The combination of science and food (particularly delicious food) pulls at our childlike sense of awe. Now we remember all the reasons we ever loved Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (the Gene Wilder version). When it came to our attention that Nitrogen frozen ice cream was well and truly a thing, we found the closest restaurant making the good stuff and demanded to hear the truth behind the magic. If you’re in Vancouver, you can order something just as beautiful.
The process of making ice cream by using nitrogen isn’t a new one. Scientists have actually been having fun with food freezing at insane temperatures (-196°C) for a long time, mostly at food fairs and festivals. Practising it in more of a commercial space, however, is something that we’re only starting to notice recently.
Phillip Niegisch is something of an ice cream expert (which is now the only title we want).
“Adults are way more excited by the nitrogen than children usually are. I suppose it ignites that inner-child, where you see something for the first time. The kids are just happy to eat the ice cream.”
Walking us through this visually marvellous process, it’s easy to see why adults are thrilled by the novelty. But it should also be noted that while one tastes first with their eyes, the flavour is also imperative. Phillip attempted to explain the science behind nitrogen ice cream, while we ogled at the flavours. We chose a gluttonous chocolate peanut butter… for research purposes.
“First, you start with the cream and milk base. It stays slowly churning in a big mixer all day, to maintain the freshness and the consistency. The base ingredients are liquid, so in this case, we add a chocolate ganache (melted chocolate with a bit of cocoa powder), then sugar. We add liquid caramel to this flavour too.”
What happens next is the exciting part of the event (yes, we’re calling it an event). To break it down for people who aren’t exactly science pros, there’s a big tank filled with nitrogen gas, connected to a big glass box with a mixer inside it. Let’s call that the ‘magic box’. The tank is ‘vacuum isolated’, which basically means it’s a container within a container.
When the bowl of liquid flavours is closed under the mixer, inside the magic box, Phillip presses a button, sending liquid nitrogen from the vacuum tank straight into the now mixing ice cream.
“Because [the magic box] is vacuum isolated, you can’t feel the -196°C liquid nitrogen. That’s what’s flowing into the mix of ingredients. Exactly at the point when the liquid nitrogen turns into gas, all the energy that was used by the supplier of the liquid nitrogen is set free, to compromise it and actually liquify it. So when that energy is set free, it takes with it the heat of the ingredients and shock freezes them into ice cream.”
Following? So it’s at that point, when the ingredients experience a ‘shock freeze’, that we have our ice cream. At that point, loads of tiny ice crystals are created, which kind of makes it easier to visualize the formation.
While all of that mixing is going on – which takes about 30 seconds – that’s when the area fills with awesome smoke.
Not only does the dessert taste awesome, it is far smoother and creamier than most gelato. Although the new trend is popping up around the world, it can still be hard to find food entrepreneurs working with ice cream.
“Of course everyone loves the nitrogen way… but it’s not an easy business model to build. There are safety concerns and difficulties actually getting the equipment. If you want to do it in a safe way, the equipment isn’t exactly something you can get your hands on in your local supermarket — it’s expensive too. You really have to develop it yourself. It’s also not really something you can do if you only have a background in gastronomy. My partner has a great background in physics. Because this is real science! It’s a tech business as well as a food business.”
Encouraging people to buy nitrogen ice cream was a hurdle that Phillip and his partner had already jumped. The trick? Make your choices of flavour just as much of a spectacle. Please direct us to the nearest ice cream factory.