Here’s the scoop.

By Corey Williams
June 25, 2020
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Let’s talk about ice cream. Where did it come from and who the heck invented it? 

While it’s impossible to credit any single person or country with ice cream’s inception, we can trace its history through various written records from the last few thousand years.

Here’s the short answer: “It is my personal opinion that the very first frozen dessert had to be flavored snow,” Francisco J. Migoyo says in The Culinary Institute of America’s definitive ice cream guide, Frozen Desserts (buy it from Amazon here). “I don’t believe it was discovered by a single group of people. I think it may have been like harnessing fire or the invention of the wheel: It was merely accidental and occurred in many disconnected cultures.” 

Here’s the long answer: 

What Is Ice Cream, Exactly? 

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Ice cream is a sweetened frozen dessert. When we talk about “ice cream,” we could be talking about different things depending on where we live and who we are—for some people, “ice cream” can mean anything from sorbet to frozen custard. 

For the purposes of this article, we’re using the Merriam-Webster definition: “a sweet flavored frozen food containing cream or butterfat and usually eggs.”

The History Of Frozen Desserts

The first frozen dessert (likely snow mixed with fruit juice, but the specifics are unknown) may have come from China circa 3,000 B.C.E. 

Egyptian hieroglyphs created about 500 years later depict snow next to fruit juice. 

Despite these records, many people credit the Roman emperor Nero with “inventing” flavored ice. He was known to mix honey and wine with snow, which he obtained by sending runners to snowy mountains. 

Fun fact: Ice cream is only possible because of something called the “endothermic effect.” This scientific process, in which salt lowers the freezing point of ice and allows it to freeze another liquid through conduction, is what separates your sundae from a melted puddle of sugary cream. 

Though this effect has obviously always existed, the first known written record appeared in a 4th-century C.E. Indian poem called Panchatantra. 

OK, So Where Did Ice Cream Come From?  

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Marco Polo is often credited with bringing an early version of ice cream from China to Italy. Migoya is sure to note, however, that this commonly believed “fact” is unverifiable. 

Here’s what we do know: Italian noblewoman Catherine de Medici married Henry II of France (formerly the Duke of Orleans) in 1553. As was the custom at the time, she didn’t enter into the marriage completely alone—she was accompanied by servants and chefs from her home country. These Italian chefs introduced the French to frozen desserts that resembled what we would call sorbets.

Custard-based ice creams didn’t come onto the scene until later, with recipes appearing in a cookbook published in 1700 called L' Art de Faire des Glacés (The Art of Making Ices). 

By 1744, these ice creams had made their way to America. A letter from a guest of Maryland’s then-Governor William Bladen referenced a frozen dessert made from milk and strawberries.

The first ice cream parlor in the U.S. opened in 1776 in New York City. 

The rest, as they say, is history.