By Gina Shaw
September 5, 2019
Article In Brief
He manages a busy neurology practice at the University of Maryland. But outside of his role as a practice manager, Bryan Soronson is an aficionado of ice cream—from providing advice on tasting to developing new flavors.
For almost 35 years, AAN member Bryan Soronson, MPA, CRA, FACMPE, has led all business-related aspects of the department of neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, including research, clinical, and academic administrative issues. Shortly after he joined the department in 1985, Soronson, the senior administrator in the department, embarked on a delicious avocation: ice cream taster, reviewer, and consultant.
Over the years, Soronson has tasted nearly 1,000 different flavors and kinds of ice cream and related products including such exotic flavors as jalapeno pepper, basil, and maple bacon. He has provided his expertise to ice-cream parlors, reporters and authors, and ingredient companies across the country.
Soronson spoke with Neurology Today about his pathway forward as an ice cream aficionado extraordinaire.
Most of us love ice cream, but not everybody is able to turn eating a bowl of Rocky Road into a second career. How did you get so involved in ice cream?
I've always done a lot of traveling for work, and wherever I go, I like finding the best homemade ice cream shops. My record was eight different ice cream places in one day in New York City. Another day, I was able to visit five in San Francisco. When I started doing this back in the 1980s, you didn't have Google or Waze, so I just found the places in the phone book and with a map and walked from one to the other. I'd go to the parlors and talk to the owners, they'd show me things, and over time my knowledge increased.
I would see articles coming out in the Baltimore Sun about ice cream parlors, and I'd write to the reporters and tell him the ones they'd forgotten. So they started asking me for comments for their stories. And a couple of times, I took a tour around Baltimore with a Sun reporter named Rob Kasper, and they published articles about our tastings—one in the late 1980s, and one in 2003. I also contributed to a book listing the best ice cream parlors and wrote an article entitled “How to Taste Ice Cream” for a trade publication called the National Dipper.
Where else did you use your ice cream expertise?
I began consulting with ice cream parlors about diversifying their product line. I'd meet with the chief taster for Dreyer's/Edy's, and some companies that sold ice cream supplies.
But what I particularly loved doing was holding classes in ice cream tasting—similar to wine tasting—through our local adult education program. I also set up ice cream tastings at work events and professional organization meetings, like when we'd meet to discuss the progress of one of the new clinical trials. At one research administrator's meeting in Boston, I had a big event since Boston is one of the hotbeds of ice cream. I reached out to five or six of the big parlors and got them to supply a tasting. We did one at the AAN meeting with the coding committee two years ago. Tasting ice cream really fits in anywhere!
What does an ice cream tasting class entail?
It operates very much like a wine tasting, where you go from light whites through to dark reds. We'd start with vanilla, then go through a few fruit flavors, and end up with chocolates. I get ice cream from different local places—parlors as well as supermarkets—and I'd teach people how to differentiate the various types. I introduce the product types, from commercial grade to premium and super premium, so participants could taste the difference. We rate each one on appearance, taste, mouth feel, and overall quality, and see who wins. When I used to teach the classes several years ago, we always had leftovers in the freezer, and my kids always say that I spoiled them since they always had access to good quality ice cream.
Is there a technique to tasting ice cream?
There is! First, you don't want really cold ice cream straight out of the freezer. You want it a little softer to bring out the flavor. Then you swirl the ice cream and let it melt in your mouth for a bit, and close your mouth and exhale. This allows the flavor to go from your mouth to your nose through the olfactory glands. Move your tongue around a bit to let it get coated and reach all sensory areas of the mouth.
How do you judge ice cream quality?
A critical factor in ice cream is butterfat. A product has to have a minimum of 10 percent butterfat to be called ice cream, and a lot of the gourmet ice creams run from 13 percent to 17 percent butterfat. Another key element is the amount of air pumped into the ice cream, which is called overrun. You have to pump some air into the ice cream when it's made, or it becomes a block of ice. A grocery store ice cream like Turkey Hill or Breyer's is usually almost 50 percent air and 50 percent product, while a premium ice cream like Ben and Jerry's or Haagen-Dazs, or a good homemade ice cream, is more like 20-25 percent air and 75-80 percent product. It's much like bread: you can have Wonder Bread or a really heavy European bread and it looks similar on the outside, but the high-end product is much heavier and denser with a lower amount of air. That said, high butterfat has advantages and disadvantages. It may be the best product, but you don't want to eat too much!
What are some of your favorite ice cream parlors and ice cream flavors?
I lived in Georgetown, in Washington DC, in the mid-1970s, and I always liked Thomas Sweet, which is still there on Wisconsin Avenue. Also in Georgetown at the time was a parlor named Gifford's from the Midwest, that had a really good orange chip ice cream. I think my all-time favorite flavor was a raspberry and dark chocolate chunk from a place called Lee's here in Baltimore, which is no longer in business. There's also a place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Toscanini's, that makes a really fresh homemade banana ice cream. To make good banana ice cream, you want those old, black, mushy bananas, not nice fresh starchy ones.
Some of my other all-time favorites are Steve's Ice Cream, which was very famous outside Boston in the mid-1970s, and a place in Bethesda, Maryland, called Bob's Famous. It hasn't been there for years, but when I'd drop grants off at the NIH—which you can't do anymore—my incentive for driving them there was to stop off at Bob's. Some of those great places have closed, but we have some new local parlors opening up in Baltimore that are very good. One of the best is The Charmery, in the Hampden neighborhood which people may know from John Waters movies. And my favorite place when I visit the AAN offices is a homemade local parlor called Izzy's, which has locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Is there any kind of ice cream you don't like?
I don't like green mint. Mint ice cream shouldn't be green, it should be white! But most people don't like to buy white mint, so they put food coloring in it. It's the same with pistachio.
How has ice cream changed over the years?
Everything goes in cycles. In the 1980s and early 1990s, there were tons of homemade ice cream parlors. Then once the nutrition labels were put on foods and they showed the calories and the fat content, ice cream consumption declined and along with the proliferation of coffee shops led to a reduction in local homemade ice cream parlors. Now there's been a resurgence and you can see artisanal ice cream places in almost any community, for three or four dollars a scoop. I think Cold Stone Creamery played a role in some of that, although I liked it better when they were just one or two parlors in Tempe, AZ. As individual ice cream parlors closed, Cold Stone opened up and took over some of the market share of super premium. That's a little commercial for me—I prefer small locally owned parlors.
Hand-rolled or Thai ice cream has been a trend lately. I was just at one of those places in Philadelphia last year, called Sweet Charlie's. It's an interesting concept because it's not made in advance—you don't go into a case and scoop the ice cream out. You take the mix and pour it out on a flat circular freezer that looks like a crepe maker. It's a bit of a show as they spread it out, roll it around, cut it in slices and roll it up. It's very labor intensive and you have to wait for it.
Gelato, now, that is a whole different thing with Italian roots. Instead of pumping air in, they suck air out. It's a very dense product with less butterfat—about 7-8 percent. It has very soft, very intense flavor and is served at a higher temperature. That's why you get a very small scoop for your money—it's very packed, in terms of density. It's like a filet mignon, small but intense. Real gelato is a real artisanal product.
Why do you love ice cream so much?
It's definitely a stress reliever. It gets people's guards down. When I do my classes, I ask people what experiences they have as a kid that relates to ice cream, and everyone has great memories. Ice cream gets people's guards down so they're having fun and not being so serious. You can't be in a bad mood when you're eating ice cream.