Photo: Sub Zero.
At Sub Zero, ice cream isn’t just dessert. It’s a science experiment. The scoop shop uses liquid nitrogen to freeze ice cream orders one-by-one. Under bright counter lights, employees pour liquid cream into a bowl. The customer chooses a flavor and mix-ins, which are either incorporated into ice cream or used as a crust. Then the ice cream is frozen with liquid nitrogen, which freezes at -321 degrees Fahrenheit. When the cold gas meets the warm air, water molecules condense and form fog. That fog is shifted from the bowl so the server can see and scoop. The customer can choose the desired hardness of the ice cream, from peanut brittle hard to soft-serve soft. The whole process takes under a minute.
Sub Zero founder Jerry Hancock studied chemistry at Brigham Young University. After opening a burrito joint, he decided to pivot to dessert. Ice cream was the obvious choice, but he knew he’d have to offer not just a delicious product but a unique one as well. Market research revealed that what customers wanted most from their ice cream was customization.
“The only thing I could think of to make it more custom was to not freeze it until you ordered it,” he says. He read up on liquid nitrogen and realized it could be used to instantly freeze a cream base right in front of customers. Customization plus the showy element of nitrogen proved to be a winning formula. Sub Zero, which opened its first location in Orem, Utah in 2004 now has 50 locations in the U.S. and abroad, with a dozen new shops under construction. The next time you’re craving ice cream, give this crazy scientist scoop a whirl.
Five Reasons Nitrogen Ice Cream is Awesome:
1) It’s creamier than traditional ice cream.
“Ice cream is very delicate in nature,” Hancock says. “Most ice creams are adding mix-ins because they’re trying to hide the fact that it’s been sitting for a month or more in the freezer. Water crystals are forming constantly throughout that time period.” Flash freezing minimizes ice crystals, which makes for a smoother ice cream than traditional brands.
2) It’s denser.
In the case of ice cream, calling it “dense” is a good thing. Ice cream mixed by machine is almost 50% air. Whipping during freezing makes it even airier. Because nitrogen ice cream is mixed by hand, it’s a thicker product. “Compared to other ice creams that are going to be very foamy, this is very ‘diggable.’ It’s got some heft to it because it doesn’t have the extra air whipped into it. Other people have compared it to custard. It’s richer. You get a flavor boost as well.” Denser ice cream also takes longer to melt, so nitrogen ice cream holds up well in high heat.
3) It’s the freshest ice cream available.
Every scoop of nitrogen ice cream is frozen on the spot. Even artisanal ice cream makers don’t have that capability. Most ice cream stores have to freeze their product for at least a day before serving.
4) It’s customizable.
Because nitrogen ice cream is made to order, it can be tailored to dietary restrictions. Diabetic, vegan, lactose-intolerant, and gluten-free eaters can all find a combo that doesn’t upset their systems. What’s more, mix-ins at Sub Zero are all-natural.
5) The science is safe.
You’re probably wondering: “This sounds great, but is liquid nitrogen really safe?” Don’t worry; we asked. Turns out that nitrogen is not only tasteless, colorless, and odorless, it’s completely non-toxic. Hancock compares the preparation risks of using nitrogen to the carbon dioxide element of a soda fountain. In other words: minimal. There will be no screaming associated with this ice cream, unless you’re screaming for more.