What's The Difference Between Frozen Custard And Ice Cream?

Here's the scoop.

Ice Cream
Photo: Christopher Stevenson/Getty Images

Icy. Creamy. Sweet. Are we describing a scoop of ice cream or a cup of frozen custard? The two sweet treats are often mistaken for each other, but there are distinct characteristics to each. While ice cream is light, airy, and creamy, frozen custard is way denser and creamier. Both of these yummy sweets make for a refreshing pick-me-up in the Southern summer months when the weather gets hot and we get sweaty. So, what makes the difference between these two popular frozen desserts? Read on to find out.

Frozen Custard vs Ice Cream
Illustration by Kailey Whitman

What is Ice Cream?

Ice cream is a frozen dessert that contains milk, cream, sugar, and flavorings. The U.S. regulates that ice cream has to contain 10 to 16 percent milkfat, which gives ice cream its smooth and creamy texture. Ice cream is typically served in a bowl or cone and comes in a variety of flavors, including chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. Air is churned into ice cream when it is processed, creating its signature light and airy result. Professional ice cream-making machines churn the air into the ice cream as it's freezing.

Ice cream has been around for thousands of years, with accounts reaching as far back as the second century B.C., but really didn't pick up steam in the public until refrigerators or insulated ice houses were invented in the 1800s.

What is a Frozen Custard?

Frozen custard is a frozen dessert that contains milk, cream, sugar, flavorings, and egg yolk. Like the U.S. regulation for ice cream, frozen custard is also required to have at least 10 percent milk fat, but also 1.4 percent egg yolks by weight. Frozen custards also come in a wide variety of flavors. Professional custard-making machines incorporate barely any air into the custard to make it a denser frozen dessert than ice cream.

The invention of frozen custard can be traced back to Coney Island, New York in the summer of 1919 when two ice cream vendors, Archie and Elton Kohr, added egg yolks into their ice cream and realized it made their signature dessert a bit creamier and helped it stay colder for longer.

What Makes Frozen Custard Different From Ice Cream?

If you didn't catch it before, the two main differences between ice cream and frozen custards lie in the added ingredient of egg yolks in frozen custards and the amount of air that's churned into the deserts. According to The Kitchn, "Ice cream is made from milk, cream, or a combination of the two, while frozen custard is made from milk, cream, and egg yolks." Preparation for the frozen treats differs too. According to The Kitchn, "While the machine used to make ice cream churns air into it to make it have a light mouthfeel, frozen custard is produced in a machine that barely incorporates air into it, which means it's way more dense." So, there you have it. It's all about eggs and air.

Frozen custard is higher in calories because it's not whipped, so less air incorporated. And it's higher in saturated fat, cholesterol and protein because it contains egg yolk.

What Makes Gelato Different From Ice Cream And Frozen Custard?

For bonus points, how does gelato differ from ice cream and frozen custard? According to The Washington Post, "Gelato […] is more dense, as there is less air whipped into it as it's churned. Gelato typically has less fat than ice cream, as it is often milk-based (instead of cream) and contains little or no egg yolks." There you have it—all the easy ways to distinguish between three of your favorite sweet treats and a bit of dessert trivia that just might come in handy one day.

With these clues, you will be able to distinguish between ice cream and frozen custard (and gelato!) the next time the occasion arises—but always make sure to taste test just to make sure! Which frozen sweet treat is your favorite? As the weather warms up, be sure to check out some of our favorite homemade ice cream recipes for summertime and beyond.

Custard versus ice cream—which gets your vote? Or do you love them both? Drop us a line letting us know when you find your favorite homemade custard and ice cream recipes.

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  1. USDA. Ice Cream Standard.

  2. International Dairy Foods Association. The history of ice cream.

  3. FDA. Title 21--Food and Drugs, Chapter I--Food and Drug Administration, Department of Health and Human Services, Subchapter B -- Food for Human Consumption, Part 135--Frozen Deserts, Sec 135.110 Ice cream and frozen custard.

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