On your list of important cooking tools, ice-cream scoops probably don’t rank very high. I went without one for years, sacrificing a soup spoon instead, its handle bent way back in its noble effort of trying to scoop hard ice cream. But now that I’ve got a few good “dishers” on hand, I use them not just for scooping ice cream, but for muffin batters and cookie doughs, too—and I save my poor spoons for soup.
The most traditional scoop is best suited to non-ice-cream duties
For many people, the half-sphere, trigger-release scoop, the kind with a scraping blade set flush against the bowl (like the “disher” at right) is what comes to mind when they think of an ice-cream scoop. But perhaps it shouldn’t be. “The problem with the squeeze type,” notes Jonathan White of Egg Farm Dairy, “is that after the third scoop or so, the metal gets so chilled that the ice cream freezes onto it, and even the scraper-bale has a hard time releasing the ball.” This proved to be true when I tried these models, and it would be a real nuisance if, like White, you’re called upon to scoop lots of ice cream at, say, a state fair. (Egg Farm Dairy makes fantastic ice cream, by the way.) But for just a few portions of ice cream, you should be able to get some nicely shaped balls of ice-cream with the better versions of this scoop style.
Consider trigger-release scoops made by Vollrath, which come in a variety of sizes and cost about $9. Not only does the Vollrath’s sharp edge cut well through hard ice cream, but its design also allows you to get a good, forceful grip on the handle before using a trigger release with your thumb—in contrast to scoops whose entire handle gets squeezed together to prompt the release. As a lefty, I thought I’d like the latter style better, since the Vollrath’s trigger is set up for use with your right thumb only. But being able to grab the handle firmly outweighs having to switch the scoop to my right hand to release.
The best use for trigger-release scoops is portioning batter and cookie dough. Zeroll, which makes a variety of ice-cream scoops, calls its trigger-release scoop a food disher; the words ice cream aren’t even on the box. Indeed, these scoops, which come in a wide range of sizes, are ideal for portioning out muffin batter, and a small scoop works well for most drop cookies, yielding uniform sizes and shapes. (And, if you’re a caterer or in the food- service business, uniform portions of rice, mashed potatoes, tuna salad, chicken salad…you get the idea.) The scoops also work well on softer ice products like sorbet and nougat glacé.
The number on the disher refers to how many portions per quart the scoop yields, but this varies depending on the density of the food. There are also slight differences among manufacturers. For example, Zeroll’s #20 disher has a bowl diameter of 2-1/8-inches and holds 1.77-fluid ounces, while Vollrath’s #20 is 2-inches in diameter and holds 1.66 fluid ounces. Kathleen Stewart, who runs the Downtown Bakery in Healdsburg, California, likes a #16 scoop for conventional-size muffin tins. She also recommends dipping the scoop in water between scoops. A good size for drop cookies is #40, which equals about one heaping tablespoon of dough.
When looking for a trigger-release scoop, be sure that it’s comfortable to hold and easy to squeeze; if it isn’t, it may mean that the cogs and ratchets don’t mesh well.
Better options for scooping ice cream
The classic open-sided scoop is a favorite among pros. Next time you’re in an ice-cream shop, take a look at what the kid behind the counter is using. Chances are it’s the open-sided design, which creates nicely round balls of ice cream when you draw it straight back along the surface of the ice cream about 1/4 inch deep. (This scooping motion works best in half-gallon containers or larger, which give you room to scrape.) Some manufacturers offer a variety of sizes for these open-sided scoops that can be ordered directly from the company and through some retail outlets but in kitchenware stores, you’ll mostly find the #20 scoop, which holds about 2 ounces of ice cream. (This style tends to hold more than the dishers, and so it doesn’t correspond to the numbers for disherstyle scoops.)
Manufacturers of open-sided scoops include Zeroll, Henckels, Rösle, and Cuisipro, all of which feature a handy hole for hanging up the scoop. Zeroll scoops, which retail for about $20, transfer heat from your hand to the scoop via a liquid-filled handle. If your ice cream is really hard, running the scoop under warm water will help get the ice-cream balls rolling, so to speak. One caveat: Ice-cream scoops with anti-frost handles can’t go in the dishwasher.
A spade is great for packing your own ice cream. The other scoop you’ll see at an ice-cream shop looks more like a spade and also comes in models filled with defrosting liquid. Pros use these not so much for serving ice cream but for packing it into pints and for knocking ice cream off the sides of the large tubs from which they scoop. Both practices can be useful at home, depending on your ice-cream consumption and how often you make your own. Spades make quick work of transferring ice cream from an ice-cream maker to a storage bowl. The spade’s curved edge also works well for scraping down the ice cream stuck to the sides of the container. (It’s this clinging ice cream that gets freezer burn first; by scraping it off the sides and leveling the ice cream, you’ll help prevent ice crystals from forming, mixing with the rest of the ice cream, and giving it that off flavor.)
Kim Forbes, a representative of Zeroll, offers another use for the spade: “It’s useful for cutting a big old slab of ice cream for a piece of cake.” I found that this works especially well when slicing ice cream from a rectangular half-gallon container. Forbes’s other reason for owning a spade is more compelling: “It’s great if you like huge portions.”