When you hear of liquid nitrogen, you may imagine a crazy scientist with wild hair and safety goggles on, preparing to create a wild concoction. While liquid nitrogen can be used in many science experiments, it is also a great option for making something just as exciting (and delicious)—ice cream! In this article, we’re going to go into the nitty-gritty of how liquid nitrogen ice cream got started and how you can make it in your own home.
Table of Contents
- What is Liquid Nitrogen?
- The History of Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream
- The Science Behind Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream
- Liquid Nitrogen Safety Tips
- Supplies You Will Need for Making Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream
- Making Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream
- Get Creative With Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream
What is Liquid Nitrogen?
In its most basic definition, liquid nitrogen is nitrogen in a liquid state at a low temperature. While regular nitrogen is a chemical element in a colorless, odorless gas form, liquid nitrogen is made by distilling liquid air and is used as a coolant. It is extremely cold and often used for flash freezing, with a very low temperature of negative 320 degrees Fahrenheit. This substance was first liquefied by Polish physicists Zygmunt Wroblewski and Karol Olszewski on April 15, 1883.
The History of Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream
Though you may hear about creating ice cream with liquid nitrogen as a more common activity nowadays, the discovery of this ice cream-making technique dates back to over 100 years ago, to the Victorian era.
Agnes Marshall: An Ice Cream Innovator
At the Royal Institution of London in 1901, a woman by the name of Agnes. B Marshall was the first known person to contribute to gastronomy in this way of creating ice cream by the use of liquid nitrogen.
In his book, “Kitchen Mysteries: Revealing the Science of Cooking,” international celebrity and founder of molecular gastronomy Herve This noted that Agnes Marshall created the “ideal” way of making ice cream. He said: “It is ideal because, using her process, the ice crystals are tiny, as desired, and the preparation is extremely light because of the countless air bubbles introduced into it. And last but not least, the preparation can be made at the table, before your guests, in a few seconds. What is this marvelous contribution to gastronomy?”
He goes on to explain how, not only is the ice cream better because of the air bubbles being trapped in the ice cream which creates a better texture, but it also looks impressive to make ice cream with liquid nitrogen, “in an impressive cloud of white mist, the same kind that is used in shooting films when the director asks for fog. A guaranteed success!”
Agnes Marshall went on to publish books about ice cream and other cooking techniques, all while being a public lecturer, cooking instructor, and running a school of cookery.
Dippin’ Dots: The Ice Cream of the Future
Although Agnes Marshall may have first created ice cream with the use of liquid nitrogen, this technique didn’t gain the popularity and well-known success that it has to date until much later.
In 1988, a microbiologist by the name of Curt Jones decided to experiment by using his knowledge of cryogenic technology where he got the idea of creating a new ice cream creation. What came next was the beaded ice cream that has been penned the “ice cream of the future,” also known as Dippin’ Dots.
Various theme parks and amusement parks were among the first places to hop aboard the Dippin’ Dots train in the late 1980s and early 1990s (and this delicious treat continues to be popular at many amusement parks and theme parks to date), and it wasn’t until around 1995 that Dippin’ Dots was introduced to an international market, debuting in Japan. The company now has an award-winning franchise system with locations coast-to-coast and can be found in over a thousand theme parks, stadiums, arenas, and other entertainment venues across the country.
The Popularization of Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream
If you’ve watched any popular cooking or baking show, you have probably seen some seasoned contestants use liquid nitrogen as a quick way to make ice cream for their sweet creations. But it is not only in these TV shows that you will find liquid nitrogen ice cream. Many upscale bars and restaurants, as well as new ice cream shops, also got on board with using liquid nitrogen to create interesting and experimental cocktails and ice cream.
The Science Behind Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream
As a liquified gas in sub-zero temperatures, liquid nitrogen instantly freezes the water content of water and/or food in seconds. Due to its extremely low boiling point of -320 degrees Fahrenheit, it causes the liquid and fat molecules particles to stay very small, which results in a creamier and smoother ice cream consistency. But because of its chemical compound and very cold temperatures, liquid nitrogen must be handled with care.
