Simple scooping just isn’t cool enough any more. These days, when it comes to ice cream, it’s all about the smoke and the show.
Ice cream made with liquid nitrogen – and great fanfare – is the UAE’s latest “it” dessert, with shops popping up across the country since the dish first appeared with the opening of the Sub Zero ice cream shop in Abu Dhabi Mall.
Liquid nitrogen is the colourless, odourless liquid that is produced when nitrogen gas liquefies at extremely low temperatures – -196°C to be precise.
It has a wide range of uses, many of them more crucial – and decidedly less appetising – than making ice cream in less than 60 seconds. In addition to applications in the chemical, pharmaceutical and petroleum industries, it can freeze warts off the body and preserve human cells for laboratory research.
But back to the fun stuff. Scoopi Cafe on Jumeirah Beach Road has been serving up liquid-nitrogen ice cream since owner Zubin Doshi discovered it when he was on holiday.
“While dining out on holiday in New York, I happened to come across the concept of molecular gastronomy and liquid nitrogen, which really inspired me. It was exciting,” he says.
He opened Scoopi Cafe on JBR in December and has plans to open seven more outlets across Dubai in the next three years. The cafe dishes up freshly made ice cream, with a range of toppings including pecans, crushed Oreo cookies and chocolate-covered coffee beans. The flavours change according to the season. On the summer menu it has tropical fruit, lychee, fresh fig, strawberry, watermelon and even Red Bull.
That’s one of the benefits of liquid-nitrogen ice cream – flavours can be custom-made with fresh ingredients on the spot. There’s no need for the artificial colouring or preservatives used in normally prepared ice cream.
Choco Rain, a liquid-nitrogen ice cream shop with three locations in Abu Dhabi, has 20 permanent flavours and 20 that change with the season. It also serves liquid-nitrogen milkshakes.
Owner Fadi Hamati says: “Freezing ice cream with nitrogen gives you the exact taste of the ingredients, which is not the case with freezing it in the traditional way. The traditional preparation adds the icy, watery taste to it.”
The process has received a warm reception, with ice-cream aficionados eager for something new queuing up to get a taste of the icy new concoction. “The UAE is a very hospitable market to new ideas,” Hamati says. “People love trying new things here.”
That’s especially true when those new ideas come with a show. When ice cream is made with liquid nitrogen, the ingredients, the bowl they are mixed in and the employee making it are shrouded in a vaporous fog, which is actually just condensation produced when the liquid nitrogen comes in contact with the much warmer air.
“The concept of liquid nitrogen has the wow factor, which creates even more excitement,” says Doshi. “It is not something that is expected by the customer but they love it when they try it.
“You see them taking pictures of it and posting them on their social-media pages.”
About 80 per cent of the air we breathe is nitrogen. It’s a gas that has no odour, colour or taste. Liquid nitrogen is simply nitrogen gas cooled to its liquefied form at -196°C. It’s cold enough to instantly freeze anything it touches, which is why doctors use it to freeze off unwanted tissue, including warts and cancerous cells.
It can also be used to preserve historical documents, human blood and tissue, and cool the central processing units of computers. So how did it find its way to the production process of our favourite frozen dessert?
The early ice cream and frozen food aficionado, Agnes B Marshall, is credited as being the first person to use liquid nitrogen to make ice cream, in 1901 at the Royal Institution of London. So, while it might seem to us to be a new innovation, the concept has been around for more than a century.
It didn’t really take off in the world of gastronomy until the 2000s, however, when British chef Heston Blumenthal used liquid nitrogen to prepare an improbable-sounding bacon-and-egg ice cream at diners’ tableside at his Michelin-starred restaurant The Fat Duck.
The science behind the ice cream is pretty straightforward. When liquid nitrogen is poured over an ice cream base mixture (whether made from milk, yogurt or otherwise) at room temperature, it starts to evaporate, producing a dramatic vaporous fog and instantly freezing the mixture.
The problem with regular ice cream is that the normal freezing process produces ice crystals, which results in a grainy texture. The longer the freezing time, the more ice crystals are produced.
Liquid nitrogen’s near-instant freezing ability circumvents this pitfall entirely and once it has evaporated, all that is left is a ready-to-eat portion that is buttery smooth.