Simple and comforting, vanilla ice cream is great for sundaes and milkshakes (aka frappes). French vanilla ice cream made with real vanilla beans elevates ordinary vanilla to a rich and flavorful frozen custard. The result is over-the-top vanilla goodness!
[June, 2022: I've reworked the recipe and updated this post with all new pictures. Enjoy!]
Why this recipe works
- Smooth and creamy frozen custard flavored with real vanilla beans produces an exceptional vanilla ice cream
- You can control the level of dairy fat in the ice cream to the richness level you prefer
- Great alone, or use in sundaes, milkshakes, or as "a la mode" on pies and cobblers
Some people think that vanilla ice cream is simply...plain...boring. And it can be, when not made well. Cheap flavorings, preservatives, emulsifiers, these can all bring down the quality of vanilla ice cream.
I'm here to tell you that vanilla can be made better, and you can do it!
For example, I'm a sucker for a great chocolate milkshake, made from ingredients I can pronounce. And I want it rich, thick, and chocolatey. Or how about an over-the-top hot fudge sundae? Yes, please!
Great sundaes and great milkshakes start with great vanilla ice cream, and the best is French Vanilla Ice Cream. It's a vanilla frozen custard flavored with real vanilla beans.
Folks, this ain't no boring, chemically flavored ice cream!
The steps to making ice cream at home
There are two ways to make ice cream at home. The first one involves taking a chilled sweetened cream base and...uhm...freezing it.
That's right, if your ice cream maker is ready (mine needs to be chilled for 15 hours before use), then you can combine milk and cream, flavor and sweeten it as you prefer, and churn away. You'll have ice cream in about 30 minutes. Add in the chilling time required to firm up the ice cream, about 2 to 4 hours, for a total time of about 4½ hours.
If you want great ice cream, then you'll want to go with the second way, making a frozen custard (that is, the "French" method in the title). You make a crème anglaise custard (aka vanilla sauce) in the flavor you want, thoroughly chill it (usually overnight), then churn it. What this technique gives you is a rich custard base, and a richer final product. This method is how I make my Caramel Swirl Almond Gelato and Double Chocolate Mint Chip Gelato.
What you need
At its core, the ingredients for ice cream you need are heavy cream, milk, and sugar. Vanilla is used as the flavoring (more on the type of vanilla later). Since we want to make a french vanilla ice cream recipe, you'll need egg yolks to thicken the base into a custard and add richness.
Depending on the kind of milk you use, you can control the overall level of dairy fat in your ice cream. Lower the fat by using non-fat milk, and increase it by using whole milk. You can even use dairy-free milk products. I use 1% milk because it produces ice cream that's rich but doesn't have that "coating your tongue" mouthfeel.
You know how you sometimes see little brown specks in baked goods, custards or frostings? No, those aren’t dirt from a careless chef. They’re something wonderful that adds a delicious flavor to all they touch: vanilla bean seeds.
I use fresh vanilla beans when I want the vanilla flavor to really take center stage, such as in Magic Custard Cake or Crème Brûlée (aka vanilla custard topped with burnt sugar). When the flavor is a supporting actor (like in a chocolate cake or brownies), I’ll use vanilla extract.
Using fresh vanilla beans can be expensive and messy, but they’re oh, so worth the effort. The flavor they impart is rich without being cloying, with none of that artificialness (yes, I've decided that's a word) that you get from inexpensive commercial vanilla extracts.
You can use vanilla extract in a vanilla ice cream recipe if you'd like, just make sure it's the best quality you can find.
How to make French Vanilla Ice Cream
Step 1: Make the custard base
Combine the milk and heavy cream in a 3-quart saucepan. Using the tip of a sharp knife, split the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the milk mixture, then add the vanilla bean (photo 1).
Heat the milk mixture over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until small bubbles form and it starts to steam. This takes about 6 to 7 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine the egg yolks and sugar. Whisk until the mixture is smooth and sugar is dissolved (photo 2).
