Science by the Scoop

Ice cream. Berkey Creamery.

A carton of maraschino cherry ice cream is inspected for air bubbles or settling of ingredients. Image courtesy of Steve Williams, Pennsylvania State University.

Few are interested in ice cream beyond its cool, sweet relief on a hot day. But for those manufacturing ice cream, knowing—or not knowing—the science behind the sweet can make or break a business. Among those in the know is Tom Palchak, manager of Pennsylvania State University’s Berkey Creamery, where 2.2 million ice-cream cones are scooped annually. Every year Palchak shares his knowledge with the class of eager ice-cream enthusiasts attending the Creamery’s Ice Cream Short Course tour in State College.

The food trade is now a multibillion-dollar industry, backed by science that consumers rarely see. Food scientists study edible items molecule by molecule. They are responsible for inventing products like Pringles and Pop Tarts and creating flavors like blue raspberry and bubble gum. For 118 years students have been coming to Penn State for its accessible and practical approach to food science—especially concerning the producti-on of ice cream.

In 1892 Penn State offered its first short course on dairy science to farmers. It has since evolved into a six-day exploration of the science and technology behind ice cream, becoming the oldest ice-cream short course in the country. Every January more than 100 people come from all corners of the world to learn about ice-cream science.

Part of the short course includes a walking tour of the Berkey Creamery, led by Palchak. Inside the ice-cream plant a maze of pipes connects gleaming stainless- steel tanks. Push buttons, colored knobs, pull cords, and levers control the heating, swirling, freezing, and filling operations. Ice cream entrepreneurs and experienced manufacturers alike listen intently to Palchak as he explains the steps of ice-cream production. Questions flow like soft serve on a sultry night.

“How many ounces in each cone?”

“How do you sanitize your equipment?”

“What is the percent overrun in Penn State Ice Cream?”