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Since humanity discovered the ice cream in a frozen cave in Antarctica, it was so hard you had to wait 15-20 minutes to be able to use it as food and not as a blunt object for a Hitchcock's plot. Then, suddenly one day all ice cream were soft right out of the refrigerator.

What is the magic component the industry added in order to keep ice cream always soft ?

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I imagine ice cream would be soft if you're keeping it in the refrigerator - melted, in fact. –  Aaronut Aug 6 '10 at 2:08
    
If you happen across this in the process of looking for tips about how to get a hint of that magic in your own ice cream, David Lebovitz has a pretty good blog post: davidlebovitz.com/2007/07/tips-for-making-1 –  Jefromi Jul 16 '11 at 5:47
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3 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The softness of ice cream is going to depend on a variety of factors:

Use of gums and other binding agents, amount of sugar, the amount of fat, and especially the amount of "overrun" (air) that is churned into it during the freezing process. Less expensive ice creams will usually have a softer "chewier" texture than premium ice creams due to more gums and a great amount of air being churned into it to increase volume.

More air = more volume = more yield for the same amount of ingredients used.

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There is a delightful discussion of this here. Freezing point depression is the basic answer.

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Sadly, I think the answer is less physics and more chemistry--and not the good kind. The ice creams you are likely describing have been barraged with food stabilizers, emulsifiers, and other gelling agents which have nothing to do with sugar, eggs, and cream, and everything to do with getting texture out of "milk base" or whatever dreaded concoction frozen-yogurts, low-fat ice creams, and over-processed brands employ.

Make sure your ice cream has very few ingredients, lest you accidentally eat iced-emulsified-dairy base instead.

@Michael is right on, that faster, lower-temp freezing takes for smaller ice crystals which are creamier. Just make sure you know the difference. For interest, check out iCream which uses liquid nitrogen on the spot and claims very soft results do to the low, quick freeze.

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Related: The soft-serve ice cream you get from the ice cream trucks usually isn't even real ice cream, it's mostly lard. –  Aaronut Aug 6 '10 at 2:08
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"Now go chase the lard-truck Jimmy, before it drives off..." Just doesn't have the same ring to it. –  Ocaasi Aug 6 '10 at 6:00
    
It's not all bad chemistry. More sugar = lower freezing point = softer ice cream. –  daniel Aug 6 '10 at 16:57
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