Magic Shell has been around for quite some time now, but it hasn’t lost the power to impress and delight ice cream lovers everywhere. The way the thin, liquid topping hardens into a shiny shell once it hits a frozen sphere of gelato or the twisty top of a soft serve cone does, indeed, seem magical. But the secret to this alchemy, once tightly under wraps, has long been out in the open, and it is this: coconut oil.
Back in 2007, when we first investigated the science behind Magic Shell, the tight-lipped folks at Smucker’s declined to return a series of phone calls, but eventually, a company rep did email us—to say that information about the product was proprietary.
Mister Softee was the first to answer. They said “edible-grade paraffin wax” was the secret ingredient in their soft serve topping, which is kept warm before application, so the wax is in a melted state. When ice cream is dipped in it, the wax hardens. (It’s not that unusual; paraffin wax is sometimes added to chocolate to give it a pretty sheen.) But wax was not listed as an ingredient in Magic Shell (and still isn’t).
Luckily, Carvel—the ice cream chain that transforms its Fudgie the Whale cake into a Santa Claus cake for the holidays (simply by turning it 90 degrees)—was next to return our calls, and they gave us the scoop, so to speak. Like Magic Shell, Carvel’s Brown Bonnet chocolate topping (which they also use to coat the chocolate cookie crumbs that stripe their ice cream cakes) instantly forms a hard shell around ice cream. And, just like Magic Shell, one of its main ingredients is coconut oil. These days, coconut oil is a fairly common pantry ingredient, and extremely familiar to anyone into vegan baking, as it can be substituted for butter. Best of all, it’s often found in major supermarkets, but it used to be something you had to hunt for in health food stores.
All tropical oils, including coconut, are naturally high in saturated fat—consisting of about 90 percent of the stuff. As Paula Figoni explains in her “How Baking Works: Exploring the Fundamentals of Baking Science” (a literal textbook on the subject), “the more saturated fatty acids in fat, the more solid the fat. Tropical oils are all solid at room temperature but will melt quickly if the room is too warm.” As everyone who has kept coconut oil in their cupboard through a cold winter and a sweltering summer is aware, coconut oil becomes solid at 70 degrees, melts at about 74 degrees, and freezes at 25 degrees. That’s why, to maintain the chocolate coating in a liquid state before application, Carvel told us they keep their Brown Bonnet in a warmer. Similarly, that’s why the label on Magic Shell (and other brands of similar toppings) warns against refrigeration and recommends running the bottle under hot water before use. When the coconut oil-infused topping meets a suitably cold surface, the fats solidify, and the magic happens!
If you want to practice a bit of simple kitchen wizardry at home, try making your own Magic Shell style topping, in classic chocolate, or any other flavor you like. And you don’t have to stick to pouring it on ice cream, either—try dipping ice pops in it too, use it to cover homemade ice cream bars, or even to coat frozen fruit like bananas and strawberries.
Our recipe for a homemade version of Magic Shell actually uses vegetable oil, but you can swap it out for the more common coconut if you prefer; you can also use any intensity of milk or dark chocolate you like. It’ll work on literally any flavor of ice cream. And if you want to make it even more interesting, try sprinkling the surface with a little something extra before it firms up on your ice cream, like sea salt, toasted coconut, sprinkles, crushed cookie bits, or finely chopped toasted nuts. Get our Chocolate Shell Ice Cream Topping recipe.
Since Nutella is already in semi-liquid form, this is even easier than the already-incredibly-simple versions using chocolate chips; just microwave the chocolate-hazelnut spread with coconut oil until it’s all melted, stir, and sauce any flavor ice cream (banana would be particularly great, but toasted pecan gelato is just nutty enough to work) to your heart’s content. Get the recipe.
Creamy or chunky, salted or not, peanut butter topping is the next best thing after chocolate—but why not make them both? You can also make this with natural-style peanut butter if you prefer (but either way, be sure to try it over chocolate ice cream—or on peanut butter frozen yogurt if you can’t get enough PB). Get the recipe.
Make your ice cream pretty in pink—and deliciously fruity—with this strawberry shell. If you have trouble finding freeze-dried strawberries, you can also use strawberry cake mix to flavor your topping. Either way, try it over roasted pistachio ice cream. Get the recipe.
Other flavors of cake mix work, too! Here, classic yellow cake mix pairs up with white chocolate chips and rainbow sprinkles for an extra-festive birthday cake shell. Try this one with fresh strawberry ice cream. Get the recipe.
If you like the chocolate-coffee pairing (or if there’s just not enough caffeine in chocolate alone for you), try this espresso-flecked version on chocolate, coffee, or classic vanilla bean ice cream. Get the recipe.
Booze does tend to make things even more magical (in the right quantities, at least), so break out the whiskey if you want a grown-up chocolate shell. This would be superb with caramel ice cream, especially if you add an extra pinch of salt. Get the recipe.