Eric Fredette explains how he develops new ice cream flavors for the company.
“Flavor guru” at an ice cream company sounds like an occupation that only exists in little kids’ imaginations.
But as Eric Fredette will tell you, the job is very real. Fredette works in Ben & Jerry’s research and development department, where he’s tasked with creating new flavors of ice cream for the company. (A 21-year company veteran, he was behind fan favorites such as Tonight Dough and Dublin Mudslide, along with more recent offerings like Urban Bourbon and Truffle Kerfuffle).
While Fredette’s job isn’t always glamorous (it involves frequent meetings with the company’s marketing and consumer research departments), more than 50% of his time is spent in the kitchen, where he experiments with flavor pairings, makes ingredients, develops recipes, mixes test batches, and yes—eats a lot of ice cream. In a typical week, he hosts around five official tastings. And then there are the informal tastings: Fredette has an ice cream machine at his disposal, which means he is constantly experimenting. (A recent creation: curry milk chocolate chips and golden raisins mixed into coconut ice cream.)
At Ben & Jerry’s (which has been owned by Unilever since 2000), new flavors are developed in 18-month cycles. Fredette and his fellow tastemakers begin by drawing up a list of 200 potential offerings, which are culled and refined until typically only three to five remain.
For new flavor ideas, Fredette often turns to upcoming chefs and bartenders, who aren’t afraid to experiment with bold ingredients and pairings. (Kids, take note: in addition to testing ice cream, Fredette is sometimes allowed to drink on the job.)
Below, Fredette reveals the influential role cocktails play in his development process, plus the flavors he is most excited about.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Where do you go for inspiration?
I read about eight food blogs a day. My favorite is a blog called DINE, which lists new restaurants that are opening. When a chef opens a restaurant, they’re usually leading with their biggest, best, most cutting-edge ideas. I tend to like the younger chefs, because they take more risks.
I look at a lot of menus, both food and cocktail. Right now, bartenders are really bar chefs. They have a rack of flavors at their disposal. Awhile back, I took a culinary trip to San Francisco. We went to a bar where they made us a blackberry sage martini. It was extraordinary, and I realized the flavors could work in ice cream.
When we got back, I concocted a blackberry sage swirl flavor. It never became an actual flavor, but we get to make samples all the time. It probably takes about 12 minutes, which means I get to experiment.
What’s one of the strangest flavors you’ve found works as an ice cream?
Rosemary ice cream is so delicious. I take the rosemary, I steep it, I warm it up on the stove, and then maybe mix it with tea, cream and sugar. The ice cream goes great with strawberries and apricot, although it’s a little too edgy for most people.
What will be the next ice cream flavor trend?
Fermented flavors, like kombucha and kimchi. Obviously I’m not putting kimchi in ice cream, but something fermented, with a little funk to it, a little twist, that you could marry with something sweet. It would be familiar to people who drink kombucha. There’s a tartness that could make for a riff on sweet and sour. I’m thinking something with caramel. It could also make for a great sorbet.
Any other up-and-coming flavors you’re excited about?
Right now, I’m playing with the savory side. I like spices, such as Chinese five-spice, which I like to combine with burnt caramel. We celebrate Chinese New Year at Ben & Jerry’s, and so I made a pineapple ice cream mixed with pound cake pieces and five-spice infused caramel swirl.