From Cow to Cone

 

I’ve often seen the claim during my summer ice cream pilgrimages around the state: “We make our own ice cream.”

After a visit to UConn’s Dairy Bar, however, I’ve learned not to believe the hype.

“A lot of places will buy the [unflavored] mix, add in their own flavors and then say that they make their own ice cream,” says Jacqueline Patry, manager of the Dairy Bar. “We make our own mix right here in the building, from milk from our own cows from the UConn dairy herd up the hill. It drives me nuts to see other places claiming they make their own. They don’t—they mix their own. We actually make our own ice cream from our own milk, fresh every day!”

Patry, a UConn grad, motions to the stainless steel equipment all around us—400-gallon pasteurizing vats, giant mixing machines and a 600-gallon storage tank—and it’s immediately apparent why having others claim to make their own ice cream would be so annoying. Each of the 24 flavors available here daily requires an involved two-day process (not counting time spent milking the cows) and a coordinated team effort Monday through Friday, year-round.

But hey, you can make the trip to Storrs and see for yourself: The creamery and ice cream production area is in back of the Dairy Bar’s main counter, behind glass walls that allow visitors to view the entire process. Fresh whole milk, along with heavy cream, sugar and other ingredients, is first mixed and pasteurized (at 160 F for 30 minutes) in the vats. From there, the mix is pumped through a homogenizer, which creates more heat, before it’s cooled to 40 F in a mere 15 seconds, a step that gives UConn ice cream its wonderful texture and consistency. The mix rests for 24 hours before it is put, 150 gallons at a time, into a flavor tank, where flavoring and coloring (if necessary) are added. It then goes to the continuous freezer where air—“the magic ingredient,” according to Patry—is added, fluffing up the ice cream to an edible consistency. Special ingredients (candy, chips, nuts, etc.) and ripples (fudge or peanut butter, for example) are also mixed in at this point, after which it gets packaged and goes into the hardening room at -25 F for another 24 hours before it ends up on your cone. The Dairy Bar churns out over 26,000 gallons of ice cream a year.

The day I visit, the five student employees in the creamery are working with a batch of cake batter ice cream and also cleaning the equipment. (“Actually, we spend twice as long cleaning and sanitizing equipment as we do making ice cream,” says Patry.) Two of the crew are working together to fill up half-gallon containers with the pale yellow concoction. “It will turn darker yellow after sitting in the freezer for a day,” Patry tells me as she takes a clean plastic spoon and fills it from the stream of ice cream flowing into the containers. “It still tastes like cake batter, though,” she adds, handing me the full spoon and suggesting that I do a little “quality control.”

I happily comply. (It does.)

Patry and plant manager William Sciturro are currently the Dairy Bar’s only full-time employees; the rest of the staff is composed of part-time student workers, all of whom are initiated by having to milk a cow. “We want each student to appreciate the entire process,” says Patry. “They need to see that milk doesn’t just show up in the tanks, that it comes from someplace and that there’s work involved in gathering it.” One of the students, Erin, pauses from filling half-gallon containers to describe her milking experience: “It was sooo stinky.” Good thing the smell stays at the farm!

The current staff is a far cry from the 25 full-timers who used to be employed here during the facility’s operational peak. The UConn creamery was started in the early 1900s, and the Dairy Bar itself was opened in 1953 to sell the products generated by the department of dairy husbandry. In addition to milk, items like sour cream and cheese were offered, and of course, ice cream, which is now the Dairy Bar’s sole focus. This is the only place you can get Dairy Bar-created ice cream, although other places around the state claim to sell it. Again, they’re not the real deal.

Behind the counter are tempering cabinets that keep all the current flavors on hand at an ideal temperature for scooping. Vanilla is most popular, followed by chocolate and Husky Tracks—vanilla with fudge swirl and peanut butter cups! Someone suggests that I do a little more “quality control,” so I oblige. (The sacrifices I make for the sake of journalism!) All manner of cone and serving portions are available, although the simple one-scoop cone is the most-requested item. Half-gallons are also available to take home.

UConn ice cream is also (somewhat) guilt-free. “We use the milk from our own cows, we do our own pasteurization here and there’s no trucking or transport, so it’s an eco-friendly product as well,” says Patry. As I work over a cone heaped high with chocolate chip ice cream, I have to add: It’s also simply delicious!

For more information, call (860) 486-2634 or visit dairybar.uconn.edu.

From Cow to Cone

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