Gently heat the egg mixture by slowly adding ½ cup of the warm milk to the egg mixture while continuously whisking (photo 3). This process is called tempering the eggs. Add another ½ cup of milk and temper the egg mixture again.
Pour the warmed egg yolk mixture back into the saucepan with the remaining milk (photo 4). Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat (don't let it boil).
Cook until the custard has thickened, stirring constantly, about 4 to 6 minutes (photo 5).
When ready, the custard should coat the back of the spoon and leave a trail when you draw your finger through it (photo 6).
Strain the custard through a fine mesh strainer into a clean bowl, removing the spent vanilla bean (photo 7). If the custard boiled during thickening, straining it out will help remove any curdled bits of egg.
If you are using vanilla extract instead of a vanilla bean, stir it in now.
Cool the base using an ice bath (½ ice cubes, ½ water, reaching halfway up the sides of the bowl). Stir the custard occasionally until it's cooled to room temperature. A digital thermometer should read around 70 to 80˚F (photo 8). This helps to prevent any bad organisms growing in the custard as it cools.
Place a piece of plastic wrap on the surface of the custard and refrigerate until chilled, at least 4 hours or overnight. Chilled custard can be kept in the refrigerator for several days. For the best results, make sure the base is about 40˚F prior to churning.
Step 2: Churn the ice cream
Pour the cold base into an ice cream maker and freeze per the manufacturer’s instructions, about 25 to 30 minutes (photo 9).
The finished frozen custard will have a soft consistency (photo 10).
Step 3: Ripen the ice cream
Transfer the ice cream to a freezer-safe container and smooth the top over using a small offset spatula (photo 11). Freeze for 2 to 4 hours to allow the ice cream to firm up, a process called ripening.
Questions asked and answered
Here are some questions you might have...
The difference lies with the form the vanilla flavoring takes. Vanilla ice cream is the more general term, and can be flavored using vanilla extract, vanilla paste, or a whole vanilla bean. Vanilla bean ice cream specifically uses real vanilla beans in its preparation, although other flavorings can be present, especially in commercial brands. You can tell if beans have been used if you see the little black flecks in the ice cream.
Not necessarily. Vanilla bean ice cream can be made from an uncooked sweetened cream base that has been specifically flavored with vanilla bean seeds. French vanilla ice cream is made from a cooked custard base, that is, a sweetened cream base that has been thickened with egg yolks. French vanilla can be flavored with vanilla in any of its forms - extract, paste, or whole vanilla beans.
Earlier I referred to wanting a milkshake. I grew up in California, and that's what we called the treat made with milk, ice cream, and maybe a flavored syrup. Here in New England, a milkshake doesn't contain ice cream, just the milk and syrup. Add the ice cream, and you've got a frappe (pronounced "frap," not "frappay").
But Google "What is a frappe?", and a myriad of answers pop up. It's an icy, foamy drink! It contains coffee! It doesn't contain coffee! It's pronounced "frappay"! Goodness, it's enough to make my head spin. I'll stick to milkshake, thanks very much. Make mine chocolate, please.
Pro Tip: Make your own vanilla extract
You can, of course, buy good quality vanilla extract, but making your own is so easy! I use empty spice jars for making extract, but you can use clear glass bottles, especially if you want to give your homemade vanilla extract as a gift.
All you do is immerse split vanilla beans in vodka, that is, infuse the vodka with vanilla (just like when making Limoncello liqueur when you infuse vodka with lemon). Store the jar in a cool, dark place and let it sit a couple of weeks, shaking the bottle every few days. The longer the extract sits, the darker it becomes. When the extract has a dark color and smells floral, it's ready to use in your cooking and baking.
And if you're going to be using fresh vanilla beans in your cooking and baking, this is a great way to recycle those expensive spent beans. If you've used the vanilla beans to infuse milk or cream, briefly rinse the milk off the steeped bean before before popping it in the jar.
When you need to use the vanilla extract, top off the jar with additional vodka as needed. If the color starts getting too light, it's time to add fresh (or freshly used) vanilla beans to the extract. It's that simple!
