The exact origins of ice cream are somewhat unclear, as various cultures and civilizations have contributed to its development over centuries. The concept of freezing sweetened mixtures can be found in different historical records across the world.
While no single individual can be credited with “inventing” ice cream, its history is a result of cultural exchanges and continuous innovations across centuries and civilizations.
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The History of Ice Cream: Early Flavors
Though one might think that ice cream could be enjoyed only in modernity, the thought couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, the concept of “ice cream” goes back to 4000, and even 5000 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. Though the dessert might not have been subject to mass production, a more simplistic version of it was embedded in many historical celebrities’ cuisine.
For example, slaves in Mesopotamia (that’s the world’s oldest recorded civilization with a functioning society, super old) often mixed snow from the mountains with various fruits and milk.
These concoctions were stored underneath the banks of the Euphrates River. They were later served cold to their kings to be enjoyed as a sort of frozen dessert, though they were not entirely frozen.
Alexander the Great was also known to have enjoyed a really early version of ice cream. According to rumors, he would send his subordinates to the nearest mountains to bring back snow so he could mix it with honey, milk, fruits, and wine. It would make for a delicious drink on a hot summer day.
Though snow would’ve been readily available for people living way above the equator, it wasn’t the same for those below or around.
This refers to, of course, the searing deserts of the Middle East and the ancient Romans, for whom the snowy mountains were quite a distance away. For these people, a chilled dessert would have to be acquired in other ways.
Egyptians and Midnight Cravings
For the Egyptians, collecting ice initially was almost an impossible task. However, they somehow managed to do so by treating their guests to an early form of granita made with snow from the mountainous regions of Lebanon.
However, there was a more ingenious method of producing ice. This certainly contributes significantly to making ice cream’s history all the more interesting. The ancient Egyptians didn’t naturally have ice, so they had to make their own.
They did this by pouring water into a porous clay container and placing it under the sun in the desert during sweltering days. After midnight, when the desert temperatures dropped, in addition to continued evaporation during the day, the water reached the freezing point. This pot-freezer method might’ve made the Egyptians one of the first known civilizations to effectively utilize the benefits of evaporation.
The ice produced might have then been used to create a quick frozen dessert or iced drinks with fruits in them, all of which were happily chugged down by the ancient Egyptians.
Persians, Arabs, and Sherbets
While the Egyptians were tinkering with their newfound science, the Persians also invested all their resources to be on par with them.
Though they were a couple of centuries late, the Persians eventually mastered storing ice during the torturous summers. The civilization designed special areas underneath the deserts known as “Yakhchals,” which translates to “ice houses.”
The Persians brought in ice from nearby mountains. They stored them inside Yakhchals which acted as evaporative coolers during the day. Basically, they had figured out how to make one of the very first refrigerators of yore.
They even went one step further and implemented a wind circulation system within the Yakhchals, through which they could maintain the cold temperatures during scorching summer days.
When it was time for the kings to feast, the ice could be brought in fresh from the Yakhchals and chill their tasty delicacies. Talk about an ancient ice cream maker.
The Arabs also joined the party of consuming chilled drinks by making “sharbat,”; drinks sweetened with lemon or fruits tasting precisely like ice cream but liquified. In fact, the word “sherbet” comes from “sharbat,” and so does the Italian word “sorbet.” “Sherbet” also has its roots in the Arabic word “shurub,” which literally translates to “syrup,” which is exactly what it was.
The Roman Way
On the other hand, Romans didn’t want to be left out of consuming their own frozen treats. They applied their own spin on making ice cream by storing snow inside mountain caves so it wouldn’t melt quickly.
During the summer, they would return to the mountains to collect these caches of snow and prepare their versions of ice cream. They probably would have added milk, nuts, and fruit to them and consumed them for a quick protein boost while traversing the mountains.
