Ice Cream of the Crop
Why is there oolong tea and tequila in your scoops?
Ever see a far-out flavor in the ice cream aisle and wonder where on earth those ideas come from? Well, some of them come from the UMass Amherst Department of Food Science (ranked in the top tier of food science departments worldwide), where students develop new flavors for its annual ice cream flavor contest.
The contest comes at the end of a semester-long course in which students brainstorm, research, and refine flavors. “What I found most interesting is that students are so creative,” says lecturer Peiyi “Penny” Shen ’18PhD, who took over teaching the course this year.
Judy Herrell ’86MEd, who owns and operates Herrell’s Ice Cream in Northampton, serves as the judge for the annual contest. She also works with students during the semester to help them develop and troubleshoot their flavors. In terms of what makes a flavor a winner, Herrell considers the technical aspects along with the flavor itself. “There are a lot of things I look for,” she says. “Texture, viscosity, taste. Reproducibility is a huge one.”
It looks like people are going back to their roots
Lecturer Matthew Steffens ’89, ’92MS, who taught the course for about six years, emphasizes the importance of marketing, including choosing an intriguing name. Magic Wings, a lavender-honey flavor from several years ago, was inspired by the butterfly conservatory in South Deerfield.
What flavors might show up next in your local ice cream shop? Our experts pointed to a few trends they see in the marketplace. Comfort-food influences are big. “It looks like people are going back to their roots,” says Herrell, mentioning flavors like caramel. Steffens cites tastes connected with the holidays, which come with a sense of nostalgia.
Some flavors cross over from the world of beverages. “We also have the trend of alcohol in ice cream, which is a really hot topic in the food industry,” says Shen, noting that tea-inspired ice creams are in fashion as well.
Flavors these days are also likely to come from far and wide. Steffens cites the recent example of Chicha Morada, a sorbet based on the traditional Peruvian juice made from various fruits and purple corn. Ice cream flavors can be inspired by “any country that you can think of,” Steffens says. And vegans rejoice—plant-based products of all kinds are popular, he says.
Shen says that social media plays a role in flavor development, as students “are able to catch up with the most current trends and topics in the industry.” No longer are they limited to what the big producers are putting out—now they can see the unique flavors that boutique shops are creating all over the world. This means the next great ice cream flavor might come from anywhere—including right here in Amherst.