The makers of Dippin' Dots, the super-cold beads of ice cream, are looking for other foods to flash-freeze as competing products become more widely available.
Would you like your coffee regular, black or pelletized?
The question is important to the makers of Dippin’ Dots, those super-cold beads of ice cream that are sold largely at ballparks and amusement parks and have become a staple of childhood summers. While the company still churns out its classic product, in child-friendly flavors like Bubble Gum, S’mores and Cookies ‘n Cream, it has also introduced what it calls an “edible” espresso that can be spooned up like a snack, blended with milk for a shake or melted in a mug in the microwave for a fast cup of coffee.
“At first we were a bit leery of what people would think, but I think people really get it,” said Curt D. Jones, the president and founder of Dippin’ Dots.
The coffee dots are one of several new ways that the company is using liquid nitrogen to flash-freeze food, rendering it into tiny pearls. At minus 320 degrees, liquid nitrogen is so cold that it instantly freezes whatever is added to it, creating an impressive puff of vapor as droplets of ice cream base (or other foodstuffs) fall into it.
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While high-end chefs have lately been using liquid nitrogen to turn all kinds of food into dots, Dippin’ Dots was a pioneer, introducing its first product 23 years ago and creating a category that is now known as cryogenic ice cream.
“We’ve built this brand that has a fun factor to it,” Jones said.
Ice cream dots have traditionally been a novelty item, available primarily at entertainment venues and franchise stores where they can be stored at the proper temperature, minus 40 degrees. They are also sold in vending machines in shopping malls, both by Dippin’ Dots’ and its chief competitor, Mini Melts. But these days, dot-style products are more widely available, thanks in part to new technology that can keep the products stable in supermarket and home freezers.
IttiBitz, a dot-style ice cream introduced in 2009, claims it was the first to hit grocers’ freezers. The product is aimed squarely at children: The most popular flavors are the brightly colored ones, like Cotton Candy and Banana Split.
“There’s a tremendous nag factor to the product,” said Rachel Kyllo, a vice president at Kemps, which makes IttiBitz. “Mom gets nagged to put it in the cart.”
Also on some nag lists are Popsicle Shots, tubes of frozen dots in Lemon-Lime and Super Sour Fruit that children can tip directly into their mouths (a category of food sometimes referred to as “pourable”). They were introduced three years ago by Unilever, which also owns Good Humor and Breyers, and are sold from ice cream trucks.
Other big manufacturers are entering the dot arena. In April, Nestle introduced a line of frozen shakes and smoothies, sold at Target, Walmart and elsewhere, that let consumers make a drink out of dots: Peel back the lid, add milk and stir. West of the Rockies, the products are called Dreyer’s Shakes and Smoothies; in the East, they are sold as Edy’s.
Dippin’ Dots has trotted out a supermarket product, too. Its ice cream cakes look like standard ones but are infused with chocolate or rainbow dots; they are sold at Weis Markets and Food City stores, as well as online. The company aims to break into large chain stores with its coffee, which will be sold under the name Forty Below Joe, and possibly with other nascent products, like low-calorie dots and vanilla yogurt dots.
Children are not the only fans.
“I started craving Dippin’ Dots when I was pregnant,” said Starla Mendola Gable, 26, a stay-at-home mother in Columbiana, Ala. Now she buys them for her three young children, often partaking herself. “I like them because they’re not messy,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about them dripping all over the place.”
At the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, the publicity department had an impromptu Dippin’ Dots party on a recent Friday when a staff member brought up a bunch of pouches from the visitors’ cafe, where they are sold. Francesca Allegra, one of the aquarium’s publicists, was so excited that she sent a message on Twitter and posted a picture of her chocolate Dippin’ Dots online.
“This brings us back to elementary school,” Allegra said in a telephone interview. “I grew up in Tampa and I remember getting them at Busch Gardens. I remember mixing and matching flavors with my friends.”
Dots of the generic variety are already popular with chefs, now a generation into molecular gastronomy. Fans of “Top Chef” have seen contestants use liquid nitrogen to try to wow the judges, and some prominent restaurants are using it to impress their guests.
“You can probably name something and we’ve made Dippin’ Dots with it,” said Sean Brock, the executive chef at McCrady’s Restaurant in Charleston, S.C. “In fact, today we’re taking Big League Chew, the bubble gum, and making a sorbet.”
He has served barbecue-sauce dots with pork, mustard dots with a duck pate, and has added frozen cucumber pearls to a dish of salmon roe, partly as a visual pun.
“Once you get excited about it, you turn everything you can into Dippin’ Dots,” said Brock, adding that he was working on a dish that would feature melon purée dropped in liquid nitrogen. “It adds temperature and texture to the plate.”
The popularity of haute cuisine dots may help Dippin’ Dots as it tries to market Forty Below Joe. The coffee, introduced in 2008, has so far been sold mainly in franchise stores and on the company’s website (www.dippindots.com), where it comes in 42-ounce bags. But it is also available by the cup on some college campuses and at a few theme parks, like Universal Studios Hollywood and Hersheypark in Pennsylvania.
The coffee dots come in four flavors. There are pure espresso dots, unsweetened, and three of what the company calls frappés, which are sweetened espresso dots in vanilla, caramel and mocha. All four types can be eaten as is, or mixed with milk or heated.
“At home you’ll be able to take a third of a cup of water, a third of a cup of milk and a third of a cup of beads and microwave it,” said Jones, the Dippin’ Dots founder. “I think what we really bring to the table is convenience.”
The company is also developing a line of sorbet dots, in strawberry, citrus and piña colada, that can be mixed with alcohol for a grown-up libation (or with soda for a virgin one).
In some ways, Dippin’ Dots is just trying to keep up with the market it inadvertently created. In 1992, the company acquired a patent on its ice cream and, in 1996, sued Mini Melts for infringement. After years of litigation, Mini Melts prevailed, convincing the courts that Dippin’ Dots hadn’t acquired its patent properly. Dippin’ Dots was stripped of its patent in 2007, opening the door to the current profusion of cryogenic ice creams.
The biggest winner was Mini Melts USA, which is run by two brothers, Dan and Shawn Kilcoyne, who got their start as Dippin’ Dots distributors. “Their product is all uniform spheres, whereas ours is all different shapes and sizes, which we think adds to the uniqueness of the brand,” Dan Kilcoyne said.
Mini Melts will add a few flavors this summer (Moose Tracks, which includes fudge and peanut butter, and blue raspberry ice), but the Kilcoyne brothers have no plans to sell through supermarkets. For one thing, Mini Melts ice cream is 14 percent buttermilk, and thus requires refrigeration at minus 40 degrees.
Plus, “there’s something to be said for limiting the product,” Dan Kilcoyne said. “If you can only get it at a mall or theme park, then it makes you want it more, as opposed to if you can get it at any gas station or 7-Eleven.” He pointed out that the brand MolliCoolz, trying the mass-distribution route, went out of business.
Mini Melts and Dippin’ Dots call their manufacturing processes proprietary, but the basic recipe for cryogenic ice cream is well known.
“You take cream and you drop it in liquid nitrogen and it freezes,” said John G. Brisson, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “My graduate students are making it in the lab. It’s been around as long as I’ve been a student.”
Together with several colleagues, Brisson has obtained a patent on carbonated ice cream: The cream base is mixed with carbon dioxide instead of liquid nitrogen. They are talking to several manufacturers and hope to bring a product to market eventually, Brisson said.
What does carbonated ice cream taste like? “The virgin product ends up being a fine powder,” he said. “Think of snow that will fizz on your tongue.”