A Food Designer’s Secrets to Making the Perfect Ice Cream
I met food designer Sarah Masoni at the tail end of New York’s Summer Fancy Food Show, a bi-annual convention for the kinds of prepackaged substances typically found at a neighborhood grocery store. During our conversation at her booth in the “Incubator Village” section, Masoni was hounded by friends and fans who wanted to shake hands, take a picture, and talk shop—an almost celebrity-like status earned from her long history in the business of injecting inventive ideas into the things we eat. As the director of the product and process development program at Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center, a multidisciplinary partnership with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Masoni works with food entrepreneurs who want to grow a kernel of an idea into a full-fledged business. At the convention, several of the booths around her were operated by people she has advised, all of whom gushed about her creativity, generosity, and brilliance.
A scholar of food trends and innovations, Masoni, who never trained as a chef, can tell after a sniff or a few bites if a food is in balance—and if it isn’t, has the know-how to fix it. She’s particularly gifted when it comes to dairy products, and has created more than a hundred ice creams, spanning the gourmet (a candied-salmon dessert for an independent Alaskan cafe) to the indulgent (a malted milk ball treat for the Museum of Ice Cream). One client, Keto Pint Ice Cream co-founder Chris Spencer, says Masoni has “the million-dollar palate.” Her gift has been honed since childhood: Growing up, her father, a professor in food microbiology, took the family on a tour of European farmstead cheesemakers in an orange Volkswagen camper van he called “Cheddar.”
With summer nearly in full swing, I asked Masoni about the art of developing ice creams. Like many of her most successful flavors, her responses were unexpected. For her, components such as food safety and a sincere story are as important as the ingredients themselves.
What does your day-to-day work at the lab entail?
Companies come to us with what I like to call their “grandma recipes.” Somebody says to them, “Oh, these are the best chocolate chip cookies,” or, “I love this sauce that you make,” and they want to turn it into a product. To figure out how to do that, we’ll take the item, measure everything out the way the company would normally cook it, take those weights, and create a ratio. Once you’ve figured out the gold-standard ratio for a recipe, you can move the numbers around inside of it and make modifications—adjust things, such as the flavor—and still have something similar enough that it could be a commercial product.
We also incorporate hurdle technology, or things that keep bacteria from growing. Food safety is one of the most important things to consider when manufacturing and distributing food. We look at pH values to measure acidity as well as water activity, which measures the moisture that’s available for bacteria to grow. We also use a refractometer. It tells us the solid contents, like alcohol, sugar, and salt, in a food.
What questions do you ask a food entrepreneur who wants to work with you?
We give them an intake form. It’s a way for us to get everybody, from a big company to a micro-enterprise, on a level playing field. It leads them through a bunch of questions so we have an understanding of how far along in the development process they are: Do they have a recipe? What type of packaging do they want? Is there a specific nutrition profile they’re trying to achieve?
It’s not necessarily the product, but the people, that makes something interesting for us. Products do better if somebody has a genuine story about why they’re making it, instead of, “I have a lot of money, so I’m gonna invest in this.” When somebody comes to us and says, “I have a problem with my stomach, but I love to eat desserts, so I decided to make ones that meet all the dietary requirements for my digestive issue”—that’s compelling. It makes it easier for the person selling it and for the person who’s going to buy it to make a decision.
Let’s talk about ice cream. How do you develop flavors?
You want ice cream to be around twenty to twenty-two percent sugar. Sugar is a way to keep things from totally freezing—it’s a cryoprotective agent. So if you want to add a flavor to ice cream, make a simple syrup with that flavor that’s twenty percent sugar.
Say you go to the farmers market for strawberries in the summer, and want to put them away to make strawberry ice cream in the winter. Take the strawberries and mix them in a ratio of four parts strawberries with one part sugar. When you’re ready to make ice cream, separate the strawberries from the liquid. That liquid will then become the pink strawberry flavor base that you’ll put into your cream. You can mix your strawberries in after the ice cream has frozen. If you want to use freeze-dried fruit, hydrate it in a twenty-percent simple syrup, then put it all in the cream together.
Beyond getting the right balance of ingredients, you’re also skilled at coming up with unusual flavors. What’s your process for that?
My degree is actually in art. I think of ice cream as a mixed-media application. For example, around a decade ago, Salt & Straw’s founder and owner, Kim Malek, came to me and explained some of the things she wanted. Then I went into my kitchen and started putting ingredients together, just having fun. I actually don’t really remember all of the flavors. Some of the ones they ended up using included snickerdoodle cookie—no one had ever done that before—gooey brownie, lemon bar, and a salted-caramel fudge-ripple something-or-other. Today they don’t sound that wacky, but back in 2011, they were.
One of the first big flavors I did for them was pear and blue cheese. What happened was, I had some blue cheese crumbles in my freezer, and while I was cooking, I’d grab a handful and snack on them. I noticed that they never really froze, and that you could bite through one, and it would still be interesting. The texture seemed appropriate for ice cream—soft, and almost fuzzy.
Is there an ice cream you want to create, but haven’t yet?
I’ve been working on a ranch ice cream for five years. Every time somebody asks me to do an ice cream project, I show them my ranch ice cream—but no one has the guts to do it. I showed it earlier this year at the Oregon Dairy Industries conference, served with baby carrots. It was really good: Ranch dressing has sugar, fat, and salt, and ice cream has all of those things, too. I feel like some kind of frozen thing would be a smart alternative for moms to get kids to eat their vegetables. People have tried to do that for centuries. Why not try it with ice cream?
Ingenuity. Is that the secret to creating an amazing ice cream flavor?
If you put too much stuff in your ice cream, it gets kind of muddy and gross. You have to be careful, because there’s a lot of power in something that’s really simple, flavorful, and pure. That’s why vanilla has been the number-one ice cream for eternity.