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The only certain thing about the origins of ice cream is that its earliest history remains unknown. As will be seen, the ice cream we have today is rooted in several traditions, often inter-mingled with each other during the course of history. In this sense, the invention of ice cream is truly a very collaborate human achievement.
If “ice cream” is understood in a wide sense, the first humans who tried to mix snow with something sweet could be dubbed the inventors. This also means that it would be impossible to try to exactly pinpoint who started it, or even where this happened. In this light, the joys of “sweetened snow” (“ices”) were probably discovered more or less simultaneously in various parts of the world, when the first humans happened to mix some snow or ice with honey, taste it and like it!
Leaving the pre-historic caves, however, there are a number of suggestions about where the cradles of (very early) ice cream making stood – like in China, in the Orient, or in the ancient Rome. What is quite clear is that the ice cream of those ancient days roughly speaking probably still had more in common with “flavoured ices” than with the ice creams of our age. It would probably be more correct to call them “ice cream pre-cursors” – forerunners to the ice cream of today.
While most of this “pre-cursory work” probably was carried out in China and in the Orient, this knowledge is believed to have later been brought to Europe around the time of the Renaissance. From this point onwards, there seems to be quite a general agreement that a new phase in the history of ice cream began, leading from “ices” to “ice creams”. And this “new dawn” is believed to have began in Italy.
Many colourful stories about these early European ice cream-days still circulate widely (one of the most famous and oft-repeated being the one about Catherine de Medici bringing with her the treasured knowledge of ice cream-making from Italy to the French court). Today, however, there is a growing consensus that many of these “ice cream-birth stories”, however entertaining they may be, are sadly lacking in terms of actual historic evidence. In reality, it would probably be hopeless to prove that ice cream as we know it was invented at any particular historic event, or by one or another specific “First ice cream master”. What is clear, however, is that proper ice cream making requires a method that will give the ice cream maker the capacity to freeze water to ice. The required technique (“freezing point depression” by adding salts and/or saltpeter to water) was already known in other parts of the world at least from the early Middle Ages, but only started to take hold in Europe during the later part of the Renaissance.
The early development that lead to a subsequent refinement of ice cream techniques in (mainly) continental Europe had mostly been for the benefits of the aristocracy and the wealthy few. While ice cream making spread over the world, it was not until around the time of the industrialisation that new technical interventions made it possible to – quite literally – put ice creams in the hands of the masses.
Wholesale production of ice cream had started already around the 1850’s in the United States. However, the truly modern era of commercial ice cream production definitely took off in the United States around the time between the two world wars. Existing know-how, coupled with new and improved technical inventions (particularly with regard to refrigeration) made large-scale production, distribution and storage of ice cream possible, and thereby accessible for mass-consumption on previously unthinkable scales.
Today, making ice cream has become a global business matter, with both large multi-national companies and others tending to the frozen needs of the many. At the same time, however, the general conditions for making good home-made ice cream have probably never been better than today. A freezer has become a rather common household appliance, and even buying an ice cream machine has become an economic possibility for many households.