Liquid Nitrogen Gelato: Updating a Classic

Liquid Nitrogen Gelato: Updating a Classic

Photo: N2 Extreme Gelato

Ice cream has been a beloved summer staple for decades. The favorite ingredients, flavor combinations, and topping trends have come and gone overtime. Disappointingly, the process to create it has remained largely the same. With the arrival of liquid nitrogen-infused ice cream, this is finally beginning to change.

We spoke with Min Chai, founder of N2 Extreme Gelato in Sydney, Australia to answer some of our questions about this new dessert process. Starting in 2012, Chai was one of the pioneers in serving accessible nitrogen desserts. Before then, this was an ingredient only widely used in fine dining restaurants.

Now nitrogen-infused ice cream parlors are popping up in major cities across the globe. The trend looks like it is here to stay.

Photo: N2 Extreme Gelato

What is It?

“Nitrogen gelato is just like gelato but made differently,” shared Chai. Instead of the traditional method of slow churning and freezing ahead of time, nitrogen gelato is created in front of you. The milk, cream, and flavorings are mixed from scratch. Next, the not-so-secret ingredient, -196°C liquid nitrogen is added. This instantly freezes the gelato. Within five minutes, the gelato will be in your cup, giving you the freshest possible dessert.

Why Use Nitrogen?

Liquid nitrogen is an expensive ingredient. This means that the cost of a scoop will be higher than that in a traditional ice cream shop in the area. Customers might be hesitant to spend more money. Additionally, extra time is spent in training staff to follow proper safety precautions.

Photo: N2 Extreme Gelato

They also need to wear gloves or goggles to avoid injury. So why use nitrogen when traditional ice cream and gelato are already so popular? Is it worth it? Chai and other nitrogen devotees say yes.

Chai explained, “It freezes the product quickly thus creating very fine ice crystals, giving you a smoother and creamier texture. You have a lot more control over the consistency.” Since it is hand-churned for just a few minutes, the amount of air in the gelato is as small as possible. Conversely, commercial machines whip large amounts of air into ice cream.

The key to the creamiest cup of gelato is to keep the ice crystals very small. This is impossible when freezing milk slowly. With liquid nitrogen, small ice crystals create a dense and velvety cup of gelato. Once you taste how smooth and flavorful nitrogen gelato is, you will understand why it has so many devoted fans.

Photo: N2 Extreme Gelato

Advantages of Gelato

Traditionally, gelato is churned slowly while ice cream is whipped quickly, meaning ice cream has much more ‘overrun’ or air in the finished product. “The technical difference usually comes down to the butter fat content (usually higher fat in ice cream) and overrun (the amount of air in the product, usually higher air content in ice cream),” Chai explained. Less fat is used in gelato, which helps the individual flavors stand out more than in ice cream. The higher density combined with the fuller flavor of gelato makes it a perfect choice for nitrogen infusion.

Since the flavor of the gelato comes through so powerfully when using nitrogen, top-quality ingredients are essential. Cheap or old ingredients cannot be hidden as easily as in traditional ice cream.

When gelato is made beforehand, customers have no choice in flavor combinations. Flavor varieties are made hours, days, or even weeks beforehand and sit behind the glass, waiting to go on your cone. With nitrogen infusions, it is different. Since customization is encouraged, every customer can receive a unique flavor of gelato that is perfect for them.

Chai has crafted more than 500 flavors of gelato. She works with a diverse team that uses cuisines from all over the world to create unusual flavor combinations. “We draw our ideas from all food from all cuisines.” N2 Extreme Gelato’s two most popular flavors are innovative re-imaginings of dessert classics. Their cup of Crème Brûlée inspired gelato rests under a blow-torched coating of sugar. Their Ferrero Reveal is an explosion of chocolate and hazelnut. Both flavors have dedicated fans. “In fact we get hate mail if we take them off the menu,” Chai joked.

