“Who doesn’t want to drink their ice cream?” asks Sam Mason, the one-time pastry iconoclast at wd~50 and current owner of OddFellows Ice Cream Co., an NYC scoop parlor known for its offbeat flavors. “It’s faster.”
He's right—it doesn't necessarily take a visionary to understand the fundamental pleasure of ditching your cone for a counter-top icon: the all-American trophy cup of rich, sweet, thick liquid that’s best tackled with both a spoon and a straw.
That said, the milkshake has gone through its own set of evolutionary stages, starting out as a frothy cocktail that contained neither milk nor ice cream. It eventually grew up into today’s ice cream-loaded treat thanks to important 19th- and 20th-century inventions like the freezer and the electric blender, taking on names from frappe to thick shake as it wended its way into the nation’s expanding soda fountains and fast-food outlets.
Today, the milkshake is as likely to be a simple blend made from nothing more than scoops of vanilla and pours of milk, as it is to appear in the buzzy, long line-generating stunt guise of Joe Isidori’s concoctions at Black Tap, a burger restaurant responsible for minting a new series of Instagram #foodporn star. Crowned with ice-sandwiches, brownies, and cotton candy, Isidori's shakes are part of an arm's race for "dramatic presentation."
Simple or elaborate, the milkshake breeds nothing but joy. “When I put one of these monstrous shakes in front of a little kid and his face lights up like it's Christmas, that's the best feeling in the whole world," says Isidori.
To capture that bit of magic at home, we tapped both Mason and Isidori for some milkshake 101 essentials.
Step 1: Ice Cream
Two to three scoops of ice cream is the base for any milkshake. “Vanilla bean is my go to,” says Mason. Though you can scoop in any flavor of ice cream you prefer—from classic chocolate or mint-chip, to newfangled custom creations—starting with vanilla gives you a blank slate for adding syrups, fruit, candy, and any other flavors and mix-ins you can dream up.
Whatever the flavor, ice cream for shakes should be premium, always. And, “it’s best to keep it really cold,” says Mason.
Step 2: Milk
To keep the shake on the thick side, you won’t need to add much milk. A couple of glugs of whole milk will help the ice cream transform from solid to shake material. Start with less than ¼ cup for 3 scoops, and trickle in more only as needed.
Step 3: Flavoring
Getting serious about your syrups will make you feel like a real soda jerk. You want any flavorings you add to be intense, since they’ll need to infuse 10 ounces of cold, thick vanilla shake. A chocolate syrup will obviously transform a vanilla shake into a chocolate one. Pouring in cold-brew coffee yields a shake that’s also a “pick me up,” says Mason. Fruit syrups, like black cherry, are classic soda-fountain options, and peanut butter is always a reliable winner.
You do want to be careful to control the amount of liquid added, lest your shake become too thin, so opt for condensed flavors, like orange zest, over larger amounts of orange juice, for example.
Step 4: Mix-Ins
You’ll want to break up large additions before putting them in the blender. Crumble cookies thoroughly. With fruits, pulverize them in the blender with a little bit of sugar to make a puree before you put in the ice cream to avoid excess maneuvering later on. If you want a totally smooth effect, throw in your mix-ins early. If you want to leave some texture, toss them in towards the end.
Some classic combinations at OddFellows are creamsicle (vanilla and orange) and black and white (vanilla served with hot fudge). Adding sandwich cookies turns a vanilla shake into a cookies ‘n' cream one. A grasshopper usually combines mint chocolate-chip ice cream, chocolate cookies, and crème de cacao.
Pretty much any sweet you like can become a topping—cookies, apple crumb topping, pecan squares, or candy. “This summer, we’ll have a blueberry pie shake,” Isidori says. “We’ll put in a whole slice.”
He believes “there are no rules” for the components in the shake. And yet, “there’s a fine line of being a mess, versus a well-balanced shake.” Even his over-the-top creations possess a strong internal logic: “We desperately avoid the kitchen-sink factor. All the flavors complement each other.” No matter how crazy you want to get, be deliberate.
Step 5: Blending
The spindle mixers at ice-cream shops are customized to turn ice cream and milk into thick, smooth mixtures, breaking up all the lumps without heating them up. Though electric blenders aren’t as perfectly calibrated, they will do, says Isidori. The trick? “Just don't over-blend.” The blender is a mechanical gadget, which means its motor heats up when you have it going. As a result, “the more you blend, the higher the temperature.”
Depending on the power of your blender and the frostiness of your ice cream, you may need to run the blender at low speed for as little as 15 to 30 seconds, ending with a quick pulse on high to achieve optimal smoothness. Watch the progress carefully, and stop as soon as ice cream and milk are integrated. You can always shake out the last few lumps with a fork. It’s better to have a few chunks of ice cream than a puddle.
Step 6: The Glass
“An old-school soda fountain glass evokes the nostalgia,” says Isidori. You can drink a shake out of any glass, but the geometry of a fountain glass fosters a right-sized pour with plenty of surface area on top for garnish. A straw easily sucks up every last sip from the bottom.
Step 7: Whipped Cream
On the simple side, “a dollop of whipped cream and a cherry always does the trick,” says Mason. Whip cream at home by pouring heavy cream into a bowl and beating with a whisk until it’s thickened enough to hold a shape. You can add a little powdered sugar and vanilla extract, or leave it unsweetened as a counterpoint to the shake. Add as much as you can handle—but remember, the milkshake underneath is plenty rich.
Step 8: Garnishes
In addition to whipped cream and cherry, classic garnishes include: sprinkles, a drizzle of chocolate syrup, a halved strawberry, or a cookie, which makes a crunchy complement. Fake maraschino cherries offers childlike pleasure; go for more sophistication by picking one from a jar of fancy brandied cherries, or out of a bag of fresh fruit. Another important garnish to know is the hot-fudge swirl, essential for a black and white shake: Before pouring in the shake, take a few tablespoons of warm hot fudge, and stripe them down the sides of the glass, letting any extra collect at the bottom.
After that, things escalate. At Black Tap, Isidori’s masterpieces are as much about the garnish as the shake: candy adorns the sides, while cookies and pretzels and Rice Krispie Treats are mounted on top. “The key component is good old-fashioned cake frosting that allows us to stud the candies to the glass without falling off,” says Isidori. “We use the rim of the glass, and sometimes skewers, to adhere the larger accessories.”
Step 9: Serving
Serve shakes with a big straw and a long spoon—for nostalgic and practical purposes. You’ll need both to absorb the thick liquid and pick out the chunkier mix-ins and garnishes.