June already feels downright summery, so how can you beat the heat? We recommend a chilly indulgence like ice cream! (Or sorbet, or gelato, or even frozen yogurt.) You may think the best way to treat yourself is to head down to the grocery store (or your favorite ice cream shop), but ice cream is surprisingly easy to make at home.
The simplest ice creams only require a handful of ingredients — cream, milk, sugar, whatever flavorings you like, and in some recipes, eggs — which means throwing together a batch may only take raiding the kitchen. The best part? You can mix up whatever crazy flavors you want. Balsamic and strawberry? Mango and caramel? Toss almost anything you'd like into your homemade mix!
While you can make ice cream without any special equipment if you're willing to put in the effort, an ice cream maker makes it easy to whip up ice cream any time the craving strikes. It'll still take some time — often an hour or so, depending on the machine and the recipe — but the work is minimal. And since these gadgets require a relatively small investment, why not grab one before summer really heats up?
Read on to learn about ice cream makers, the three types of cooling methods they use, what they cost, and five brands to consider when you're ready to buy.
What Does an Ice Cream Maker Do?
An ice cream maker is basically a mixer that's chilled in some way. The mixer churns at a slow but steady pace (you're not trying to make a meringue here!), combining air with your ingredients, while the cooling source gradually chills them to freezing. It's something you can do without a machine; typically, you put your ingredients in the freezer, take them out to stir, put them back in again, and repeat until you have the right consistency. But trust us, letting a machine do the work is a lot easier.
The main difference between ice cream makers is in how they chill. These gadgets keep their cool in three different ways, each with its own advantages.
3 Cool(ing) Methods of Making Ice Cream
Rock Salt and Ice
Machines that use actual ice are typically little more than a bucket for ice and salt, an inner container for the ice cream, and a motor that spins a paddle to churn. Though if you're interested in putting in some elbow grease, you can find models that have a hand crank instead. Making ice cream is straightforward: Dump your ingredients into the ice cream bucket, add the ice and rock salt (yes, the rock salt is necessary to get the temperature just right), and switch on the machine.
There are a few snags, however. You'll need to have enough ice on hand whenever you want to make ice cream, and if you don't have freezer space for a lot of ice, you'll probably have to run to the store right before you whip up a batch. It's not a big inconvenience, but it's an extra step in the process that other makers don't require.
Also, these machines can be on the messy side. By the time your ice cream is finished, your ice will be at least partially melted. Keep your ice cream maker in an area where spilling some water won't do any harm. The best spot for it may be the garage or the back porch, especially if it's a larger model.
These old-fashioned ice cream makers have two advantages: They make a lot of ice cream, and they're fairly cheap. Expect any model in this class to produce four quarts or more, while other machines may make as little as one quart at a time. If you're looking to make a lot of ice cream at once, this is the way to go.
What You'll Pay: You can find good 4-quart models in the $40-to-$50 range; larger 6-quart machines may run closer to $100.
Most modern ice cream makers do their chilling with a special bowl or container that goes into the freezer overnight. Once it's frozen, you put it in your ice cream maker, add your ingredients, and let the machine stir them until the ice cream is ready. This avoids the problem of needing ice (or making a mess with melted ice), but it does add time to the process. You'll have to plan a day in advance, so you have time to freeze the bowl. If you're making ice cream frequently, we suggest making room to keep the bowl in the freezer — then you can make ice cream on a whim!
In this category, you'll find two types of products: stand-alone machines, and simple bowls that attach to an existing stand mixer (and come with a special paddle for churning ice cream). In both cases, these are the sorts of appliances you can keep on your counter all summer. They're not very bulky and not very (or at all!) messy. Where cleanup is concerned, bear in mind that most freezer bowls are not dishwasher-safe — be prepared to hand-wash them. But if you want something that'll fit neatly into your kitchen, these machines are your best choice.
The biggest downside here is the quantity of ice cream you can make: usually between one and two quarts. That's perfect if you want to make ice cream in different flavors every few days, but it's not enough if you want homemade ice cream for everyone at the family picnic this summer.
What You'll Pay: These designs are pretty affordable: Basic models run around $50, while machines with more bells and whistles go for around $100 or more. Want to make something more than ice cream, like gelato or sorbet? More expensive models typically let you adjust the churning speed, which means you can get the perfect texture no matter what you're making. While a $50 model will handle the basics just fine, connoisseurs will appreciate the options of higher-end models.
Top-of-the-line ice cream makers chill using a compressor, just like your icebox does. You don't need ice, and you don't need to remember to freeze anything; when you're ready to make ice cream, just add your ingredients and go. The only thing simpler would be picking up a gallon from the grocery store.
The other big plus to these machines is they just make better ice cream. Machines using ice or frozen bowls warm up while churning your ice cream, while compressor machines maintain a constant temperature. This means your ingredients turn into ice cream more quickly — and speed means there's less time for ice crystals to form, so compressor machines give you ice cream with a smoother texture.
Most of these gadgets also have the customization options you'll find on high-end freezer-bowl-style machines, letting you set the speed to make a range of different frozen concoctions. Some even come with multiple paddles to give the perfect churn for whatever you're making.
A downside of compressors is their size. Compressors take up a good amount of space — they can be easily twice the size of the average freezer bowl machine — even though they have the same 1- to 2-quart capacity. If counter space is a problem, a compressor machine might not be the right choice for you.
What You'll Pay: As you might expect, this convenience comes at a cost: Even the cheapest machines are an investment. You can expect to spend $200 to $300 on a good model — and prices can climb higher than that. But if you're planning on making ice cream all the time, the convenience of a compressor model pays off in the long run.
5 Ice Cream Maker Brands to Consider
With so many ice cream makers available, we can't tell you exactly which one to buy. However, here are five brands to look for when you're in the market for one of these appliances.
Cuisinart: Cuisinart has a range of freezer bowl- and compressor-style makers, all of which are of good quality and reasonably priced. While they usually aren't the very best makers, they balance cost and quality well.
Nostalgia: This brand makes our favorite rock-salt-and-ice-style makers. Nostalgia's models start at around $37 for both wood and plastic machines; they're a good bet for someone on a budget.
KitchenAid: KitchenAid makes a freezer bowl with a mixer paddle that pairs with its popular stand mixer. This is a fantastic choice for a KitchenAid owner who doesn't want more appliances on the counter.
Breville: Though it doesn't have a variety of ice cream makers, Breville's $400 Smart Scoop is a great machine for anyone with the budget for it.
Whynter: Whynter makes great — and notably quiet — compressor-style ice cream makers. These machines are more reasonably priced than the Breville, which means they're a solid buy for anyone who's shopping for a more budget-friendly compressor.
Readers, do you own an ice cream maker? If so, what type did you buy, and do you think it was worth the money you paid? Share your thoughts in the comments below.