Liquid Nitrogen Safety Tips
Although professional chefs make it look easy in videos, liquid nitrogen is something to be cautious around. If not handled properly, you could potentially danger yourself or others in the process of creating this delectable dessert. Below are some safety tips to keep in mind when making liquid nitrogen ice cream.
Wear Gloves and Safety Glasses
Just like you would when doing any science experiment, you need to protect yourself with gloves and safety glasses when handling liquid nitrogen. Because of its exceedingly cold temperature, getting liquid nitrogen on the skin will cause severe and painful burns. There are also extra hazards if liquid nitrogen comes into contact with wet skin, so make sure to take barrier precautions whenever you use it. Liquid nitrogen has a tendency to fly and billow in plumes, hence the glasses. Make sure not to splash it when pouring or moving.
Wait Until Liquid Nitrogen has Evaporated
After pouring liquid nitrogen to make the ice cream, it is vital to ensure that there is no more of it in the finished product, as you don’t want to ingest the liquid nitrogen. If consumed, this can cause the esophageal and stomach tissue to freeze, which will be extremely painful and extremely dangerous.
Only Store Liquid Nitrogen in a Dewar
You most likely will have more liquid nitrogen than you can use in one sitting, so proper storage of this chemical is important. A cryogenic storage dewar is a specialized vacuum flask that holds and stores nitrogen safely. This storage unit was named after James Dewer, the chemist and physicist who study low-temperature phenomena and invented this vacuum flask.
Only Use Liquid Nitrogen in Ventilated Areas
When using liquid nitrogen for your ice cream creations, you want to make sure that you have proper ventilation in the space that you are using it. If any of this chemical escapes into the air and turns back into a gas in the atmosphere, the nitrogen will create a state of oxygen deficiency. Having a property oxygen sensor monitor, as well as ventilated to have access to enough oxygen, is very important to keep in mind.
Supplies You Will Need for Making Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream
When handling liquid nitrogen to make ice cream, there are some supplies necessary to stay safe and handle properly. Below is a list of the necessary supplies for the handling of your liquid nitrogen before you can begin to create liquid nitrogen ice cream.
This specially made vacuum flask is the only safe way to hold and store your liquid nitrogen. Not only does a dewar keep your liquid nitrogen cold, but it also helps prevent it from evaporating. This can’t be done with any other type of storage you may have in your home. If you want to make liquid nitrogen ice cream at home, a dewar is mandatory.
A Large Metal Bowl
Never make ice cream with liquid nitrogen in a plastic or glass bowl! This will lead to plastic or glass shards and ice cream mixture all over your kitchen. You will need a large metal bowl for your ice cream ingredients, so that it is not affected when you pour over the liquid nitrogen into your mixture.
A Hand Mixer or Stand Mixer
Since liquid nitrogen is at below-freezing temperatures, you cannot and should not touch it with your hands or another object that will burn (such as your skin) or not react well to its temperatures. A hand mixer or, even better, a stand mixer, will be necessary to mix the liquid nitrogen to make your ice cream. While you may want to use a whisk, whisks have a tendency to splash more than electric mixers, so we don’t recommend using them.
Optional: A Heat Source
You can choose to have any sort of heat source, such as a blowtorch, heat gun, hairdryer, etc. Some ice cream recipes (like the one we’ll be sharing shortly) require some sort of heat source to ensure you are able to scoop your ice cream out of the mixing bowl and into serving bowls. It can also be used to free chunks of ice cream from the bottom of the mixture to help incorporate them into the rest of the mixture. You may not end up needing one, but it’s a good idea to have one ready just in case.
Of course, you can’t forget the most important ingredient of all: liquid nitrogen. In general, one gallon of ice cream is going to require about five gallons of liquid nitrogen. Keep this ratio in mind. Unfortunately, it isn’t as easy as walking into a store and purchasing this product, but there still are ways to get it for your own personal use. Make sure you have your dewar beforehand, or you can call and see if the place that you plan to purchase your liquid nitrogen from will provide it to you already in a dewar. Below are a few places you can try to buy liquid nitrogen from.
A local distributor: A distributor that specializes in distributing gases who may also sell liquid nitrogen in your area over the counter. Give them a call to find out.
