Over the last decade, as dairy-free ice cream gained a foothold in the commercial market, its flavors were limited, its texture was often watery and its taste could be questionable.
Today, many of these ice creams are smooth and creamy. They can be spun as soft serve and packed into scoops for waffle cones. And the options for both soft and hard versions have improved greatly, as the plant-based milks and creams used to make them have improved.
At Morgenstern bananasnon-dairy soft serve shop that opened this year on the Lower East Side, Hanna Darnell filmed herself in May trying a cup of dairy-free salted peanut soft serve topped with sesame Chex for TikTok video.
“It was just as creamy as regular soft serve,” said Ms. Darnell, 26, who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “I was shocked.” She said she doesn’t eat a plant-based diet, but since posting that video, she’s gone back to the store three times.
Sales of plant-based foods in the United States increased in 2020 as the pandemic made many people think harder about their health, according to the Plant Based Foods Association, a trade group representing more than 350 plant-based food companies. Many have turned to eating non-dairy ice cream, which accounted for $437 million in sales last year. Shops dedicated solely to dairy-free ice cream have proliferated as more Americans adopt plant-based diets or look for desserts that accommodate their allergies and dietary restrictions.
The industry is still growing, but more slowly, said Julie Emmett, the vice president of marketplace and development for the trade association. Her colleague Linette Kwon, a data analyst, added that improvements in plant-based milks — especially oat milk, which is creamier and has a natural sweetness — have paved the way for tastier dairy-free ice cream.
The new shops use a variety of milks – such as almond, coconut, soy or cashew – for their ice cream bases. Soy milk, for example, has more protein than some other plant-based milks, and produces a smoother texture. Like oat milk, cashew milk is creamy.
Consumer research from the trade group also indicated that people who do not eat vegan or vegetarian diets tend to prefer brands that use the phrase “plant-based” to describe alternatives to dairy ice cream, Ms Emmett said. The term “vegan,” she said, can be polarizing.
For people with multiple food allergies, shops like Vaca’s Creamery in Chicago focus on the ingredients and reducing cross-contamination with allergens.
“It’s a safe space,” said Dylan Sutcliff, who owns the business with his partner, Mariana Marinho. “People don’t have to watch their back for allergies or dietary restrictions.”
The couple opened their second location late last year. Between the two shops, they make about 150 gallons a week — most of it made with oat milk — in flavors like vanilla, chocolate, tahini, lemon, strawberry with olive oil and blueberry with lavender.
All 20 of their toppings are made in-house, and many are designed for people with food sensitivities. The most popular include miso caramel, chocolate hard shell, gluten-free brownie bites and waffle cones that taste like churros, made with cinnamon and sunflower butter.
In Bakersfield, California, where there are many dairy farms, Alejandro Ocampo opened his vegan ice cream shop in April after realizing that there were no places for him and his twin daughters, Adaline and Belen, to get frozen desserts that served to. their plant-based diet.
“It’s ironic that we have a plant-based manufacturing facility in the middle of California,” said Mr. Ocampo, the owner of Double O Creamery.
He uses vegan creamers made with oat and coconut milk to make ice cream flavors like vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and mint. This base helps eliminate the aftertaste that plant-based ice creams often have. He also pays homage to his heritage with options like Mexican vanilla, passion fruit and horchata.
Like many other vegan shops, Mr. Ocampo’s doesn’t add mix-ins to its ice cream, so people with allergies can choose their own toppings — toppings like chocolate or carob chips.
Although these vegan treats are relatively new, they can evoke the same kind of memories as traditional ice creams.
At the Cream Stain, in Atlanta, which opened in March as a walk-up window with outdoor seating, Wendy Golding creates creamy and nostalgic flavors like brownies with caramel ripples, and peach cobbler with crumbles, using a base made with cashews and oat milk. It took her about 15 tries to land on the mix she now uses.
Ms. Golding also works with local minority-owned farms to source fruit when it comes in season.
“I really missed eating ice cream,” said Ms Golding, who eats a plant-based diet. Her new business, she added, “was a no-brainer.”