Dear Chef Emily, I accidentally left a pint of ice cream out and it melted on the counter. Can I refreeze it? —Julia P., Oyster Bay
I’ve been there! Its a sad day when I’ve put away what I think are all the refrigeratables, only to discover some mint chocolate chip buried under the cat food in my 90 degree kitchen. What can be done? The short answer is you are kind of out of luck.
Ice cream is an emulsion of a few basic ingredients: water in the form of ice crystals, fat (both of these come from the milk/cream base with the possible addition of egg yolks), sugar/sweetener in some form, air, and any optional mix-in like fudge ripples or chocolate chips. In the simplest making of ice cream, these things are cooked together to form the base, cooled down and “cured,” meaning allowed to sit for a few hours or overnight. Just like stews are better the next day, so too are ice cream bases.
The base is then churned to incorporate air. This part of the process gives ice cream its notable semi-hard and slow-melting texture. If the base went straight into the freezer, you’d just end up with a frozen solid block of base. After churning, mix ins are folded in, then the ice cream is put into the freezer for the final firm up. Its a deceptively simple process but on the molecular level, the suspension that has been created is a delicate web relying on you to take care of it.
If you are like me and a little absent-minded, the occasional ice cream container melts and the emulsion is broken. This manifests itself most obviously in a foamy layer forming on top and a heavy, soupy layer beneath. If you stick it back into the freezer, the water (whose molecules sought each other out during the great thaw) will refreeze into big, independent ice crystals resulting in an uneven, unpleasant, but not inedible texture.
The best thing to do is whip up a quick milkshake. Spoon the melted mess into the blender, add a few handfuls of ice cube and a squeeze of U-Bet syrup if you have it and whiz away. This will reincorporate some air and be delicious. And as far as punishments for absentmindedness go, punishment milkshake is pretty sweet.
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