It took forever to perfect my tofu ice cream recipe. Back in college, when I was learning how to make ice cream from scratch, I thought tofu ice cream would be as simple as coconut milk, sugar, tofu, and that would be it. However, what happened was that the ice cream, even after churning it, turned into an ice block. At the time, I thought if I re-melted it down, added even more sugar, and then re-churned it, that would work. I was wrong. It did not. Still an ice block. I think I even broke the tupperware I stored the ice cream when I tried to scoop it because of how frozen solid the ice cream became. So I got desperate, and melted coconut oil into the melted ice cream base. And then, and only then, did I have something resembling an ice cream. Unfortunately, the flavor profile was more coconut than it was tofu at that point, which kind of defeated the purpose of me making the ice cream with tofu to being with. The lesson here was, even though coconut milk has fat in it, and it is a decent heavy cream substitute, the fat content in coconut milk is not enough to work in a soft and creamy tofu ice cream. The trick with using tofu in ice cream is that soft or silken tofu(which are the ideal types to use for dessert) contain a lot of water, and which coupled with the high protein content, results in ice cream that is icy and firm. The key to counteracting this is a combination of monitoring the amount of liquid you’re adding in, adding enough sugar, which helps inhibit the creation of ice crystals, which are makes the ice cream icy and hard, and adding in enough fat.
For the “fat” in this recipe, I went with canola oil. While any oil, such as coconut oil, works well in this recipe, canola has a neutral flavor, which keeps the tofu from being overpowered, unlike the coconut oil, which made the tofu ice cream I made in college taste like a coconut ice cream. Normal ice cream bases use heavy cream or half and half, which contains lots of butter fat. Heavy cream is literally just milk and butter, emulsified together. It is the butter portion of the heavy cream that results in a soft, creamy ice cream. In the case of this recipe, the canola oil is that butter fat substitute, helping the ice cream be soft and creamy, instead of hard and icy. There is a slight problem in just pouring a bunch of oil into milk and calling it a day, and that is that oil and other liquids usually don’t mix. So that is where binding agents such as egg yolks, corn starch, or even in this case, the tofu come into play. The proteins in tofu generally work well in emulsifying the oil into the rest of the mixture in place of eggs, but the xanthan gum is there as an insurance policy. Xanthan gum is a binding agent that is typically used in gluten-free baking in place of gluten, but it can also be used to thicken mixtures as well. In the case of this recipe, it works as both, thickening the soy milk to have a similar consistency to heavy cream, but also binding the oil into the soy milk so that the resulting vegan ice cream made from that will have a creamy, soft texture that is normally achieved by using cream and eggs. In terms of the liquid, I went with soy milk, since soy milk is to tofu as regular milk is to mozzarella cheese, and the soy milk will only enhance the tofu flavor further. I did also use vanilla beans, which add that pleasant dessert-y aroma to the ice cream, but you can omit that if you want a more tofu-forward experience.
Makes 2 pints of ice cream:
1 vanilla bean
3/4 cups soy milk
1 cup granulated sugar
3 tbsp canola oil
a pinch of salt
1/4 tsp xanthan gum*
19oz soft tofu, water drained
On a cutting board, split the vanilla bean in half, and scrape the insides. Add both the scraped vanilla bean pod and the scrapped insides to a pot with soy milk, sugar, canola oil, salt, and xanthan gum. Heat up the liquid on low, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has thickened slightly. Then take the milk off heat, and allow it to sit for at least 1 hour. Then strain out the vanilla bean pod, pressing it to squeeze out any additional flavor from the liquid. In a blender, puree the vanilla-infused soy milk with the soft tofu. Pass everything through a sieve to remove any lumps.
If you do not own an ice cream maker, freeze the mixture solid, about 4 hours in the freezer, then puree it using a food processor. Then re-freeze it for another hour before attempting to serve.
If you do own an ice cream maker, churn the ice cream base to the maker’s instructions, then freeze the ice cream for an hour before attempting to serve.