Photo: N2 Extreme Gelato

Tokyo Lamington at N2 Extreme Gelato is another great innovation. “It’s a funky concept we wanted to try out,” she shared. “We wanted to combine an Australian dessert (in this case lamington) with our love for Japan. So imagine flavors like black sesame, pandan and coconut, matcha, and durian.” The possibilities are endless. Meanwhile, some of the biggest brands are taking note of the trend. For example, Starbucks Reserve Milano Roastery, the first and only one in coffee-loving Italy, serves gelato made with liquid nitrogen. The thousands of visitors who stop by every week can add a shot of Starbucks espresso and watch their ingredients quickly freeze in a dramatic cloud of white vapor. It has already been a huge hit for Starbucks and their amazed customers. Other brands will be sure to follow, bringing liquid nitrogen into the mainstream.

Science or Art?

When customers walk into the store and see this special making process, with staff in lab coats, long gloves, and goggles, plus tanks of liquid nitrogen, many are reminded of high school chemistry classes. The explanations about the molecular gastronomy of nitrogen gelato given by staff members add to the feeling that they are witnessing a science experiment.

Is the process behind liquid infused nitrogen gelato more about calculations or creativity? Chai answered, “I believe gelato itself is more science than art, we spend more time on spread-sheets calculating.” Her dessert flavors are carefully created with the liquid nitrogen process in mind. The exact science of the perfect combination of ingredients is all done behind the scenes.

Photo: N2 Extreme Gelato

Despite this, imagination still plays a key part. Chai added that “the art lies in the delicate balancing of ingredients and flavors.”

The theatrics of nitrogen ice cream attract a large number of curious customers. They see their gelato made before their eyes. Most cannot help but get out their phones and snap a few photos. Some skeptics see this as a gimmick and expect its popularity to wane over time. Chai believes the secret is ensuring that the flavors stand by themselves. It is not a good show; it’s a perfect cup of gelato.

Photo: N2 Extreme Gelato

Is It Safe?

The novelty of the process has caused many to wonder if liquid nitrogen is dangerous. Don’t worry, you can enjoy your cup of creamy gelato without fear. Liquid nitrogen i s a non-toxic and non-flammable ingredient. It is completely safe if employees take the proper precautions. An injury could occur from direct skin contact with the freezing element. However, due to its boiling point of -196°C, the nitrogen evaporates by the time the ice cream reaches your mouth. No need to be afraid — dig in and see what all the fuss is about.

As nitro-infused gelato/ice cream crosses over into the mainstream, we can’t wait to see how far it will go. What other technical advances will shape what goes into our ice cream cone?

Photo: N2 Extreme Gelato


How do you see the trend of nitrogen gelato in the future?

Chai: I think it is all about the quality of product and experience you offer instead of just the visual gimmick of the ‘smoke’ making gelato.

Could you please share any upcoming plans of N2 Extreme Gelato?

Chai: In Australia, we are focusing on our catering offering where we cater to companies like Google, Twitter, and Instagram or events like the Sydney Night Noodle Markets or the Singapore GP F1. As for Tokyo, we are continuing to introduce new flavors and collaborations. We are now looking to expanding into south-east Asia.

What do you think of the trend of the gelato or ice cream industry regarding flavor innovation and adoption of technology?

Chai: I think the ‘trend’ focus is too heavily on the visual gimmick instead of the product or experience, and I’ve already seen many ‘copy cats’ have closed since — they can copy the concept but they can’t replicate the core of what we believe and do.

How do you see the trend of nitrogen gelato in the future?

Chai: I think it is all about the quality of product and experience you offer instead of just the visual gimmick of the ‘smoke’ making gelato.

Photo: N2 Extreme Gelato

N2 Extreme Gelato

Originally a physical store in Australia, their focus is now on catering events and opening pop-ups around the world. A new spot has opened at N2 Brunch Spot in Tokyo and they are looking into more expansion into SE Asia.