Humans have been loving and eating ice cream and similar frozen desserts for a long time. A big step in the history of ice cream was the invention of what is now called soft serve. Keep reading to learn about both the history and the science of the delicious product coming out of a soft serve machine.

The History of Soft Serve

There are several competing stories about how soft serve ice cream came about. To be honest, no one knows which one is true, and it really doesn’t matter. Sometimes things are invented simultaneously, and that might very well be the case with soft serve.

  • Thomas Cavellus and Carvel Thomas sold ice cream out of his truck in New York, and when the truck got a flat tire one day in 1934 he decided to start selling the soft, partially melted ice cream as something different. Turns out it was a huge hit, and he built the first Carvel Frozen CUstard store in 1934. He also worked on machinery till he had the perfect soft serve machine in 1939.
  • Dairy Queen and J.F. McCullough Meanwhile, over in Illinois, J.F. McCullough opened an ice cream shop in 1927. He and his son like the ice cream before it was fully frozen and one day decided to see if other people like that, too. Turns out they really do. They bought an ice cream machine for sale in 1939 and tweaked it to make it a soft serve machine.
  • Archie Kohr Archie and his brother Elton and Lester wanted to expand the family dairy, so they started selling ice cream in addition to milk. They kept tinkering with their recipe, as well as with ice cream machine until they got a smooth and light product that was silky and refreshing. They sold 18,000 cones on the boardwalk at Coney Island in 1919 and knew they had a winner.

The Science of Soft Serve

Both a soft serve ice cream machine and a traditional ice cream machine freeze air and whip it into the base mix. Frozen dairy is hard as a rock, so it needs between 30% and 60% air to become edible ice cream. Both machines can only freeze the dairy product so far. What typically happens is the soft serve is directly drawn into a cone while regular ice cream is put into a container and frozen harder.

In all ice cream, liquid fat is churned, or spread throughout, a mixture of sugar, water, ice, and air bubbles. It’s the air that makes the ice cream soft, and today’s soft serve has a lot more air than a typical ice cream from the store. Twice as much, generally.

How Today’s Soft Service Machine Works

A powdered mix and water are added to the machine, which does everything else. The machine both freezes and whips the mixture. The whipping happens with special paddles, and the freezing happens as pipes containing moving frozen chemicals come in contact with the mixture. The chemicals don’t come in contact with the mixture, but they do freeze it far more quickly than frozen water could do. The whipping keeps the mixture from freezing in some places while others remain liquid, and also incorporates the air.

Some higher quality soft serve machines use fresh diary to make their product, but the typical cheaper soft serve cone is made from a powdered product and water. Cheap soft serve can have oils instead of dairy fat and usually contain a lot of thickeners like carrageenan and guar gum to achieve the right texture.

Americans aren’t likely to lose their love of ice cream any time soon. It’s consistently one of the top three items that astronauts report missing, along with pizza and sodas. And we’re also not likely to abandon soft serve, in particular, any time soon, given that consumers choose soft serve over hard ice cream seven times out of 10. There’s going to be a market for that soft serve ice cream machine for sale for a long time to come.


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