Eastern Ice Cream
Like the Egyptians and Persians, the Chinese figured out and implemented their own ice-harvesting method. The Chou emperors of Imperial China were recorded to have used ice houses just like the Persians to maintain cool temperatures when storing their ice.
As per T’ang dynasty archives, the people consumed a type of frozen dessert made with water buffalo milk and flour. Sweet juices mixed with snow and ice were not uncommon and were consumed by guests.
Don’t think the Japanese were sitting stump on munching their own version of ice creams. The shaved ice was utilized by the Japanese to produce a frozen treat called “Kakigori,” made with syrup and sweetened condensed milk.
After globalization during modern times, Japanese guests were also served matcha-flavored ice cream in the shape of Mount Fuji in the Imperial Palace.
Treats for the Mughals
The exotic Mughal Empire of India and Bengal joined the fray by revolutionizing a new form of ice cream known as “kulfi.” They were made by first transporting the ice from the mountains of the Hindu Kush and later prepared inside Mughal kitchens to be served to the royalties.
The ice was also used inside colorful fruit sherbets. Together, they made for really refreshing chilled treats that hit the sweet teeth of Mughal princes after a particularly spicy dinner of chicken biriyani.
Kulfi remains one of the most traditional forms of ice cream in India and Bangladesh to this day, where it is enjoyed by thousands of people during the long stretches of summer.
The Dream Cream of Europe
Far away from the confines of Asia and the Middle East, the true history of ice cream and its popularization began to show itself in Europe.
Though various versions of ice cream first surfaced outside of Europe, it was here that the delicious dessert began to slowly morph into the modern ice cream we all know and love today.
The fact that the Europeans figured out that using ice and salt together helped freeze cream brought about revolutionary changes to desserts. As you will see later, further research on this method was done centuries later by the man who invented ice cream as we know it.
Norway is among the top three countries in the world regarding ice cream consumption.
However, Nordic countries have been associated with eating ice cream for a long, long time. In fact, they might’ve also been one of the first to produce an ice cream mix containing cheese and snow.
One manufacturer claims that the Vikings might’ve even used mammoth milk in their snowy desserts. Although the last mammoth died out over 5,000 years ago, this is still an incredible thing to think about.
What the Vikings did consume, however, was a dish called Skyr. It was made with fresh cheese and skimmed milk, making it a delicious chilled yogurt.
Ice Cream in England
Feasts of humongous magnitudes were no strangers to the halls of the monarchs of England. Even more, calories were needed to wash down the slathers of calories. And, of course, it just had to include ice cream.
Gathering ice wasn’t a problem for the people of England as it was found in plenty courtesy of the frosty skies. As a result, it was included in countless recipes in various forms and flavors.
However, the very first known mention of the word “ice cream” in England can actually be found in the journals of Elias Ashmole, an English politician. He had attended a royal feast at Windsor in 1671, where he had been graced by the presence of King Charles II.
His presence spelled doom, as he had apparently established a strict zone around himself. He took advantage of his royal authority to gulp down every single ice cream in the banquet hall, to the utter shock of everyone.
“Mrs. Mary Eales’s Receipts,” a confectioner to Her Majesty, contained the first ever recipe of ice cream written in English. The recipe provided a detailed guide on preparing the ice cream. She highlights using a pail to store the ice and salt and then tucking the bucket away in a cellar to be utilized later. She even encourages adding ingredients such as raspberries, cherries, currants, and lemon juice to enhance the flavors.
Not long after this, the production of ice cream began to rapidly expand within many English recipe books and, soon, the entire country.
The Flavored Ices of France
A few years before the word “ice cream” was ever mentioned in English recipe books, the French had already begun to eat ice cream all over the city of light, Paris.
French ice cream lovers should owe the origins of ice cream in France to Francesco dei Coltelli, an Italian looking to make a living by utilizing his masterful confectionary skills. He was so successful in running his ice cream cafe that the craze spread throughout Paris. Ice cream shops soon began to pop up around Paris, reflecting the evergrowing demand for this refreshing delicacy.
