Thought they were the same? You're not alone. Here’s what makes these frozen treats unique to themselves.

By Hannah Bruneman
July 02, 2019

Americans love ice cream. No, like, really, really love ice cream. According to the International Dairy Foods Association, each American, on average, eats more than 23 pounds of the stuff per year. But what about custard? And are ice cream and frozen custard the same thing?

You’re not alone in wondering if ice cream and custard are interchangeable. Other cool treats are easily identified. Frozen yogurt is noticeably tangy and gelato has a distinct dense texture and rich flavor. But, frozen custard and ice cream? They’re both delicious in a cone and can be dipped, topped, swirled, and scooped! It’s a hot topic in the summer, and we’re getting to the bottom of it—just in time for July, which happens to be National Ice Cream Month.

The Ingredients

Let’s start with ice cream. According to the Code of Federal Regulations, a product must have no less that 10 percent milkfat and weigh at least 4.5 pounds to the gallon to be labeled as ice cream. The ice cream base can be made from a mix of several listed dairy ingredients including cream, milk, sweetened condensed milk, butter, evaporated milk, and more. Of course, other sweeteners and stabilizers (the stuff that thickens the ice cream and slows down the melting) are added as well.

So, when does ice cream stop being ice cream and start being custard? The difference is egg yolk. The frozen dessert must be labeled custard if the final product’s weight contains more than 1.4 percent egg yolk solids. The final product weight should not include bulky ingredients added for flavor such as cookies, chocolate chunks, or brownie bits (yum!). The egg yolk is partly what gives custard it’s richer, creamier profile. Ice cream may contain egg yolk solids as well, but it cannot surpass the 1.4 percent threshold.

Ice Cream and Custard Overrun

The other deciding factor: Air. Whether you consider it an ingredient or not, air plays a big part in differentiating ice cream and custard. Here’s how.

The amount of air in a frozen dessert is called an overrun. When making ice cream and custard, air is worked into the mixture as it freezes. Custard allows for very little added air while ice cream has a high percent of air whipped in. Some super light and fluffy ice cream, such as soft serve, can contain up to 100% overrun, which means half of the ice cream product is air.

The overrun is the reason frozen custard is so filling while ice cream can be enjoyed three scoops high before you start to slow down. It’s why custard, which has a low overrun, is more dense than ice cream.

Milkfat, egg yolk, overrun….it’s all technical. When differentiating between an ice cream parlor and a frozen custard stand, the only thing you really need to know is what flavors are they serving. But, at least now you've got the scoop on the season's coolest treats. It'll give something to talk about as you wait in the long lines on those scorching summer days!

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