Over the weekend, I was invited to an OddFellows scoop shop, and, amid people editing their cone-centric Instagram posts, I got to try some ice cream. The flavor was cherry-miso, and the first thing that hit me was the deep umami funk. “Miso” is right in the name so, like, you think you get it, but it is continually surprising. Oh!, I thought, with every bite until it was gone. It’s a team player, miso. It lifts the flavor of the cherries while also mellowing them. The flavor — an OddFellows classic — is a triumph of balance.
The other thing I noticed was a texture: thick, gently melting, ice-cream-y. Normally, when ice cream is the texture of ice cream, it’s not a big deal; it lives up to its contractual obligation. But this particular ice cream was not, technically, ice cream. It was made with a nondairy ice-cream base that came from a San Francisco start-up called Eclipse Foods. What Impossible Burgers did for plant-based beef, founders Thomas Bowman and Aylon Steinhart want to do for plant-based dairy.
There is, of course, no shortage of plant-based milks to choose from. If a plant exists, someone in a lab is trying to figure out how to milk it. (I recently tried banana milk; it tasted like bananas.) But there were veggie burgers before the Impossible Burger too. It broke through by re-creating the experience of eating beef and had its own version of a killer app: The Impossible Burger could bleed, thanks in part to an ingredient called soy leghemoglobin. What is the Eclipse equivalent that will set its faux-milk apart from the oat milks and rice milks of the world?
“All the other dairy alternatives out there are just that: alternatives,” Bowman says. “What we’ve created is a dairy replacement.” The goal is to create something that tricks your brain into thinking, Hey, this is milk, and not, Hey, this is a creamy liquid made from a nut.
There’s already a lot of vegan ice cream. Nick Morgenstern makes it. Sam Mason from OddFellows makes it himself. Van Leeuwen makes a lot of it. Ample Hills can make it. But still, ask ice-cream experts and they will tell you, there is a difference. “It becomes an emotional connection,” says Brian Smith, the co-founder of Ample Hills. “If your mind is comparing it to being 6 or 7 and eating a vanilla ice-cream cone, it’s very hard to compete with that.” (When I contacted the National Milk Producers Federation to ask about their feelings re: non-milk “dairy,” a rep got straight to the point: “The vegan products ain’t ice cream.”)
But Eclipse’s founders say they’ve cracked it. It’s not just that they’ve been able to capture the heart and soul of dairy. It’s that they’ve managed to do it cheaply. Eclipse doesn’t use any nuts or seeds or coconuts, all of which drive up the price. Instead, the founders say they’ve figured out a way to re-create casein micelles — the particles that allow dairy to react the way it does — without using any specialized ingredients at all. “It’s all really common things you could buy at any Whole Foods,” Bowman promises, including potato, cassava, cane sugar, and canola or rice-bran oil, and definitely not soy, wheat, GMOs, gums, gels, or stabilizers.
The end goal is to be everywhere, to offer this formula to the masses so that dairy-free “milk” becomes extremely common to a point where no one thinks twice about it. “Really, the vision for the ice cream is if every Burger King has an Impossible Whopper,” Steinhart says, “they’re going to have a dairy-free shake or cone, and it should definitely be Eclipse.”
To borrow the parlance of the tech world, Eclipse is not really an ice-cream company. It’s a dairy platform, and it wants to use Eclipse to make anything you might make with cow’s milk: cheese, sour cream, whatever. But ice cream is the beginning.
Taking another cue from the Impossible Burger introduction, which saw the faux-beef brand partner with a few select chefs around the country before a wider rollout, Eclipse has partnered with a few select ice-cream shops, including Humphry Slocombe in San Francisco and OddFellows in New York. Starting this Friday, you can try it yourself at the shops.
At OddFellows, it will be available in two flavors: the cherry-miso and an olive-oil roasted plum. “The texture was a little more accurate than I expected,” Mason says. He picked these flavors, he says, because there’s something salty about the Eclipse base that is different from the classic milk-and-egg combo. “It definitely has a flavor to it toward the end. You’re like, Oh, that’s something unique,” Mason says. “It’s pleasant, but you know it’s not quite what you’re used to.”
He’s right. Neither flavor tastes exactly as if it’s made with dairy from a cow. It’s difficult to describe, but traditional dairy has a gentle confidence, like a hot high-school quarterback who doesn’t even realize how frictionless his whole life will be. But ice cream made with Eclipse doesn’t taste exactly like the other vegan ice creams I’ve had. As a vegan-ice-cream enthusiast, I have come to expect some kind of seedy base note, a hint of almond, the specific mouthfeel of coconut — something vegetal — but all of those were missing too. Eclipse is not quite dairy, but it’s also not not-dairy.
At home, I tried a pint of Eclipse’s own chocolate flavor, trying to get a sense of what Eclipse ice cream would be like if it weren’t made by a world-class pastry chef. The chocolate also had the weirdly alluring saltiness I have never before experienced in ice cream. It is unexpected but extremely pleasant. It adds a layer of sophistication, the difference between a candy bar and a chocolate bar with fleur de sel. I don’t know if it is quite intentional, but I am into its slightly otherworldly weirdness. Like all ice cream, made with milk or without it, it is perhaps best taken on its own terms. Functionally, though, it is certainly an ice cream: I ate it and felt as though I’d had ice cream.