After this, recipes for “flavored ices” became a common sight in plenty of famous cooking books, including those by Antonio Latini and François Massialot. Ice cream began to replace the very shallow dishes that the French had once called a dessert, henceforth taking over Paris one bowl at a time.
As the popularity of ice cream began to expand, so did the taste buds of all the people cramming their mouths with this sweet treat. The demand for more vibrant flavors started to grow, especially with the rising influx of new fruits, spices, and herbs thanks to the age of colonialism.
Ingredients from overseas, such as sugar from India and cocoa from South America, created recipes that gave birth to more complex appetites. Like every other food, the ice cream had to adapt to survive.
And thus began its modification. It was the very same modification that hurled the dessert into being what it is today.
After the Spanish conquest of South America, they discovered an ingredient that changed the entire course of their appetites.
This was, of course, that one other snack we can’t ever get out of our minds: chocolate.
But you see, chocolate didn’t always taste this good. In fact, when the Spanish first discovered chocolate, it was actually being chugged down in its most basic form by the Aztecs. The Aztecs also went one step further and added achiotes to it, which gave the drink a very bittersweet flavor.
Turns out, the Spanish weren’t fans of it. In fact, some of them even went on to denounce chocolate’s flavor by comparing it to “pig food” and even “human feces,” which was a grave accusation indeed. To remedy this mortal problem, Europeans came together to treat this foreign drink as they saw potential in its abundance.
Around the time of the Industrial Revolution, a particularly witty entrepreneur named Daniel Peters decided to mix two simple ingredients into the bloodlike substance that was chocolate: milk and sugar. He is thought to be the first person ever to do so. The rest was history.
Chocolate soon began to be a recurring flavor in ice cream history. When people found out that chilled cream tasted even better when milk chocolate was added, it was only a matter of time before they began to include it in their recipes.
When chocolate was brought back to Europe from South America, it wasn’t only mixed with milk. Chocolate was also mixed with vanilla, but it wasn’t done by a European.
The breakthrough was made by James Hemings, one of the chefs of none other than Thomas Jefferson. James was trained by French chefs, which could’ve contributed to the manufacture of such a delectable concoction.
Vanilla ice cream blew other early flavors out the window. Alongside the rise of vanilla, the popularity of ice cream began to snowball amongst the nobles of France and the people of America when it was finally brought back.
While vanilla and chocolate ice cream went on a rampage of fattening up the world’s nobility, another ingredient loomed in the dark- egg yolks.
Once it was discovered that egg yolks were effective emulsifiers, people went to hell and beyond to make their chickens plop out eggs daily.
Eggs helped thicken the cream by softening the fat inside more effectively when frozen. More importantly, it helped produce a particular texture lacking in ice cream before this discovery.
With the inclusion of eggs, sugar, chocolate syrup, and vanilla, ice cream in every form began to absolutely take over the world. It was slowly expanding its secret global empire, and there was no end in sight.
The Italian Gelato
Now that we are approaching modernity, we must look at the nation that first invented ice cream as we know it.
We talked about the Arabs and their sharbat, but you know who else was talking about them? Marco Polo, the famous Italian merchant. After Marco Polo went on his sightseeing tour, he returned with recipes of delicate cuisine from around the world.
The Middle Eastern way of producing ice fascinated the Italians on every front. Inspired by the pot-freezer method, they were able to replicate the effects in their own way and figure out a way to keep things cool for a long time.
Not long after this, when the Medici family (an elite group of Italian bankers) came into power, the age of desserts reigned in Italy. Medici event planners experimented extensively with their foods to welcome Spanish guests into their countries. These experiments included the addition of milk, eggs, and honey which led to a more defined form of “creamed ice.” These treats were given the name “gelato,” which translates to “frozen” when translated in English. And, of course, they took off immediately.
