This story is part of Junk Food, Redefined, our new collection of snack recommendations, recipes, and perspectives that celebrate an undervalued food group. Read all the stories here.
Some people have ice in their veins. Sarah Masoni’s got ice cream in her blood.
Seriously. Masoni, who works with companies and entrepreneurs to develop new products at Oregon’s Food Innovation Center, figures she’s helped create around 100 ice creams, ranging from the uber-gourmet to the utterly quirky. She’s an award-winning dairy judge (yes, it’s a thing). She worked as a USDA cheese grader. And she comes from a family of dairymen, including her father, a professor of food microbiology who took the family on a 1970s research tour of European farmstead cheesemakers in an orange VW camper he called Cheddar.
In her long career Masoni has helped create ice cream flavors for Salt & Straw, Museum of Ice Cream, and Keto Pint, among other brands. A supertaster, Masoni has honed her skills over time and can tell, with a whiff and a few chews, whether a food is in balance, and if not, how to fix it. One former client called her the “million dollar palate.” So if you want to know how and why ice cream tastes so good, Masoni has answers.
She’s also got some unique ideas. “My gift,” she says, “has been helping people create new food products using novel approaches.” To Masoni, ice cream doesn’t have to be junk food. Yes, ice cream is a snack, she says, but there’s just so much to it.
She pioneered Salt and Straw’s pear and blue cheese ice cream. She managed to incorporate malted milk balls in another ice cream. She even helped a small company create an ice cream flecked with candied salmon. And she hopes to one day find a home in the ice cream freezer for (no joke) America’s favorite creamy salad dressing. But I’ll let her tell that story herself.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Why do we love the taste of ice cream so much?
We crave three ingredients and two of them are the most prominent components in ice cream: sugar and fat. (The third is salt.) We also associate ice cream with good times in our life: birthday parties, family gatherings, going down to the corner store with our parents. It’s a magical combination. Ice cream isn’t just ice cream; it’s also all the things we associate with ice cream. You can be having the worst day and ice cream can make it feel better because it helps us travel down memory lane.
So how does fat and sugar make ice cream delicious?
When you blend the ingredients, you’re creating a very specific structure. The backbone of ice cream is sugar, which keeps the cream from fully freezing. The sugar also builds structure, giving the liquid cream a solid body. Just the right amount of sugar—or a combination of different types of sugars—keeps the ice cream scoop-able. Fat is responsible for helping to create the rich, creamy, and smooth texture that we love. Some artisan ice cream makers use very high percentages of fat. When it gets really high, you’ll feel little particles of butter on your tongue. Standard grocery store ice cream has around 10 to 11% fat. Premium ice cream generally has more.