Frozen Dessert Success

Soft Serve 101

Posted by Robert Romarino

Feb 28, 2023 8:30:00 AM

People always ask me, what is soft serve? Isn’t soft serve just ice cream? And is all ice cream that comes out of a machine just soft serve?  Well, I guess the answer to all those questions is yes. Technically speaking, a product that comes out of a soft serve machine is merely soft serve. I mean, it’s soft and you serve it - therefore it truly checks both boxes.

So, there it is. Soft serve is anything that comes out of a soft serve machine. Case closed. The best soft serve comes out of Electro Freeze machines and the smartest and most successful operators, buy those machines from Sentry Equipment. There you have it. But shameless plugs aside, there is much more to the soft serve category. You now know that anything coming out of a soft serve machine is “soft serve” but what kind of products can do that? How many are there? What are the differences?

After a lot of questions and very few answers, we have finally arrived at Soft Serve 101.

I will spare you the details on the history of Soft Serve.   The drama around who really invented it. You can visit Wikipedia for the cold truth on that. (See what I did there).  Let me get right to what matters most in understanding soft serve and how you can leverage what you know into profit.


Soft Serve Categories:

Dairy Mix: Dairy mixes are served in liquid form. They are produced by a dairy and packaged in either plastic jugs, cartons, or bags. These mixes can be shipped fresh or frozen to the end user. Once received, fresh mix should have a refrigerated shelf life of roughly 10-14 days depending upon the manufacturer. Frozen mixes will require a thaw time of 2-3 days under refrigeration. Once thawed, shelf life is similar to that of the fresh mix. These mixes are poured directly into your soft serve machine. Typically, they are flavored (vanilla or chocolate) and ready to use, but some may require additional flavoring which is subjective for every operator. You can also purchase an unflavored mix and add flavoring of your choice. This is common with operators with multiple machines who want to serve a variety of flavors in their shop. Or those who want to have seasonal offerings. You can also do the same by flavoring a vanilla mix.  Also, as an FYI, do not freeze mix once thawed and reuse. The quality of the mix will be greatly diminished.


Dairy mixes are the most popular form of soft serve. They are pasteurized and homogenized and do not require any mixing or blending, and are typically the most consistent option you will have with soft serve. Keep in mind, ample refrigeration is required to store and serve.      

Non-Dairy Mix:   Over the past 5-7 years the non-dairy market has grown by leaps and bounds in regards to frozen desserts.   Vegan and non-dairy mixes have exploded on the scene.   What was once represented by less than 1% of the dessert buying public just 10 years ago, is now approaching 15%.   With that kind of growth, product companies have started to invest in the research and development of these products and, as such, the offerings actually started to taste good.   Imagine that.  

These Non-Dairy mixes mostly come frozen to the stores so you need enough refrigeration.   These mixes make it easy to promote a non-dairy an/or Vegan offering. Because of the R&D in these mixes and still limited supply when compared to traditional soft serve mix, Non dairy mixes are higher than dairy mixes in cost.

Powder Mix: Most powder mixes are non-dairy. They can be mixed with water, dairy milk, or non-dairy offerings. Therefore, you can start with powder and end up with whatever category you want. Powder mixes do offer flexibility as you can mix with a milk for dairy, or a variety of non-dairy options (coconut, almond, oat milk, etc.). These mixes are ideal when refrigeration space is limited. However, additional labor is required for mixing and inconsistency can occur as such. If considering powder mix for your soft serve make sure you utilize proper mixing tools such as an immersion blender).

Water Based Mixes:  The last category to touch upon are water-based mixes. These are primarily powders but I do have many customers who mix a liquid base as well. Both are mixed with water to provide a product such as Sorbet or Dole or even Italian Ice. These products still are served out of a soft serve machine but they are not considered “ice cream.”  They introduce a new opportunity for stores as they are non-dairy while offering a refreshing treat.  The aforementioned Dole soft serve is a leader in the category but you can work with a variety of other liquid and powder brands. These are all shelf stable and require no refrigeration.


Soft Serve Characteristics:

Now that you know the categories let’s move on to the characteristics of soft serve

Butterfat or Milkfat content: To be classified as “ice cream” by standards of identity, product needs to have at least 10% butterfat content. Anything less is just considered “soft serve” or “ice milk” or “reduced fat.” Even though, to confuse you even more, product with 10% is called “soft serve ice cream.” Products with no butterfat – such as yogurt – are also soft serve but without the fat.

If you google who has the most ice cream stores in the country, the answer will be Dairy Queen.   Ironically, DQ doesn’t even sell ice cream.   Look for those words on their menu…. you won’t find it.  They sell ‘soft serve.’  That is because their product has roughly a 6% butterfat content.  

So, what is best and what should you use? Depends on where you are located. In the northeast part of the country, 10% product is prevalent and has been for some time. Going to market with anything less may be a disadvantage. Why you ask?   Well, real ice cream has better taste. Sure, there are exceptions so don’t get mad if you disagree. When it comes to soft serve, the higher fat content has a better mouth feel and more solids giving a better experience to the consumer. In other parts of the country, 4-6% are the standard. A higher butterfat may not be available option. Lower butterfat content products may be more prone to becoming icy when served due to their lack of fat and solids.   However, that is also dependent upon the type of machine the product is served from. Because of our engineering, you don’t see that in our Electro Freeze brand (shameless plug #2).

