Teach Kids About Flavor by Making America’s Wildest Ice Cream
In a new cookbook and interview, the mad scientists at Salt & Straw reveal how ice cream can open new frontiers in your kitchen.
Tyler Malek, cofounder of the West Coast ice cream brand Salt & Straw, covers one wall of his office with kids’ art: a messy, tacked-up collage of crayon-fueled exuberance. Every September, Malek and his cousin/cofounder Kim ask school kids to come up with flavor ideas—the weirder the better. That’s led to breakthrough ice creams like “The Great British Rhubarb Ginger Crumble” and “Tacocat.” (The latter involved Mexican vanilla, crumbled Mexican chocolate, chili powder and cinnamon.) The Student Inventor Series has also helped Salt & Straw devise never-before-seen ice cream ingredients—like a crunchy candy brittle made from kale.
It’s all part of Salt & Straw’s larger mission to turn ice cream into a medium for wild and fun food experiments.
Recent S&S menus include inventions like “Wildflower Honey with Ricotta Walnut Lace Cookies” and “Orange Blossom Sorbet with Edible Flowers.” The brand is notorious for using bone marrow, insects, turkey, and ham. But for all the zany creativity, Salt & Straw’s method is simple: they make a few basic ice creams, then add the coolest ingredients they can find in inventive combinations. (That’s where the kale brittle comes in. At S&S shops, it became part of an ice cream called The Kail Creeasheon—concocted by a first grader!)
The Maleks’ new Salt & Straw Ice Cream Cookbook offers an inside look at how they work their magic—and how you can do it, too. We sat down with Tyler to talk about why ice cream is the perfect way to discover new flavors—for all ages.
Salt & Straw’s unusual ice creams are now legendary. How did you come up with your experimental approach to a dessert that’s usually so … vanilla?
I love the idea of using ice cream to tell stories—and to sort of ease people into hearing them. We start with relatively approachable flavors. It’s strawberry with this little twist, or it’s what we call the “new vanilla,” which uses an olive oil that’s produced here in Oregon. You can kind of get your head around those options without too much trouble.
But then, every single month, we change our menu beyond those basics. We start a year out; we think about what stories we want to tell. If we’re talking about chocolatiers that month, you come into the shop, and you’ll see their chocolates. Easy. Approachable. Then you’ll read on the menu about this amazing chocolatier and where they’re from. Then you taste the ice cream, and you’ll discover their flavors.
It’s not like there was an obvious market for bone marrow ice cream. Why do you think your approach worked so well?
Ice cream has this really cool power. It’s approachable, it’s safe, it’s family-friendly. I mean, it’s very approachable. It’s the only restaurant-style place where you can go in and say, can I just have a sample of that? You can’t do that at a fine-dining restaurant—you can’t say, hey, can I just sample that bone marrow dish? Just a spoonful? You can do that with ice cream.
So it’s really eye-opening for people. Why not try eating bugs for the first time in your life? It’s just ice cream. It’s freeing for a lot of customers, and for our kitchen team members. Why would you have rules around it? We think about the stories we want to tell, and what we want to provoke in people, in a really free way.
How do you hope the book translates that sense of discovery to the home kitchen?
Not to sound too lofty, I want it to be a source of inspiration. I want people to see new flavors around them. We tried to make it more of a blueprint: how to think about flavors in a different way, rather than “get these exact ingredients and make this exactly this way.” I would love it if someone who read the book could walk through the farmer’s market in Minnesota, see something, and think about how they could sub it into our recipe that’s based on this cool ingredient from Los Angeles.
You can play with your food. Ice cream is a really safe space for that—have one or two foundational recipes, and just go for it. Put it in the ice cream maker. It’s either going to be a good ice cream, a bad ice cream, or a sweet soup. You can eat all three.
Right, homemade ice cream. Don’t people assume that’s sort of hard?
For some reason, there’s a stigma. It’s so false! The book has four base recipes, and with those four recipes, you can make an infinite number of flavors. You put it in a machine, you press go, and it works. We say that no matter what you’re trying to make, it’s either going to be good ice cream, bad ice cream, or sweet soup. What’s the worst that can happen?
What have you learned from collaborating with kids?
We started working with schools after a fourth-grade teacher reached out to us, back when we really just had one cart in Portland. I met with the class, I talked about making ice cream. And they went back to class and created art, portraying flavors they wanted to see. We made the flavors, put them on our menu, and the money we raised and donated to the PTA became the seed fund that allowed Nike to rebuild their playground. So cool! It was like a cyclical thing, creating a sustainable community support system where both sides are winning. We got a menu—all these insane ideas. The school got money. The kids got to see their creativity on display.
When you do something for a few years, you inevitably start putting boundaries on your creativity. You almost know too much—oh, I’m not going to try that, it won’t freeze properly. And then you talk to kids and they’re like, I want gummy bear ice cream. They’re totally unfettered, and it’s the coolest challenge in the world. To be able to tap into that—it adds a lot to our company.