What’s the Difference Between Frozen Custard and Ice Cream?

(Image credit: Kelli Foster)

The first time I encountered frozen custard was at Shake Shack in New York City. I am a sucker for any and all frozen, creamy treats, so when I saw custard on the menu, I was intrigued. Digging into a big cup after my burger, I was instantly in love. Extra-rich and dense, it was like the best gelato and soft serve I’d ever had joined forces. What is this magical stuff and how does it differ from ice cream?

The Difference Between Frozen Custard and Ice Cream

Ice cream is made from milk, cream, or a combination of the two, while frozen custard is made from milk, cream, and egg yolks. Also, while the machine used to make ice cream churns air into it to make it have a light mouthfeel, frozen custard is produced in a machine that barely incorporates air into it, which means it’s way more dense.

It Comes Down to Fat

According to the FDA, in order for ice cream to be called ice cream, it must contain a minimum of 10 percent milkfat by weight. Frozen custard, on the other hand, follows the same rules but also must contain 1.4 percent egg yolks by weight. That means egg yolks are a requirement in frozen custard, which makes for a richer, more luscious product.

This can seem a little confusing because some ice creams, particularly homemade versions, contain egg yolks too. Those would actually also be considered frozen custard by the FDA. But there is another (less technical) point that really makes frozen custard different from ice cream.

The Machine You Use Matters

What really sets frozen custard apart from ice cream is just how dense it is. While ice cream has plenty of air whipped into it to make it light and airy, frozen custard doesn’t.

This all comes down to the machine that’s used. A professional ice cream machine actually churns air into the ice cream base as it freezes it. The ice cream is then usually placed in a freezer to completely firm up before it’s scooped. But a professional custard machine works as little air as possible into the custard base, and the custard is typically served immediately from the machine at more of a soft-serve temperature, so it melts as soon as you take a bite.