It all started because I decided to throw my husband a beer-themed birthday party: pilsner-braised ribs, bitter greens with an IPA dressing, coffee stout brownies. I’d just seen a recipe for Guinness Ice Cream, and since Scott loves ice cream, it seemed like the perfect birthday topper for the brownies. Never one to make a recipe for the first time on game day, I gave it a test run. Good thing I did; to say it was a letdown is an understatement. Bitter, flat flavored, and too hard and icy. It just didn’t translate from pint glass to ice cream pint. But I wasn’t about to throw the idea down the drain. The potential for beer ice cream seemed huge. I just needed a new beer. And a new recipe.
At the suggestion of an employee at the local cheese shop, I decided to try a beer I’d never had: Samuel Smith’s Yorkshire Stingo. This oak-aged English strong ale is malty, a little bitter, balanced with a raisiny, toffee-like sweetness. I started by cooking down some of the beer, then made a straightforward custard base, stirred in the beer, chilled it, and churned it. The results opened my eyes to a whole new world of ice cream making. This was beer ice cream, certainly, but the flavor was so complex, so far beyond just beer in the “can of suds” sense, that my taste buds and brain immediately went in fifty directions at once. The next six months (yes, we’re long past the party date) saw me buying (and commandeering from Scott) any beer with a modicum of ice cream potential.
What were my favorites after making gallons upon gallons of ice cream? Just like when you’re choosing a beer for drinking, there isn’t one best choice for ice cream. The only ground rules are it has to be malty, not hoppy (hops get bitter when cooked) and it has to have a decent ABV. My all-around champ remains Stingo. It’s beery and epicurean at once. Old Chubb, my favorite Scotch ale, is a close second. Sam Adams’ Maple Pecan Porter made a surprisingly yummy ice cream—good even when I wasn’t really in the mood for beer. On the bolder front, Southern Tier’s Imperial Oatmeal Stout and Founder’s Breakfast Stout hit the spot when I craved serious, heady beer flavor with a more bitter bite. Belgian-style Maudite was the mildest of what I tried, and its flavor came through as elegant and subdued. If I owned a nice restaurant, it would go on the menu. Stone’s barleywine was surprisingly tasty, though it pushed the ABV limits a bit. I stayed away from the flavored stuff (coffee, chocolate, crème brûlée, et al)—if I want coffee ice cream, I’ll just make coffee ice cream. If I could get my hands on some Goose Island Bourbon County, I bet the results would be phenomenal. I have a running list of beers yet to try.
So I think you get the picture. Beer ice cream is delicious to eat and addictive to make, especially because there are just so many beer options these days. Use my recipe as a guide, not as a hard and fast rule. But don’t blame me when people tell you there are help groups for addictions like this. Do feel free to call me if you need a sympathetic ear—just make sure to send me a sample of your ice cream first.
Because beer contains a fair bit of water, I start by simmering some of the beer. This not only cooks off some of the water but also some of the alcohol, which is helpful since alcohol inhibits freezing. The idea of throwing all the beer into the skillet, however simple, didn’t appeal to me. I want some alcohol to make it into the final product because I like a little booziness to my ice cream, and I like ice cream on the soft side (read: not rock-hard). After a few tests, I found that reducing 5 ounces of the total 12 ounces of beer by half did the trick. (This takes about 10 minutes in a small skillet.) If the beer starts to foam too much during the simmering time, just reduce the heat.
Next, pour the reduced beer back into your measuring cup with the other 7 ounces of beer to cool it off. At this point, I also add a little vanilla, which may or may not be necessary depending on the beer you choose, but I can tell you, I’ve tried a lot of different beers and the vanilla was never a bad decision. In these photos, I’m using Yorkshire Stingo from Sam Smith. It’s expensive but worth it. It makes a uniquely fantastic ice cream with flavors of raisins, bourbon, malt, and, of course, beer. But anything malty has potential (malt and ice cream have a history, after all). Avoid the hoppy stuff because hops get bitter once cooked.
