Few summer treats are as iconic as the ice pop. Hot days, a rainbow of colors dripping down your arm: It’s pure bliss. And it happens to be bliss that you can easily create in your own kitchen, especially if you’re hesitant to bring home store-bought varieties that may have artificial colors and flavors.
Unlike ice cream, which takes more precision to perfect, ice pops (Popsicle is a trademark we try to avoid using generically) are relatively straightforward to improvise depending on what you have. The bar to entry is pretty low, if you invest in an inexpensive set of plastic molds or just roll with paper cups and wooden craft sticks. Since batches are typically small, the ingredients don’t necessarily require a huge buy-in either. Chances are you’ll end up with something enjoyable, even if the texture and flavor isn’t 100% where you want it to be. Here are a few tips to help you get close to that point.
– Lean in on the fruit. “For richer flavor, don’t stint on the fruit. A proportion of about two-thirds fruit puree to one-third water, milk or other liquid generally results in an ice pop with proper fruit power,” Toni Lydecker wrote in The Washington Post in 1985 (yes, these things are indeed timeless!). Consider what’s in season for peak flavor, although the fruit doesn’t even have to be in peak condition. Ice pops are a great way to use up overripe fruit that’s close to going off, especially because it will be pureed (for extra-smooth texture, strain out seeds and/or other fibrous bits). You can even try to score seconds or blemished fruit at the farmers market, says Fany Gerson in her book “Paletas: Authentic Recipes for Mexican Ice Pops, Shaved Ice & Aguas Frescas.” Fruit at that stage will be high in natural sugars, which translates to unbeatable flavor.
– Add some kind of sweetener. Just because there’s natural sugar in fruit doesn’t mean you can get away with forgoing any other type of sweetener. For optimal texture that doesn’t involve a rock-hard pop, add some sugar to the mix. Sugar attracts water, lowering the temperature at which ice forms and thus reducing the presence of ice crystals. Too much sugar will turn your ice pop into soup, though.
– Sugar doesn’t have to mean the granulated stuff, either. Many recipes will call for a simple syrup of sugar and water, though not always in the standard equal amounts. Lydecker suggests a ratio of 1 part sugar to 2 parts water, and many of Gerson’s recipes also skew in that direction. In that vein, you can also consider already liquid sweeteners such as honey, agave nectar or corn syrup (not high-fructose), which actually tastes less sweet than sugar. Or even consider jam, which will contribute both concentrated fruit flavor and sugar for improved texture. Gerson says to keep in mind that frozen foods will taste less sweet than those at room temperature, so what may look like more sugar than you need won’t necessarily come across that way on your tongue.
– Enrich with dairy. “Another old standby among homemade ice pops is really a smoothie in frozen form,” Lydecker said. All it takes is some fruit, yogurt or milk and a little sweetener as needed. If you’re looking to use up odds and ends of half-and-half or even heavy cream, by all means use them for extra richness. If you’d like to bypass fruit altogether, your favorite pudding can be frozen, too.
– Add other flavors. A tablespoon or so of lemon or lime juice can bring your flavors into sharper focus and provide some needed contrast with the sweetness. Liqueurs are another option, though you’ll want to be judicious – a few tablespoons if you’re improvising, though specific recipes may call for more. Too much alcohol can prevent the pops from freezing. Herbs are another great addition, which you can incorporate by steeping in simple syrup or even just boiling water.
– Take a layered approach. If you have time and creative initiative, you can make stunning pops with multiple flavors and add-ins. Gerson says the key is to partially freeze each layer so that they stay distinct. The same goes if you want solid pieces such as chunks of fruit embedded in your pops without them sinking to the bottom. Freezers and recipes vary, though Gerson suggests 50 minutes per layer as a starting point.
– Set yourself up for success. Liquids expand as they freeze, so Gerson recommends leaving at least 1/4-inch of room at the top of your molds, or more if your mixture is particularly thin. If you’re using wooden sticks in cups or molds, allow the pops to partially freeze before inserting so they’ll stand up. Get your freezer as cold as you can, keep the door shut and leave room for air to circulate and more efficiently chill the pops. As with ice cream, the faster pops freeze, the smaller the ice crystals will be. For the best texture, Gerson says, don’t let them hang around in the molds for more than two weeks to prevent crystallization. You can, however, unmold pops and then store them for longer in a zip-top bag. Her preferred method for removing paletas is to submerge the entire mold in warm water. The sink works, although if your pops are in individual molds, I found a quart deli container perfect for dipping.