Hometown Hungers: Wisconsin Frozen Custard

In Wisconsin, I scream, you scream, we all scream for … frozen custard. Creamy, dense and rich, this signature dessert of the Dairy State is always in demand.
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Photo by: Zakharova_Natalia/istock ©Zakharova_Natalia

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Leave it to Wisconsin, a state with more than 1 million dairy cows, to take its frozen desserts seriously. Wisconsin custard, which is silkier and denser than ice cream, lures thousands of fans anytime the weather warms.

“The addition of egg yolks to frozen custard is what makes it unique,” says Cary Frye, vice president, regulatory and scientific affairs for the International Ice Cream Association. “Legally, frozen custard must contain at least 1.4 percent egg yolk by weight, but some contain more, along with the minimum of 10 percent milkfat. The egg yolks act as a natural emulsifier, imparting a creamier, rich texture.”

Nowhere is this satiny treat more prevalent than in Wisconsin, which has been called the unofficial custard capital of the world. Milwaukee alone reportedly boasts the highest concentration of frozen custard shops on the planet, despite the fact that New York was the city where the dessert was first sold commercially in the United States, back in 1919.

Flavor options were once strictly limited to classic vanilla and chocolate, but Kopp’s shook up Wisconsin’s frozen custard scene in 1960 by boldly introducing a “flavor of the day” concept that soon took off around the state. These days, devotees can stick with the old standbys or sink their spoon into one of the newfangled flavors dreamed up at dozens of different frozen-custard operations around the state ( Leon’s actually offers butter pecan on a daily basis, in addition to a special flavor of the day). The demand is such that even seasonal stands stay open well into the autumn, with devotees lining up to indulge in the state tradition.

For those who want a taste of the Dairy State without trekking to Wisconsin, check out Food Network's gallery of more than 10 top spots serving classic takes on frozen custard from coast to coast.

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