Most consumers offering a 10% butterfat product are using a dairy mix. Powder mixes are mostly a lower butterfat. Non dairy mixes have no milk solids.

There are even higher butterfat options in mixes. You can get 12, 14, even 17%.  However, these are used in manufacturing batch ice cream.   While I do have a couple customers using a 12% mix in their soft serve machine, it is very rare.  Because of the limited amount of air being incorporated into the soft serve mix when compared to batch product, a higher than 10% butterfat soft serve can be too heavy to eat.  Which is a great segue into….


Air Content:

The major characteristic of soft serve is that it comes out of a soft serve machine.  One important job of a soft serve machine is to inject air into the mix.  The amount of air incorporated into the mix is called “Overrun.”  This is a very important term.  A soft serve lacking enough air, or overrun, will appear wet and heavy and may even be discolored (yellow for vanilla and dark brown for chocolate).  A mix with too much air will be too light and airy – almost like cool whip.  A high-quality product has the right amount of air for its chemistry.  This amount varies from around 30-60% depending on the mix.

Dairy mixes and mixes with a higher butterfat content can be served on the high end of that range. They have more solids and more elasticity to be able to absorb the higher air and maintain a high-quality taste and mouth feel.  Powder and water-based products may be on the low end.  

A common misconception about soft serve and air is that a higher air content means lower quality.  Completely false.  As an owner, you want to be able to stretch your mix as much as it can take without sacrificing quality.  That number can be up to 60% or more.  Serving at a lower overrun takes money from your pocket (air is free at the moment!) and results in a heavier, denser end product that is not appealing for soft serve.   Remember soft serve is supposed to be a bit lighter and less guilt ridden than other desserts like hand scooped ice cream, thereby making it more repetitive to eat!



We touched upon some of the way mixes are made and packaged. There are also types of soft serve.

Ice cream:  If you paid attention you will know that soft serve ice cream has 10% butterfat.  That’s what does it. Anything lower, is not ice cream.

Yogurt: Product made very similar to others but has a bacteria fermentation to it. Typically, a lower fat content or no fat at all.  Also has no sugar added offerings.  

Custard: Introduces egg yolk solids as an ingredient and stabilizer. Tends to have a richer texture than traditional soft serve ice cream which is a bit sweeter. May have a slight off white/yellow tinge due to the egg yolks.  Can be a variety of butterfat contents.

Ice Milk/Reduced Fat/Soft Serve:   Anything lower than 10% milk fat solids or butterfat. This can be dairy mix, non-dairy, water based, etc. 


Soft serve advantages:

No matter what type of soft serve you are serving or how you are serving it, the product has distinct advantages.  

First and foremost, soft serve is highly repetitive when compared to other desserts.  Because it’s lighter than hand scooped but still delicious, soft serve is eaten more often.  More repeat visits lead to more profit.

Soft serve is always fresh.  The serving coming from the machine has not been sitting in a freezer waiting to be scooped. It wasn’t manufactured months ago in a factory far far away.  It’s fresh and delicious.

Soft serve is served at a warmer temperature than dipped ice cream.  Hand scooped ice cream is served at roughly 5-10 degrees F.   Soft serve is about 15-20 degrees F.   The warmer product doesn’t freeze your taste buds and allows the flavor to explode. Hand scooped really begins to taste best when it starts melting and working it’s way up to 15 degrees. Soft serve starts there.  Warmer product means more flavor and happy customers.

Soft serve is less expensive to serve than hand scooped.  The cost per ounce of soft serve is much lower than a wholesale hand scooped.   If you are making your own ice cream the costs become a bit closer, but soft serve still wins out.   And also, soft serve is much less labor intensive.  

Soft serve can be used in conjunction with other products. Ever hear of a blizzard? These are hugely popular (almost 60% of DQ sales) and menu driving beasts for major brands. They are simply just soft serve mixed with candies.  Gelati (not gelato) is an Italian ice layered with soft serve.   Another very popular offering.  These are just two examples of how soft serve marries with other core products or toppings to give your menu flexibility, creativity, and profit potential.

Soft serve is quick serve.  The average milkshake made with hand scooped takes about 3 minutes minimum. A soft serve shake is half the time. Cones and cups are even faster when compared to other products.  If you can serve customers faster you can serve more customers. That means more money in your pocket as an operator.

We have touched upon many aspects of Soft Serve.  I could have gone on forever honestly. There are many more tidbits but 2000 words is more than enough.  If you need more of an education you are welcome to contact me and the team at Sentry and take full advantage of our equipment and consulting services (Shameless plug #3).  

When considering soft serve, it’s best to understand why.  Know your market. Know what you want to sell. What product is going to give you the most potential. Then it’s time to look at a soft serve machine.   That’s a whole new conversation!!!  

For more information, please visit our Soft Serve concept page at