Homemade ice cream often fails our childhood expectations of a thick, creamy, frozen confection. It’s frequently lighter, softer, and more fragile on the tongue. This is ironic, because the “real” ice cream mouthfeel we learned from childhood is typically created by the addition of gummy stabilizers. Other times, however, it’s the home ice cream making machine’s fault.
A good ice cream maker will turn out a product that’s consistent in texture without icy shards or soupy spots. It should also be easy to use and clean. Making ice cream at home should not be backbreaking work.
I chose four models to test. Two are highly rated electric versions, one is a classic I’ve always been curious about, and the last is a novelty item that was too strange to resist.
I put them through their paces with my friend David Lebovitz’s rich vanilla ice cream recipe from his book The Perfect Scoop. It’s deeply fragrant with whole Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans, and, when made correctly, acts as a luxuriously creamy canvas for everything from ripe, juicy berries to crunchy caramelized hazelnuts or warm chocolate sauce.
The Supreme Commercial Quality Ice Cream Maker by Cuisinart has a built-in compressor, so it freezes by itself. There’s no ice, salt, or bowl to prefreeze. You can make batch after batch of 1 1/2 quarts in 30 to 40 minutes a pop. There’s a timer you can set to run the machine automatically.
This is an excellent ice cream maker. The resulting product is thoroughly velvety, and the process of making it almost effortless. Though all parts are hand wash only, the unit’s streamlined design makes cleaning easy. It is big and heavy, but there are sturdy handles to lift it. Plus it’s beautiful enough to simply leave on your kitchen counter.
Extra bowls are available for only $6 each. I highly recommend them to make the most of your machine. Rather than scooping one bowl empty to start a new batch, you can have another on hand to get the next flavor started quickly.
The Cuisinart ICE-20 is compact and electric. It uses a double-insulated bowl filled with a cooling liquid inside its walls. You have to first freeze the liquid solid, until there’s no more sloshing sound when shaken. According to the manufacturer, this can take anywhere from six to 22 hours, depending on your freezer. (And Cuisinart suggests wrapping the bowl in a plastic bag to prevent freezer burn.) The machine makes 1 1/2 quarts of ice cream in 20 to 30 minutes.
After the bowl is frozen, place it on the machine, rest the mixing arm in its center, pour in the ice cream base, cover with the transparent housing, and turn the machine on.
The ICE-20 also makes very good ice cream consistently, each batch smooth and creamy throughout. And it’s inexpensive and small. Overall, it’s a great machine.
Hand-wash everything except the motor.
This classic wooden-bucket, hand-crank device by Rival looks like a prop from Little House on the Prairie. Inside the bucket is a stainless steel can and dasher (the vertical paddle that turns by cranking the handle). A 6-quart model is also available. Despite their antiquated appearance, the metal parts are actually dishwasher safe.
This machine does make a large amount of good, fully blended ice cream, but it’s pricey and tedious to use. The manufacturer says it takes about 20 to 30 minutes to make 4 quarts (1 gallon) of ice cream, but unless you’re cranking in really cold conditions, plan on at least 30 minutes to an hour. My guess is that if you broke this out at a party, friends and family would be falling all over themselves to help you churn at first, but after a few minutes they would get bored and wander off. Kids might last a couple more minutes, but an hour? Unlikely.
The unit weighs about 15 pounds empty, far more when full, so the flimsy wire handle on the bucket itself is merely decorative. Good luck finding a cabinet big enough to stash it in. Maybe there’s room in the barn.
The Play & Freeze looks like a futuristic soccer ball, but it’s actually a hard, hollow plastic sphere designed for making ice cream. It’s often sold at camping stores, the idea being, I suppose, that it doesn’t require any electricity and is sort of compact, so you could ostensibly use it off the grid.
Pack the ball with ice and rock salt, then screw on the lid. Through an opening on the other side, pour your ice cream base into the metal cylindrical core. The instructions say to shake the ball or simply pass it around for 10 to 15 minutes to mix and freeze the base. When time’s up, open the ice cream end with the plastic wrench provided, then scrape and stir. You’re not done yet. Empty any water from the ice end, repack it with ice, and repeat the process. The ball maker says that the finished texture of the ice cream will depend on a lot of factors, including the amount of ice, your base ingredients, the outside temperature, and how much you shake the ball.
Unfortunately, if you play with the Play & Freeze, you yourself will freeze: The plastic gets very cold. Plus, when full of ice and ice cream base, it’s very, very heavy. Industrial Revolution does warn against kicking or throwing the ball, and suggests parental supervision.
The results are a few mouthfuls of hard, icy dessert, interspersed with softer, soupier areas.
Find me a kid who would have fun shaking a frozen bowling ball for at least 30 minutes, then enjoy hand washing all the parts later, and I have the perfect ice cream maker for you.