French vanilla heaven
This is the best homemade vanilla ice cream recipe! It produces a product that's rich and satisfying. Full of flavor, eating a scoop is to enjoy over-the-top vanilla goodness. Nothing boring here!
My Dear Husband has been making me the best milkshakes for years, always using milk, vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup. Made thick and chocolatey with homemade french vanilla ice cream and homemade chocolate syrup, this is the milkshake I always hope for.
Sundaes are also extra special using this ice cream, because there are so many ice cream toppings to choose from. Whether you make it with chocolate syrup, hot fudge sauce, caramel sauce, butterscotch sauce, toffee sauce, or something else entirely, you won't go wrong topping homemade french vanilla ice cream.
And don't forget your "a la mode" opportunities! Topping warm baked desserts with a scoop of vanilla is almost a requirement in my house. Here are some quick suggestions of baked good you can serve "a la mode":
- Apple Pie
- Pecan Pie
- Praline Pumpkin Pie
- Butterscotch Pie
- Southern Brown Sugar Pie
- Skillet Hot Fudge Pudding Cake
- Apple Crisp
- Mixed Berry Crisp
However you enjoy it, know that vanilla ice cream is better when you make it. It's as simple as that!
Slainté! L’chaim! Cheers!
I scream, you scream, we all scream to make ice cream, gelato, sherbet, and sorbet! Whether you're craving something basic like Vanilla Ice Cream (where the best comes from your kitchen), or something fancier like Caramel Swirl Almond Gelato (with less fat than ice cream), you've got lots of choices for homemade frozen treats
And if you want to share your frozen desserts with family and friends, why not hold an ice cream social? You'll find some clever suggestions here to get you started planning the perfect party!
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French Vanilla Ice Cream (Frozen Custard)
- 1½ cups heavy cream
- 1½ cups milk, see Recipe Notes
- 1 fresh vanilla bean, split, or 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 4 large egg yolks, at room temperature
- ½ cup granulated sugar plus 2 Tablespoons
- Make the custard base: Combine the milk and heavy cream in a 3-quart saucepan. Using the tip of a sharp knife, split the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the milk mixture, then add the vanilla bean.
- Heat the milk mixture over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until small bubbles form and it starts to steam. This takes about 6 to 7 minutes.
- Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine the egg yolks and sugar. Whisk until the mixture is smooth and sugar is dissolved.
- Whisk the egg yolks in a medium bowl. Gently heat the egg mixture by slowly adding ⅓ cup of the warmed chocolate cream to the egg mixture while continuously whisking. Add another ½ cup of the chocolate cream and temper the egg mixture again. This process is called tempering the eggs, and its purpose is to prevent the eggs from curdling while the custard cooks.
- Pour the warmed egg yolk mixture back into the saucepan with the remaining milk. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat (don't let it boil). Cook until the custard has thickened, stirring constantly, about 4 to 6 minutes. It should coat the back of the spoon and leave a trail when you draw your finger through it.
- Strain the custard through a fine mesh strainer into a clean bowl, removing the spent vanilla bean. If the custard boiled during thickening, straining it out will help remove any curdled bits of egg. If you are using vanilla extract instead of a vanilla bean, stir it in now.
- Cool the base using an ice bath (½ ice cubes, ½ water, reaching halfway up the sides of the bowl). Stir the custard occasionally until it's cooled to room temperature (a digital thermometer should read about 80 °F).
- Place a piece of plastic wrap on the surface of the custard and refrigerate until chilled, at least 4 hours or overnight. Chilled custard can be kept in the refrigerator for several days. For the best results, make sure the base is about 40 °F prior to churning.
- Churn the ice cream: Pour the cold base into an ice cream maker and freeze per the manufacturer’s instructions, about 25 to 30 minutes. The finished ice cream will have a soft consistency.
- Ripen the ice cream: Transfer the ice cream to a freezer-safe container and smooth the top over using a small offset spatula. Freeze for 2 to 4 hours to allow the ice cream to firm up, a process called ripening. Serve and enjoy!