Food Facts

A Brief History of Ice Cream

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Ice cream has a long history that spans the entire globe. You have helado in Argentina, kulfi in India, es puter in Indonesia. In Japan, you’ll find mochi ice cream, and in Italy, gelato.

Ice cream is smooth, refreshing, and almost unlimited in its flavor possibilities (Kraft Mac & Cheese ice cream, anyone?). It is found in many forms, including milkshakes, sundaes, and ice cream cakes. You can even make amazing ice cream at home.

So when (and where) was this delectable treat invented? Let’s dive in!

Ice Cream Myths and Facts

There are various myths about when ice cream was created. One is that Marco Polo brought it back from the Far East. Another is that Catherine de’ Medici introduced ice cream to France when she relocated from Italy to marry King Henry II.

However, the general consensus seems to be that the first “official” ice cream recipe was created in 1686 in Naples, Italy, by Antonio Latini. It doesn’t really start there, though, as people have been enjoying frozen treats since ancient Greece.

Ancient Frozen Treats

The first freezers appeared pretty recently, in the 1940s. However, people found ways to enjoy frozen treats long before then.

During Alexander the Great’s rule (336-323 BCE), he reportedly had iced drinks flavored with honey or wine. Later, when Nero ruled Rome (54-68 BCE), he supposedly loved consuming a mixture of snow, nectar, fruit pulp, and honey.

Reportedly the first frozen milk-like confection was made for the emperors of the Tang Dynasty (618-901 CE). This was made of cow, goat, or buffalo milk. The milk was heated with flour and camphor (an aromatic substance from evergreen trees). This was put in metal tubes and placed in an ice pool to freeze.

wide view shot of venice overlooking the canal
Photo by Tom Podmore on Unsplash

Let’s Get Medieval

During the medieval era (somewhere between 476 CE and 1450 CE), Arabs enjoyed a chilled drink called sherbet (or sharabt in Arabic). These ice drinks were frequently flavored with cherry, pomegranate, or quince.

These icy drinks then became popular in Europe among the aristocracy. However, the Italians and French reportedly mastered this drink-making technique.

The First “Official” Ice Cream

Chilled drinks are nice, but they definitely aren’t ice cream. So when did frozen desserts come into being? In the 17th century, sugar was added to these icy treats, and “sorbetto,” aka sorbet, was created.

The “official” invention of ice cream, according to most historians, was a frozen dessert created in the 1600s in Sicily, Italy. It was created by Antonio Latini (1642-1692 CE). He is credited with the first written recipe for sorbetto, as well as creating a milk-based sorbet thought to be the first precursor to modern ice cream. He worked as a steward for the Spanish Viceroy in Naples, Italy. His recipes are found in his book Lo Scalco alla Moderna or The Modern Steward.

Reportedly lemon was a favorite sorbetto flavor. However, he also had sorbetto recipes flavored with cinnamon and pine nuts, strawberries, sour cherries, and even eggplant. Some of the recipes were intended to be frozen in bricks or molds, while another would call for it to be stirred throughout the freezing process (as modern ice cream requires).

This first ice cream recipe was made of milk, water, and sugar and flavored with candied citron or pumpkin. Not flavors that immediately come to mind when you think of modern ice cream.

First Ice Cream Recipe

It took some looking, but I was able to find an English translation of the first official ice cream recipe. If you’d like to check out the original recipe and lots of other interesting history, I recommend checking out Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making. You can find a sample chapter here.

Latini’s “sorbetta di latte,” or milk sorbet, is his only recipe that calls for cooking. However, there are essentially no other instructions specifying how it is to be made.

Latini’s ice cream recipe calls for 1 1/2 carafes of milk, 1/2 carafe of water, 3 pounds of sugar, and 6 ounces of candied citron or finely cut-up pumpkin. Then it calls for 3 1/2 pounds of salt, and 13 pounds of snow, which it is assumed was intended to be placed in the freezing pot, not in the sorbet itself.

Given the amount of sugar in the mixture, it likely would have been slushy rather than fully frozen. It is also unknown what the fat content of the milk was. It may be the first written ice cream recipe, but it probably would not be something we would currently recognize as ice cream.

gelato case with individual scooping gelato
Photo by Jojo Yuen on Unsplash

Frozen Desserts Grow in Popularity

In 1686 a Sicilian named Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli opened a cafe in France. It is considered by many to be the first ice cream parlor. The parlor was known as Il Procope and became famous and was frequented by celebrities, including Benjamin Franklin, Victor Hugo, and Napoleon (yes, that Napoleon). The cafe introduced gelato, the Italian version of sorbet, to the French. Procopio became known as the Father of Italian Gelato.

Around this same time, the French were experimenting with a frozen dessert they called fromage. It was not made from cheese, though it was called fromage. This may be because cheese molds were being used to freeze the ice cream.

French confectioner Nicolas Audiger wrote a book, La Maison Reglée. It described fromage recipes made with ices flavored with fruit, including one using cream, sugar, and orange flower water. He also suggested stirring the ices while freezing to introduce air and give a fluffier texture. This texture was likely more reminiscent of what we think of when we hear the word “ice cream.” Fromage was popular throughout France in the 18th century.

apple tart in a black pan with a melting scoop of ice cream on top
Photo by Deborah Rainford on Unsplash

Ice Cream in The United States

Ice cream likely reached America in the early 1700s, brought by European settlers. At the time, it would typically be served molded into the shape of fruits, vegetables, or animals.

It is said that ice cream was a favorite dessert of George Washington, with reports that he spent about $200 on ice cream in the summer of 1790 (the equivalent of about $6400 today).

Thomas Jefferson was also a fan of ice cream. He reportedly had an 18-step recipe for an ice cream dessert similar to a modern-day Baked Alaska.

In the late 1850s, Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, would visit relatives and socialize while making ice cream. While in the White House, they would also hold “strawberry parties” and serve fresh strawberries, cake, and ice cream.

Modern Ice Cream

While iced drinks and desserts were initially for the elite, ice cream is no longer a treat reserved for the rich. In the 1800s, in New York, ice cream vendors were selling ice cream on the streets of New York. Insulated ice houses were also invented in the 1800s, allowing more people to store frozen items.

It is generally reported that the first ice cream parlor in the US opened in New York in the late 1700s (I have seen either 1776 or 1790), but I was unable to find the name of this parlor. However, the oldest ice cream company still around today is Bassetts Ice Cream in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which was founded in 1861.

Then, freezers became mass-produced for use in the home towards the end of the 1940s. The first hand-cranked ice cream maker model was patented in 1843 by Nancy Johnson and produced in 1848 as the “Johnson Patent Ice Cream Freezer,” so ice cream could also be produced at home.

Ice cream is still a favorite in the United States. According to the US Census, the average American eats about 20 pounds, or 4 gallons, of ice cream each year. However, as of 2022, New Zealand had the highest per-person consumption of ice cream, eating an average of 6 gallons of ice cream each year, according to the NZ Ice Cream Association. So, if you haven’t had a chance make homemade ice cream, now is definitely the time!

If you are new to homemade ice cream or having issues with your homemade ice cream, check out this article.

If you’re looking for some great recipes, check out this list.

Enjoy!

Hello! I'm Nichole and I am a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. I have a bachelor's degree in Nutrition, Dietetics and Food Science and a master's degree in Nutrition and Dietetics. I love cooking, baking and anything food related. I look forward to teaching you more about food and sharing my favorite recipes with you. Enjoy!

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