Now it’s time to start on the ice cream base. I (always) opt for a custard-style base, which is more work than a Philly-style without the eggs, but in my opinion the custard always comes out creamier, richer, and more scoopable (I have no patience for ice cream that has to sit out for 10 minutes before I can dig in). The first step in making a custard ice cream is setting up an ice bath in a large bowl to cool the custard once it’s cooked—critical to stop the cooking and avoid scrambled eggs. Set a fine-mesh strainer over a separate medium-size bowl, and put that bowl in your ice bath so it starts getting nice and cold.
When it comes to this custard, forget the tempering business and off-beat ingredients. Just whisk together sugar, salt, and half a dozen yolks in a saucepan, then whisk in all 2 cups of the cream. Believe me, this purist, streamlined recipe works impressively well (this coming from someone who is always willing to do extra work for superior results). Yes, you might get a few eggy bits once the custard is cooked, but you’ll strain them out. I call for ¾ cup sugar here, but depending on the beer you use, you may want to tweak the amount. I made one batch with Maudite, an amber Belgian-style beer, and I think ⅔ or even ½ cup would have been more appropriate since that beer is not at all bitter, fairly mild, and slightly sweet. But if you go for the Stingo or a heartier, more bitter beer, like an Oatmeal Stout, you’ll want the full amount. As you tinker, just remember that salt, sugar, and alcohol all can inhibit freezing.
Once you’ve whisked everything together, switch to a heatproof rubber spatula. Now start cooking the custard over medium-low heat, stirring constantly. Make sure to run the spatula across the entire bottom surface of the pan so there’s no scrambling or scorching. If you’re daring, or have a stove that runs low, feel free to crank up the heat—but don’t say I didn’t warn you if you end up scrambling your custard.
In my opinion, a good thermometer is key to knowing when your base is done. Again, if you’re old-school and/or extremely confident (or simply lack the tool), you can do the trail-test with your finger on the back of a spoon to confirm the custard is cooked—just dip a spoon in the custard, take it out, and swipe your finger against the back of it. If the swipe leaves a trail, the base has reduced enough. However, I have a huge problem second-guessing my own eyes. A reading from a properly calibrated thermometer is non-negotiable; 180 degrees is the magic temp. Some recipes say cook the custard to 175. They’re just chicken. I consistently cook ice creams to 180 without a problem, and the higher temp you cook it to, the creamier your final ice cream will be. You just don’t want to hit above 185 because at that point you’re in scrambled custard territory.
Once it’s up to temp, don’t dilly-dally. Pour the custard through the strainer into the bowl sitting in the ice bath. Typically I take the bowl out of the ice bath for the pouring step, only because I’ve capsized a few bowls of ice cream base in the past and it’s seriously heartbreaking. As soon as the custard is safely transferred, ditch the strainer and return the bowl to the ice bath (or pat yourself on the pack for not capsizing the bowl like yours truly). Congrats, the hard work is done.
Next, whisk the beer into the custard base. Over the next 15 minutes or so, stir the base occasionally with a clean rubber spatula (you don’t want to accidentally get any eggy bits from the cooking stage in there). Let the base sit in the ice bath until it’s at room temp.
Once the base is cool, remove it from the ice bath, cover it with plastic wrap, and move it to the fridge for at least 8 hours, though I usually give it a solid 24.
The next day is easy; just pour the chilled base into your ice cream freezer and freeze according to the manufacturer’s instructions. At this point, you could eat it, but it’s softer than soft serve—not worth it in my mind (although, yes, you do have to give in to at least sampling it and recognize that you are in for a long, long road of beer ice cream addiction). Eight hours in the freezer will do it. I know, patience is hard. But hey, you can use this waiting period to make your own sugar cones.
You thought the time would never come, but patience has its rewards!
Find other great DIY recipes in The America’s Test Kitchen DIY Cookbook.