An Inside Look at Why Milwaukee Is the Frozen Custard Capital of the World

frozen custard, frozen dessert, Milwaukee frozen custard
Lacey Muszynski/Thrillist

Milwaukee has a deep love affair with frozen custard... in fact, we have more excellent custard stands per capita here than in any other US city. OK, to be honest, I can’t find any actual facts to back that up (for some reason, the census bureau isn’t as interested in this as I am), but I’m willing to bet a year’s supply of custard on the fact that it’s true.

Many on the East Coast love to remind us that custard actually got its start in Coney Island. While this may be technically true, Milwaukeeans have gotten it down to a science. Custard was introduced to the Midwest during the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, and came here in 1938, when Paul Gilles opened our city’s first custard stand. Gilles’ business was eventually sold to Robert Linscott, whose son Tom and grandson Willy continue to operate the shop today.

Leon's Frozen Custard, Frozen Custard, Milwaukee
Flickr/Mr. Nixter

Other custard stands soon followed Gilles’ model. The iconic Leon’s first opened in 1942, and Kopp’s soon followed in 1950, thus completing the trifecta of MKE’s best custard stands -- which are also still among the busiest in the city. What can I say -- Milwaukeeans are creatures of habit, and like to get their custard where they did when they were growing up.

If you’re talking to the uninitiated (read: anyone not originally from MKE), they might mistake custard for ice cream... and, even more mistakenly, think that these two treats are created equal. As anyone from Milwaukee knows, we would never call custard “ice cream” here -- and if someone does, they’ll be treated to looks ranging from confusion, to silent stares of disapproval, even sincere resentment... OK, maybe that last one would just be coming from me. But there really are some key differences between ice cream and frozen custard. For instance:

frozen custard, frozen custard machine
Flickr/Ben Husmann

Proper custard comes from an iron lung

To make true Milwaukee-style frozen custard, you’ll need an iron lung -- fortunately, not an actual pressure ventilator, but a seriously hardcore ice cream machine nicknamed for its formidable shape and size.

One reason to employ these behemoths is overrun, the technical term for the amount of air whipped into a frozen dessert. With a lot of standard-fare supermarket ice creams, you end up paying as much for the air as you do actual product: if an ice cream has 100% overrun (which is not an atypical number) a full half of the packaged product is actually nothing but the stuff you breathe.

Custard’s overrun, however, should hit at less than 25%, according to Linscott of Gilles Frozen Custard. “Quality custards have less air whipped into them. Some places go higher, but I don’t know many that go much lower [than we do],” he says. The end result: a dense solidity that ice cream wishes it could claim.

These machines also make custard terrifically fast. At Gilles, that means the finished product is ready less than twelve minutes from the time the mix is poured into the machine -- although the exact time varies by flavor. Recipes that contain more sugar take a little longer to finish (which makes sense when you think about how much harder it would be to freeze an ingredient like sugar versus, say, cream). The iron lung’s quick-freeze method is also key to keeping the product’s ice crystals small, which is what gives custard its iconically silky, super smooth texture.

Next, the custard is sent down a chute into a dipping freezer, where it’s ready to be dished up. Because it’s served as soon as it’s made, the temperature of the custard is higher than that of scooped ice cream, which has to be kept in a freezer before serving. This makes for a softer product, similar to soft-serve ice cream -- although thanks to the low overrun and small ice crystal formation, you end up with a completely different, infinitely more luxurious texture.

We ain't afraid of no yolks

Fat, as you’ve surely heard time and again, equals flavor. This axiom is largely true: delicious heavy cream, for instance, contains at least 30% butterfat, whereas skim milk contains less than .5% -- which is why it’s so bland and watery. So you’d be forgiven for thinking that more butterfat is always the answer to better flavor. That axiom isn’t always true in frozen applications, however. “With higher butterfat, custard loses its velvety texture and starts getting greasy,” Linscott says.

And so, frozen custard mix is required to have at least 10% butterfat, generating a mouthfeel that’s rich -- but greaseless. Custard also must contain 1.4% egg yolks: fewer eggs, and it’s considered ice cream; less butterfat, and you’ve got “ice milk,” which sounds like it would be Ned Flanders’ favorite non-popsicle frozen dessert. The FDA regulates these ratios, determining what can be called “frozen custard,” just like it regulates everything else.

frozen custard, frozen custard in a cone
Lacey Muszynski/Thrillist

Custard stands use mixes from different suppliers, many of which offer varying degrees of butterfat or egg yolk content -- meaning there’s lots of choices for burgeoning frozen custard stands to choose from. Chances are, your favorite stand has been using the same formula for decades, which is why you can tell the difference between Leon’s and Kopp’s -- even without that telltale triangular wafer cookie.

Milwaukee weather is perfect for custard

Weirdly enough, the Midwest has ideal weather for selling custard. You’d think that people would buy more custard during massive heat waves, but it turns out that ultra-high heat just makes people cranky and lazy. “Usually when it gets that hot, people aren’t moving. There’s a sweet spot between about 60 and 80 degrees when you do your best sales,” says Linscott. “Those 95-degree days, sales go in the tank.”

chocolate custard, frozen custard
Flickr/Michael Newman

Weather affects not only how much custard is sold, but what flavors, as well -- which should come as no surprise to anyone whose favorite flavor is brandy Alexander or pumpkin pie. Linscott has learned that by selling different flavors at different times of the year, he'll automatically sell more. Some surprising exceptions to that rule: butter pecan and turtle, which are popular year-round.

Although custard flavors now come in tiramisu and Snickers chunky cheesecake, the most popular flavor is still... vanilla: while Milwaukeeans love standing out with their custard affection, they don’t appear to want to buck the status quo. I’d like to think that the subtlety of this flavor just allows our dairy to shine. No one can resist the power of Wisconsin dairy.

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Lacey Muszynski is a Milwaukee native who learned that Gilles should be pronounced “Gillises” and not “Gillies” thanks to Tom Linscott. Follow her on Twitter @worthhersalt.