Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Battle of the Dishes: Frozen Custard

Posted By on Tue, Jul 28, 2009 at 11:50 AM

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There are differences, sometimes barely noticeable, between two dishes that look exactly alike. Egg rolls, come to mind. Or a slice of apple pie. Today we taste and consider frozen custard. Not the ne plus ultra of local frozen custard, the independently owned and revered Foo's Frozen Custard, which is in a category all its own, but the two national chains -- Overland Park-based Sheridan's Frozen Custard and Wisconsin-based Culver's -- who have been in a heated competition, as it were, for local market share.


First, a refreshingly brief refresher course on frozen custard, which some people lump together with soft-serve ice cream -- the product offered at Dairy Queen or Tastee Freez -- although the two couldn't be more different. Frozen custard, which began to be sold in American cities in the 1920s, is much richer and creamier than both soft-serve and traditional ice cream, thanks to its high butterfat content -- at least ten percent (and depending on the vendor, sometimes as high as 18 percent) and seriously thicker, thanks to the slow-churning mechanical process inside the freezer units that prevent excessive air from being mixed into the product.

One of the reasons there's still some confusion between frozen custard and soft-serve ice cream is that New York entrepreneur Athanassios Karvelas (he later shortened his name to Tom Carvel), who invented a frozen custard machine in the early 1930s and opened his namesake ice cream stores around the northeast, ultimately become better-known for selling less-expensive soft-serve. Meanwhile, Sherwood Noble's Illinois-based Dairy Queen had been selling soft-serve since 1940.

But in Kansas City, Sheridan's and Culver's focus on the richer, more costly frozen custard.

Like old-fashioned ice cream stands, the Sheridan's stores don't have a vast menu of non-frozen items. Culver's is as famous for its Butterburgers and hot meals as it is for its custard.

And that brings us to the taste test: Which of the two frozen custard vendors had the tastiest product?

In look and texture, the vanilla and chocolate versions are almost indistinguishable. Both are creamy and impressively thick. Still, Sheridan's had stronger, more lasting flavors: the chocolate was more intense; the vanilla had a sexy note of potent vanilla that elevated it above and beyond the more bland Culver's product.

Jonathan Bender described the milder Culver's custard as "the kind of taste that would do well at a luncheon for the Daughters of the American Revolution." It's still silky in texture and the less-intense flavor is probably an excellent base for mix-ins, which Jonathan insists are the only reason to buy frozen custard in the first place.

I'm more of a purist when it comes to frozen custard: I like it straight, without crushed candy or cookies or pretzels. That's why I preferred the Sheridan's version. But then again, I've never tasted the "Dirt & Worms," blended with Oreo cookies and topped with chocolate sprinkles and Gummy worms. And maybe that's a good thing.

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