These are difficult times for the milkshake. The coffee craze has brought a series of sophisticated imitators — most of them ending in “cino” — to the table, and whether you’re avoiding fats or carbs this mid-century treat is an offender on both counts.
All of which suggests that if you’re going for a shake, you want it to be worth the trouble. That means adhering to the three pillars of shake-making: quality ice cream, thick consistency, and creamy texture.
Purists tend to weigh in on the side of thick, creamy ice creams — which result in a smoother, heavier shake. “Premium ice cream has very little air in it,” says Bruce Weinstein, author of “The Ultimate Ice Cream Book.” Weinstein suggests that you check the ingredients list for thickeners like modified food starch or guar gum, and avoid the ice creams that have them. A good rule of thumb: Ice cream sold in pints, not half-gallons, is typically higher quality.
Still, quality doesn’t necessarily have to mean heavy, cautions Duncan Gott, owner of Taylor’s Automatic Refresher, of Saint Helena, Calif., which has won praise nationwide for its upmarket take on lunch-counter fare. “If you start with a light ice cream, you’ll have a light and fluffy shake,” says Gott. “That’s good too.” (And pay attention to local variations in lingo; if you’re making a milkshake in New England, you’ll need only to flavor and whip some milk; if you’re adding ice cream, you’ll be making a “frappe.”)
The flavor of ice cream typically should reflect the shake flavor, so use strawberry ice cream for strawberry shakes, chocolate for chocolate, coffee for coffee — and supplement flavors with a corresponding syrup. If a double dose of chocolate is too much, have no fear: The “black and white” (vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup) is a time-honored tradition nationwide, and is the typical chocolate shake throughout the Midwest.
The straw test
Once you’ve selected the base, you’ll need it to be soft enough that you can scoop it out without effort — a pint will get there in about 10-15 minutes on your counter. Proportion will determine how thick the shake turns out, so be careful here. “You’re going for a thickness that you can stand a straw in and not have it fall over to the side,” says Stan Frankenthaler, executive chef of Baskin-Robbins. (If you’re stuck with ice cream of an airy nature, you can try to thicken the shake by substituting half-and-half or even whole cream for the milk.)
The ultimate guideline is typically American: Do what you like. “The sky’s the limit,” says Frankenthaler.
But to make a milkshake that brings all the boys (and girls) to the yard, you’ve got to achieve just the right blend, one that melds flavors evenly and keeps things thick without forcing you to grab a spoon. Striking that balance is generally easiest with the silver-cup drink mixers made specifically for shakes, since they run slower and aerate more evenly than regular blenders. But if you’re dealing with a traditional blender, just pulse a few times to get things moving and then set it on low.
Once you’ve mixed it to your desired thickness, you’ve only to pour it in a glass and add the finishing touches. Whipped cream, syrup, crumbled cookies or fruit are all acceptable, but for a truly American shake, there’s only one way to go. “Whipped cream and a maraschino cherry,” says Weinstein. “What else?”
Tracie McMillan is a Brooklyn-based writer who covers food and social issues.