Food Workshop

Liquid nitrogen is expensive and dangerous to use. Is it worth it to make ice cream?

The ‘flash-freezing’ effects of a scary chemistry lab substance are being
deployed on ice cream. Is it a gimmick or a game changer?

21 Apr 2017

For the last six years, Ahrash Akbari-Kalhur has donned his protective gloves and poured liquid nitrogen into his ice cream mixer. Tourists stare as they pass his shop, Chin Chin Labs, in Camden Stables, with its industrial tanks, household churners and clouds of mist.

It’s pure Willy Wonka.

Beyond the theatre, the question is whether liquid nitrogen adds anything special to a childhood favourite treat.

The theory is the fast-freeze method prevents water crystals forming, creating an ultra-smooth texture that stays frozen for longer. Each serving is made fresh in around one minute.

Chin Chin claims it was the first to introduce ‘nitro’ ice cream to Europe when it opened in 2010. A handful of brands have since followed in the last five years: Science Cream, Whipsmiths and, most recently, Four Winters.

Cryo costs

The problems are plenty. It’s expensive and dangerous to make.

Liquid nitrogen costs £1.30 a litre, while a small 50 litre cryogenic tank costs over £700. Shops will stock around 100 litres on the shop floor (enough to make up to 1,000 portions of ice cream).

The health and safety risks would frighten any compliance officer. A drop of liquid nitrogen on the skin can cause tissue damage; a big spill could result in losing a finger. Akbari-Kalhur underwent considerable safety training with his supplier to ensure he could handle it in his shop.

Finally, it’s hard to get customers to immediately see why it’s worth paying more. Chin Chin’s ice cream menu starts at £4.45 per serving, compared to £3 a scoop from upmarket Soho gelateria Gelupo.

Less-than-appetising

Despite its use in chefy cooking techniques by the likes of Heston Blumenthal, many still think of liquid nitrogen as an industrial fuel or something used to remove warts.

Carly Karran, who runs Cardiff-based Science Cream, says: ‘We took months to convince people we were safe.’ If made properly, the nitrogen evaporates before the ice cream is served. ‘We never serve anything “smoking”,’ explains Akbari-Kalhur.

Another gimmick?

Nitro follows a long line of ice cream reinventions: self-serve, frozen yogurt, gourmet boutiques and even the now-old-fashioned roving van with its familiar jingle.

In an era when so many new food concepts are being foisted onto consumers, there’s a risk people are becoming jaded by the almost weekly arrival of something new.

The nitro vendors, however, say the method genuinely improves the product. Karran describes the texture as ‘like ganache’, while Akbari-Kalhur says ‘once people taste it, most are converted’.

Indeed, the Ice Cream Alliance last year reported a trend for ‘more adventurous’ consumer ice cream purchases, while startups continue to bring out new products in this space.

Not just for kids

Another aim of this reinvention is to draw in grown-ups as well as children, and strike a note among foodies. Chin Chin’s ice cream sandwiches, which account for 20% of its sales, have become a regular feature on Instagram feeds.

With the relentless bombardment of new food twists and concepts, the UK’s adventurous eaters remain some of the most promiscuous consumers around.

Other adventures in ice cream

Wheyhey Marketed as a post-workout snack, Wheyhey’s ice creams contain no sugar and 20g of protein per 150ml.

Lick Frozen Yogurt This sugar-free frozen yogurt brand has gone on to launch its own record label and host yoga classes.

The Icecreamists Now closed, this fetish-themed ice cream bar was known for wacky ingredients like breast milk and Viagra.

Cheers Icecream Alcoholic ice cream with a ‘luxury’ angle. Ice creams are between 3.5-7% ABV.

Milk Train Cafe This Covent Garden cafe sells ice creams surrounded by a ‘cloud’ of candyfloss.

How to make nitro ice cream

(Makes a large batch)

600ml double cream

360ml whole milk

1 large vanilla pod

200g sugar

10 egg yolks

1 tank of liquid nitrogen

Method

Put on a lab coat, goggles and industrial protective gloves.

Scrape the beans out of the vanilla pod. Place in a stand mixer with the cream, milk, sugar and yolks.

Add optional extras: nuts, chocolate chips, berries.

Decant a small amount of liquid nitrogen – around the same volume as the custard mix.

Pour the liquid nitrogen into the mixer, then start stirring.

When the ice cream is stiff and the ‘smoke’ disappears, it’s ready to serve.

This story is taken from Courier Apr/May 2017.