Soft serve ice cream is a type of ice cream that is mixed in a machine and dispensed on demand. The machine mixing includes a step that integrates a great deal of air into the ice cream, resulting in a product that is much lighter in texture and flavor than regular ice cream, and the result is characteristically soft and creamy, rather than hard, like traditional ice cream. Soft serve is especially common at burger joints and diners, and it can be found in many regions of the world, with a variety of toppings and in an assortment of flavors.
It is a bit difficult to attribute the credit for the discovery of soft serve ice cream. The Dairy Queen corporation claims to have invented it in Illinois in 1938, with the company claiming that it was developed so that people could experience the texture and flavor of ice cream fresh out of the batch freezer. If you have been fortunate enough to taste ice cream out of the batch freezer before it has been blast frozen, you may be familiar with the incredibly rich, creamy flavor and soft texture. However, rival claims suggest that this ice cream was developed by a team of cost-cutting British scientists who wanted to figure out a method for increasing the amount of air in ice cream, thereby making it cheaper to produce and sell.
As you might imagine, the defining characteristic of soft serve ice cream is that it is soft. It is often served in the form of a swirl, with people twirling a cone or cup under the machine to create a tower of ice cream with a soft curl on top. Soft serve is also much lower in fat than conventional ice cream, because of the increased air content, and it has a lighter flavor. It is also served at a much warmer temperature than conventional ice cream, and this can enhance the flavor.
You may also hear soft serve ice cream referred to as Creamee, soft ice cream, or softcream, depending on where in the world you are. Vanilla is probably the most classic soft serve flavor, but it is also frequently possible to find chocolate and strawberry. More exotic flavors include sesame, green tea, coffee, and lychee; many Asian nations have many experimental soft serve flavors.
One of the more charming aspects of soft serve ice cream, in the eyes of many fans, is that it is ephemeral. It generally tastes best right out of the machine, and it does not take well to being refrozen, forcing people to enjoy it on the spot. It also cannot be made at home, unless one happens to have a pressurized machine, so some people view it as a special treat eaten only when dining out.