Tire shops: Though unconventional, tire shops may also have liquid nitrogen available for purchase since some use nitrogen in place of oxygen to fill tires.
Welding supply stores: Many large scale welding operations use liquid nitrogen, yet many of these locations tend to cater to bulk purchases and may not sell a small amount at a time.
Costco or other outlet stores: While you won’t be able to find liquid nitrogen at a regular grocery store or supply store, your local Costco (or similar store) may carry liquid nitrogen that you can purchase.
Local universities: The local colleges and universities in your area most likely have liquid nitrogen on campus in their science departments and laboratories. Even better, they may offer it for sale at a much lower price than you’d find elsewhere. Try calling their physics or chemistry departments to see what is available.
Ask a friend: If you know someone who has recently used or purchased liquid nitrogen, especially someone who regularly gets liquid nitrogen, ask how they are able to procure it. They may have other options and connections than those listed here to get liquid nitrogen from.
Making Ice Cream with Liquid Nitrogen
Now that you have all of your supplies and ingredients necessary, you are ready to make some ice cream using liquid nitrogen. Below are the steps to make your perfect, smooth ice cream.
- Create your ice cream base. To make a simple, yet delicious, vanilla ice cream base, you’ll only need a few ingredients. Take 3/4 cup white sugar, 1 cup heavy whipping cream, 2 1/4 cups milk, and 2 teaspoons vanilla extract. First, mix the sugar, cream, and milk into a saucepan over low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Only heat this combination until the mix is hot and a small ring of foam appears around the edge.
- Add the flavoring. Next, transfer your cream mixture to a pourable container such as a large measuring cup and stir in the vanilla extract. Remember, you can make any ice cream you want, so if you’d like to find another flavor to make for your liquid nitrogen ice cream, discovering another ice cream recipe is only a few searches or a cookbook away. You can also try one of our favorite recipes: mint chocolate chip ice cream.
- Churn. Pour your ice cream base that you’ve created (such as the recipe above) into your metal mixing bowl and churn on medium speed. If you’re using a stand mixer, use the paddle attachment.
- Add liquid nitrogen. Now comes the fun, but potentially dangerous part. You’ll need about three times the base volume in liquid nitrogen, and you will want to gently drizzle it in. Make sure to follow the safety guidelines and wear your gloves and face protection. Do not pour too quickly or too much at a time, as this will result in a texture with more ice crystals that is icy and not as pleasant. It can also lead to splashing if you aren’t careful. Try to occasionally pause and check on your base to make sure that it is freezing evenly. If not, pour slower.
- Torch bowl. Here is where the optional heat source comes into play. To release potentially frozen chunks from the side of the bowl, gently use a blow torch, hairdryer, or the heat source that you have on hand on the outside base of the bowl.
- Enjoy! It’s as simple as that—once you’ve reached your desired consistency, you’ll want to either serve your ice cream immediately store in the freezer in an airtight ice cream container so that it stays frozen.
Don’t be afraid to start dishing it out into homemade waffle cones and bowls and top with fresh whipped cream from a whipped cream dispenser. Then, watch the guests fall in love with the delicious texture and flavor of liquid nitrogen ice cream. If, by some miracle, you have any ice cream left, store it in an airtight ice cream container.
If you’d like to get really experimental, you can even create your own Dippin’ Dots adjacent ice cream. Using the same recipe as above, add the ice cream mixture into a syringe or squeeze bottle and squeeze droplets into a bowl of liquid nitrogen. Add any mix-ins after straining the Dippin’ Dots out or letting the nitrogen evaporate, and serve or freeze immediately.
Get Creative With Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream
Now that you know a brief history of liquid nitrogen ice cream’s creation, what liquid nitrogen is, and how to safely prepare liquid nitrogen ice cream in your own home, we hope that you feel more educated on this topic and will try to have fun with your family and friends to try something different and make your very own creamy and delicious liquid nitrogen ice cream. Remember to follow the safety instructions and be smart when trying this frozen concoction. We are sure you will enjoy it, and have fun in the process of making it from scratch, too.