia base – in the table), does it means that we have 20% of all the sugars in our base including lactose from milk?
    Or this 20% is only for the sugars we add and the lactose will increase total amount of sugars and We should calculate it separately?
    It is important because the lactose is found in quite large amounts in milk and cream ice cream bases (~5%). Of course it is not very sweet, but it affects a freezing point.
    So is lactose already included in this table? (in sucrose??)
    Best regards and greetings
    Simon

  • For the sake of discussion, how much are nutrition labels believable?

    For reference:
    Jeni’s ice cream relies on sugar and Tapioca Syrup for most of the sugars, only starch as stabilizer. (relatively believable).
    Haagen Daz states most of their ice creams are made using cane sugar only and eggs for stabilizer/emulsifier. (pretty much unbelievable)

    Given that both these ice creams are sold off freezers stocked for weeks and transported numerous times, are not these labels kind of unbelievable? (especially Haagen Daz)
    (For reference Ben & Jerry’s is full of stuff and quite believable)

    • I think the nutrition labels are believable Faran. They’d be breaking the law otherwise.

      I suspect Haagen Daz do some magic in the factory to make it work!

    • Of course it’s possible! I was a pastey chef for many years & one if my tasks at a 4☆ restaurant I worked at was to make all the ice cream, both for the dessert menu items & àla carte. I was also the one making the base – which was: cream, sugar, egg yolks & vanilla. That’s it. All flavours were added after the massive batch of base was made & chilled. NO EXTRA STABILIZERS.

  • Hi Carl,

    I found a recipe from David Lebovitz that uses milk chocolate, instead of dark. I found it ending up a lot sweeter than I’d normally have expected.

    Since, i have a lot of milk chocolate left, can I prepare the custard ice cream base without sugar in it (so just yolks-milk-cream-vanilla), seeing as to how the hot custard will be poured onto a significant amount of already sweet milk chocolate?

    Regards,
    Presley 🙂

    • Mmmm, well you can try yes!

      How well it will work will depend on so many factors though.

      How much sugar in the chocolate. How much chocolate etc.

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