Gelato, to this day, remains the signature ice cream of Italy and has been the catalyst of many love stories as it continues to bring people together worldwide.
Americans and Ice Cream
Ice creams were the craze in other parts of the world too.
In fact, North America was exactly where ice cream was further popularized and eventually turned into the global treat that it is today.
When James Hemings returned to America, he brought pages upon pages of delicious recipes. It included whipped cream and the ever-famous macaroni and cheese.
With his arrival, the popularity of fine ice cream began to grow in North America. Colonists from Europe also arrived with scrolls of ice cream recipes. References to ice cream made by the nobilities were common in their journals and on the mouths of their kids wanting to stuff their tummies with the icy dessert.
Dessert for the Mr. President, sir?
After James Hemings cooled Thomas Jefferson’s taste buds with ice cream, the rumors of this wondrous confection began to infect the mind of the first President of the United States, George Washington.
In fact, he loved ice cream so much that he was rumored to have spent around $200 (about $4,350 today, by the way) on ice cream in a SINGLE DAY. It’s fascinating how even the President was severely affected by this contagion of cream while sitting in the White House.
Mass Production of Ice Cream
Long after the days of the ancient world of Yakchals, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, ice cream finally began to evolve into a genuinely global dessert.
We can owe its sudden popularity among the general public to many factors. However, there are a couple that particularly stand out in bringing ice cream to the refrigerators of ordinary people.
Speaking of refrigerators, once they became available industrially and accessible to the greater population, it was only a matter of time before ice cream could be accessed by them. Manufacturing large amounts of ice cream had become more manageable, primarily due to the discovery that adding salt to ice lowered the temperature more effectively.
Augustus Jackson, a Black American chef dubbed “The Father of Ice Cream,” is also credited as the modern inventor of this method. It was really effective as his approach enhanced the flavors of ice cream and the entire process was economically viable. It’d be fair to call him the first person to have invented ice cream.
Ice cream began to be produced on a large scale. A couple of years before Augustus Jackson, dairyman Jacob Fussell had established the first ice cream factory in Seven Valleys, Pennsylvania. After the newly discovered method of making the dessert, the number of ice cream factories snowballed.
Modern-Day Ice Cream
Today, ice cream is consumed by billions around the world.
It is found absolutely everywhere there is a refrigerator. The wholesale ice cream industry has been valued at nearly 79 billion in 2021, which shows just how popular it is worldwide.
The dessert can now be found in many shapes and sizes. The ice cream cone is one of them, where the cream is placed into a crisp waffle cone. The best part about it? After eating the ice cream, you can actually also eat the cone.
Besides ice cream cones, other forms include ice cream sundaes, ice cream soda, the ever-popular ice cream bar, and even ice cream apple pie. All of this showcases the innovation of the world at large when it comes to consuming their food.
Popular brands nowadays include Baskin Robbins, Haagen-Daz, Magnum, Ben & Jerry’s, Blue Bell, and Blue Bunny. They can be found at an ice cream vendor, ice cream trucks, or grocery stores worldwide.
The story of how the treat actually goes from an ice cream factory to grocery stores internationally is a whole different story, though. But what’s for sure is that it does end up in every corner of the world and into the tummies of happy children and smiling adults.
The Future of Ice Cream
We have come a long way since the questionable cuisine of the ancient world, where we used to mix snow and fruit and call it dinner. As the years continue to pass, the consumption of this frozen treat continues to evolve exponentially. In fact, ice cream is expected to grow by 4.2% from 2022 till the end of this decade.
The flavors continue to evolve as well. With mankind developing complex palates and newer ways of interlinking different foods, ice cream undoubtedly is going to experience the addition of fresh ingredients. We even have spiced ice creams nowadays, and some people even seem to enjoy them.
As long as there’s ice and as long as we have milk (artificial or organic), we will be able to enjoy this delicacy for thousands of years to come. There, you have yet another reason to help stop global warming because hey, we need ice for ice cream.