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Cooking Tips

How to Soften Rock-Hard Ice Cream (Depending on How Much Time You Have)

You’ll never struggle with a frozen-solid pint again.

Published Aug. 5, 2021.

If there’s one kitchen battle I always lose, it’s trying to scoop dense, rock-hard ice cream straight from the freezer. I always end up settling with a bowl that’s half-filled with ice cream shavings instead of scoops. Not to mention the sore wrist that comes along with it.

But no longer! With these three techniques—listed in order of quickness—I can avoid a kitchen meltdown and get actual scoops, whether I’ve got 1 minute or 30.

1. Fast: Use the Fridge

As is true for many things in life, the slowest way is also the best way. If you want pristine scoops and can wait 30 minutes, let your ice cream soften in the refrigerator.

Just as when cooking a roast in the oven, the greater the disparity between the temperature of the food and the temperature of the air around it, the more unevenly it heats up. When we left a pint of Ben & Jerry's on the counter, the top ½ inch registered about 8 degrees and was soft enough to scoop after 15 minutes, but it was still rock-hard 2 inches below the surface. By the time the middle of the pint had softened 30 minutes later, the rim was starting to liquefy.

ice creamice cream scoop
We noticed a clear difference between ice cream softened on the counter (left) and ice cream softened in the fridge (right).

But softening a pint of ice cream in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes brought the temperature to around 8 degrees throughout, allowing us to scoop perfect balls. (Note: If you've tempered ice cream in the refrigerator, you don't need to take its temperature to know if it's sufficiently softened. If you can press gently in the middle with your finger to create a ¼-inch indentation, it's ready.)

2. Faster: Use a Knife

Once again proving itself to be the kitchen MVP, a sharp knife makes scooping possible without waiting for the ice cream to soften. Slicing a grid into the rock-hard ice cream breaks it up and makes it scoopable with a warmed-up ice cream scoop.

Here’s how to do it: ​​Warm the blade of a sharp paring knife under hot water. Make 1-inch-deep cuts, spaced 1 inch apart, from side to side. Turn the container 90 degrees and repeat to form a checkerboard pattern. Warm the ice cream scoop under hot water before scooping. Repeat as necessary.

3. Fastest: Use the Microwave

The microwave is usually the worst option for softening ice cream, leading to ice cream with liquid edges and a rock-hard center. But if you need scoopable ice cream in a hurry, there’s a way to avoid that outcome: Microwave the carton at 50 percent power.

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Microwaves penetrate only the outer ¼ to 1 inch of food. Any time you decrease the power level, it decreases the amount of time the appliance is on, which gives heat time to disperse away from the surface and toward the center. We found that heating ice cream at 50 percent power for 10 to 60 seconds (how long will depend on the microwave) and checking every 10 seconds to see if the center was sufficiently soft (about 8 degrees is ideal) did the trick, leaving only a narrow ring of melted ice cream around the edges.

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