Ice cream as we know it seems deceptively simple — a smooth, creamy treat many of us have enjoyed since childhood. In reality, it’s a marvel of technology, science, and culinary innovation that has been evolving for a millennium or more. From its beginnings as a snow-cooled drink in Persia to a familiar scoop of frozen vanilla, ice cream has taken on many forms and flavors. Here’s the story of how it all began.
In the Beginning, There Was Ice, Snow, and Science
According to ice cream expert Jeri Quinzio in her book Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making, the ancestor of modern ice cream is sharbat, an iced drink still popular in Iran and other nearby areas. To make sharbat, shaved ice or snow is drenched in sugar syrup, historically flavored with lemons, rosewater, citrons, violets, or ambergris (an aromatic sperm whale secretion). Traders imported the idea of sharbat from Persia to Europe, as well as the sugar to sweeten it.
But it took a scientific discovery to turn this frosty drink into ice cream. In the mid-16th century, scientists discovered that mixing salt or saltpeter (potassium nitrate) with ice lowered the freezing temperature of water from its usual 32 degrees to almost zero degrees. Culinary savants quickly realized that this super cold ice-and-salt slurry could be used to freeze other liquids. The first ice cream maker was called a sorbetiere: a pewter bucket set in a second, larger bucket packed with ice and salt in between. The pewter bucket was filled with an ice cream base; a servant or enslaved person had to constantly agitate the pewter bucket in the ice, using a lid with a handle to rotate the inner bucket in its bath of below-freezing ice water. Occasionally, they removed the top and stirred the freezing cream with a wooden paddle called a spaddle. Two to four hours later, the ice cream was finished.
Sharbat was the earliest substance to go into the sorbetiere to be frozen. In Italy, the word sharbat became the word sorbetti, and in the rest of Europe, sorbet and sherbet, terms that were applied to any kind of early frozen dessert in a variety of languages before they got to English. Freezing sharbat was a lucky discovery, since the sugar in the mixture would have kept the results pleasantly pliable. (Sugar molecules disrupt water molecules and prevent them from freezing solid.) A careful balance of sugar to water, as well as constant agitation of the ingredients while they freeze, creates a frozen — but creamy and scoopable — sorbet.
A World of Flavors
Many of the first ice cream flavors were developed in Italy, particularly around Naples, and the first ice cream recipes were published in Italian in 1692. Lo scalco alla moderna, or The Modern Steward includes the first recipe for chocolate ice cream. The book also included fruit and nut ice cream flavors, like lemon, citron, and pumpkin. Beverages were some of the first things frozen into ice cream, so drinks such as tea, coffee, and chocolate were among the earliest ice cream flavors.
Soon, European chefs began to freeze custard pie fillings made with eggs and milk or whipped cream. Food historian Ivan Day discovered the earliest known recipe for ice cream in the mid-1660s handwritten recipe book of Lady Anne Fanshawe. Fanshawe’s husband was a British delegate to the Spanish court, and Lady Fanshawe saw ice cream made in Spain. In the recipe for “Icey Cream” that she documented, the ice cream is flavored with mace (part of the nutmeg fruit), orange flower water, or ambergris.
Other early flavors of ice cream include musk (a glandular secretion of a species of deer), saffron, pumpernickel bread, bay leaves, and crumbled cookies. However, according to Quinzio, the cookies were used to flavor the ice cream and then sieved out. Seventeenth-century Europeans wanted smooth ice creams only; chunky textures à la Ben & Jerrys wouldn’t be in vogue until the 20th century.
According to culinary historian Sarah Lohman's book Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, vanilla doesn’t appear in ice cream recipes until the 1760s. Thomas Jefferson’s papers contain a recipe for vanilla ice cream (the first ice cream recipe recorded by an American), and the dish was likely prepared for him by his enslaved chef James Hemings.
Ice cream’s place on the President’s table did a lot to popularize the dessert in the early United States, but within a few decades, American flavors had expanded far beyond vanilla. The earliest ice cream recipes published in America — in The Virginia Housewife in 1824 — include almond, coconut, citron, and “oyster cream,” a frozen oyster soup.
Ice Cream for Everyone
Because making ice cream was so time-consuming and laborious, the ability to serve it was initially a sign of extreme wealth. Fortunately, two innovations in the 19th century made ice cream available to all. Inventor Nancy Johnson created the crank ice cream maker in Philadelphia in 1843. It was not only more efficient than the sorbetiere (the user turned a crank to operate a paddle inside) but also delivered a more consistently smooth and creamy product. The American ice industry also rapidly expanded after a horse-drawn ice cutter was invented that sped up the process of harvesting ice from lakes.
These technological advancements spurred the opening of ice cream parlors, one of the few places in the 19th century where men and women were allowed to go on a date without a chaperone. Naturally, these parlors became wildly popular. According to food historian Tonya Hopkins, many of these earliest confectionaries were founded or supplied by Black caterers and confectioners in and around Philadelphia. Examples include Augustus Jackson, a former chef to Presidents and a Philadelphia native, who perfected the egg-free “Philadelphia Style” ice cream that remains the most popular in America today.
Around the same time, ice cream also became a cheap and common street food, often sold by Italian immigrants from Naples — the same area where many ice cream recipes originated. According to Quinzio, these vendors made “Hokey Pokey,” a slang word for squares of firm ice cream wrapped in paper. An 1885 reference to these bricks describe them as being tri-colored, with three different flavors: pistachio, vanilla, and strawberry, for the colors of the Italian flag. This style of ice cream came to be called “Neapolitan,” after the vendors’ homeland.
Flavors Old and New
Today, ice cream makers often pull inspiration from the past. That may mean reviving a classic ice cream parlor vibe like The Franklin Fountain in Philadelphia or Ices Plain & Fancy in St. Louis; or offering flavors such as wild Squid Ink from the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory in New York City or Honey Bleu Cheese at Sweet Republic in Phoenix, Arizona. Perhaps one day, we’ll once again see orange flower water or ambergris ice cream being scooped for adventurous ice cream fans — but for now, you can’t go wrong with vanilla. Just remember to thank Thomas Jefferson.