The Key to Making Better Homemade Ice Cream Is Being More Adventurous

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When one of my housemates first implored me to try one of Salt & Straw’s classic flavors—Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper—I was skeptical of the combination. Balsamic vinegar makes for a great finishing touch for soup and dressing for salad, but the idea of adding it to desserts seemed strange. However, as any chef familiar with Italian desserts might tell you, dressing strawberries with balsamic vinegar is not a new concept. In fact, it’s a traditional dessert, and a fantastic way to bring out the berry’s brightness and acidity. Sprinkle your balsamic vinegar-drizzled strawberries with fresh black pepper, and you’ll notice even more berry notes dancing across your tongue. The combination in Salt & Straw’s ice cream was no different—the vinegar notes, combined with a ribbon of strawberry jam, resulted in the most intensely berry-flavored strawberry ice cream I’ve ever had.

Strawberry Honey Balsamic with Black Pepper was one of the first ice creams that Tyler Malek and his cousin, co-founder Kim Malek, introduced when they started their Portland, Oregon-based company in 2011. Since then, Tyler Malek said he’s often encountered a mix of skepticism and curiosity from first-time customers who have come to sample the franchise’s unique flavors. For example, in recent weeks, customers might have noticed pints of Nacho Average Ice Cream; made in partnership with Terry Crews, the custom flavor contains gooey cheese, sweetened corn chips and hints of ancho chile and cinnamon. Nacho cheese may seem like anarchy when added to a dessert, but after taking a few bites, it starts to make sense, Malek said.

Easy never tasted so awesome.

“The swirl cheese has a few savory notes in it, but for the most part it’s like liquid cheesecake, and that being put in a lightly cinnamon flavored ice cream, with candied tortilla chips, it comes together really nicely.”

Over the past nine years, Salt & Straw has made their name by creating audacious ice cream flavors, often inspired by the work of local chefs and food vendors. For example, Salt & Straw’s Pear & Blue Cheese ice cream, available in the company’s Oregon stores, is an example of how Malek seeks out iconic regional flavors to create delicious, albeit unusual, ice cream. 

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“We use Oregon pears and we work with a Southern Oregon cheese maker called Rogue’s Creamery for the blue cheese,” Malek said. “The combination is surprisingly delicious. It’s one of those that doesn’t quite make sense when you think about it, but when you hear the story about this Southern Oregon cheese maker or that we’re one of the main exporters of pears in the country, it creates a journey that our customers get to go on.”

Salt & Straw’s love of bold flavors is obviously an invitation for adventurous eaters, especially those who love intriguing desserts, to sample something new. However, it’s also an argument for at-home chefs to try their own hand at making intriguing, small-batch flavors of ice cream. In 2019, Salt & Straw came out with a cookbook detailing how ice cream enthusiasts could make some of the company’s most popular flavors in their own kitchens. And while the book does contain the recipes for the Strawberry Honey Balsamic and Pear & Blue Cheese flavors—as well as ideas for ice creams involving turkey, dandelion bitters and even mayonnaise—Malek said he sees the book as much more of a launching pad for creative cooks, rather than as a simple volume of Salt & Straw favorites. To make it even easier for cooks to jump in, Malek said that the earliest recipes often contain ingredients, like olive oil, that most households keep in their pantry.

“Our cookbook, it was much more of a blueprint for how to make good ice cream and not just a bunch of recipes,” Malek said. “The very first recipe in our book is our Arbequina Olive Oil ice cream. In my opinion, that’s one of the most simple and beautiful flavors of ice cream you’ll find in the world. You have to do it in small batches. It can’t really exist in large format, but it’s so epically delicious and simple. It’s by far the easiest in the book, but it’s got this complexity and beauty to it.”

Get the Book: Salt & Straw Ice Cream Cookbook

While Malek encourages at-home chefs to experiment with new ingredients, it’s important to remember that not every new recipe will come out a winner. A previous attempt by Salt & Straw at making dungeness crab ice cream, for example, was a complete flop. However, Malek encourages chefs to keep trying new concepts; often, a different ingredient or approach will allow Malek to tell the story he had hoped to convey through his original flavor concept. 

“We actually found a West Coast sea urchin and paired it with a bit of mint, like fresh green mint, and made sort of a sea urchin meringue with fresh mint ice cream and the combination was epic,” Malek said. “There’s ways to get around it and get the flavor of the ocean in the ice cream without some of those funky flavors.”

Cooks who are interested in creating custom ice cream flavors at home using Malek’s method can start by concocting their own story using the ingredients available to them. Fried green tomatoes, biscuits and chocolate gravy and chow chow all might serve as inspiration for Southern-themed ice creams, for example.

“A lot of time, you start more with the origin story,” Malek said. “Once you sort of learn about a certain ingredient or a certain partnership, those flavors sort of create themselves in many ways.”

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