How to choose the best ice cream maker
You don't need an ice cream maker to make ice cream and other frozen treats at home. But a dedicated machine makes everything so much easier. And the quality of the final product will be infinitely better.
So if you're in any way serious about making your own ice cream, eventually you'll start looking at ice cream makers.
But which is the best ice cream maker for you? There's lots of different types at lots of different prices. And it can be confusing when you're just starting out.
Luckily, it's not that complicated. And if you follow a few simple steps it will soon become clear which ice cream maker is best for you.
There are essentially three different types of modern ice cream maker. And how they differ is in the way they freeze the mixture:
- with ice and rock salt
- with a removable bowl that's pre-chilled in the freezer
- with a built in freezer
But how important is the way we freeze the ice cream? Well, to some extent it's just a matter of convenience...
The ice and salt method is the most inconvenient, being more labor intensive and messy. The machines with removable bowls are more straightforward but require some forward planning. And then the most convenient are the built in freezer models which are really, really simple and straightforward to use.
Let's have a look at each of the three types of machine in more detail...
1. Ice and rock salt ice cream makers
This is how ice cream used to be made in the old days! With these machines a mix of ice and salt is used to freeze the ice cream.
First, the liquid ice cream mixture is poured into long, metal canister. This canister is then placed in another, bigger container and surrounded by a mix of ice and salt. The mixture is then churned by a big paddle (or dasher) while the ice cools it down.
The salt is used to lower the temperature of the ice even further which helps to freeze the ice cream faster. You can use any type of salt but people usually use rock salt as it's much cheaper.
In the olden days the churning would be done by hand. But with modern machines there's usually an electric motor to do all the hard work. However some modern machines offer both so you can let the motor do most of the work and then finish it off by hand at the end!
These ice and salt machines have a number of advantages. Firstly, since you don't need to pre-chill any bowls, you can start making ice cream as soon as you decide you want ice cream!
Secondly, once you've made one batch, since there's no need to pre-chill anything, you can make another batch straight away.
And thirdly, unlike the other machines, the ice and salt models are often available with big capacities of between 4 and 6 quarts. So you can make lots of ice cream in one go!
However, on the negative side a certain amount of pre-planning is required. You need to make sure you have a plentiful supply of ice and salt. And with all that ice and salt, things can get messy.
You also need to keep a close eye on these machines, adding more ice and salt as needed. You can't just add the ingredients and then sit back an wait for the ice cream. It's quite an involved process.
And of course, if it's a bigger size machine, you've got to think carefully about where you're going to store it.
In my opinion, these machines are best if you don't make ice cream very often. If you're looking for a something to keep in the garage and bring out once or twice over the summer to feed big groups of people at BBQs and parties, then these machines are ideal.
But if you're looking for a machine to make ice cream more regularly, if you want to keep it in the kitchen and you're not trying to feed a small army, then you're probably best off with one of the other types of machine.
2. Pre-freeze bowl ice cream makers
With these machines, the ice cream mixture is frozen in a removable bowl that you need to pre-chill in your freezer compartment. The bowl contains a special gel that gets really cold in the freezer and then transfers that coldness to the mixture as it's being churned later on in the machine.
The pre-freeze bowl machines have three clear advantages. Firstly, they're much easier to use than the ice and rock salt machines. You simply add the ingredients, turn them on and come back 20-30 minutes later.
Secondly, they don't create any mess. There's no bags of ice and salt to deal with. No melting ice to mop up. They're very neat and tidy.
And thirdly, they're the most compact of the all home made ice cream makers. So they're much more kitchen friendly and much easier to store away.
However there are some very clear disadvantages with these machines too. The bowls need to be pre-chilled for at least 6 hours but preferably overnight. So again, some pre-planning is required.
You need to make sure the bowl will actually fit in your freezer compartment! Check the measurements of each model as the bowls vary in size according to the capacity of the particular machine.
Talking of which, these pre-freeze bowl machines tend to have much smaller capacities than the ice and salt models. They'll generally produce between 1 and 2 quarts of ice cream in each batch, depending on the model. So they're not so good for large groups unless you're pre-preparing several batches in advance.
And remember, because you need to pre-freeze the bowl, you can't make back to back batches. Unless of course you buy an extra bowl and have enough room to store two bowls in your freezer!
I think these pre-freeze bowl machines are best for organised families that like to eat small batches of ice cream regularly. They're compact and tidy. So they look great on a counter top and work well even in smaller kitchens. And they also make it really easy to involve the kids with the whole ice cream making process.
However, if you're really serious about your ice cream, if you want the very best quality, maximum flexibility and ultimate convenience, then you should probably consider the compressor machines.
3. Compressor Ice Cream Makers
These machines use their own built in compressors to freeze the ice cream. All you do is pour the mixture into the machine, press a button and wait. It's that simple!
There's loads of advantages with these machines. Generally, they're much more convenient to use. There's none of the mess and faff you get with the ice and rock machines. You don't have to remember to put a bowl in the freezer the day before. You never need to stock up on ice and salt.
As soon as you decide you want to eat ice cream, you can start making ice cream. And as soon as the first batch is finished, you can start making the next batch! Which is great if you've got a big family or you're entertaining guests.
They also tend to have more features and options than the other machines. Some of them can be programmed so they are optimized for ice cream, gelato or sorbet. Some will pre-chill the mixture for you. They'll all stop automatically when the ice cream is ready. And some will keep the final product at the right temperature and consistency for an extended period once they've finished.
The quality of the ice cream from the compressor machines is also the closest you'll get to that produced by commercial machines.
However, there are some disadvantages to these machines as well. They're pretty big and very heavy. So make sure you've thought about where you might keep one. They'll certainly look attractive on your counter top, but check you've got enough room.
And despite their size, they don't have huge capacities. You wont get bigger batches out of these machines than you'll get from the pre-freeze bowl machines.
And of course with a built in compressor and complicated electronics, there's more things that can go wrong. So it's even more important to check the warranty and the after sales service with these machines.
They're also the most expensive of all the ice cream makers. But like most things in life, quality and convenience come at a price. And if you're really serious about making ice cream, then these are probably the machines for you.
Is there really a difference in ice cream quality?
I've talked a fair bit about the difference in convenience between the three types of machine. But how about quality? Is there also a difference in the quality of ice cream they produce?
One of the biggest factors that determines whether the final product is smooth and creamy or coarse and icy is the speed at which the machine freezes the mixture. The quicker the mixture is frozen, the smoother and creamier the final ice cream.
And this speed is determined by how cold the container is for the duration of the churning. The salt and ice machines and the built in freezer models maintain a stable temperature for the whole time. But with the other machines, once you remove the bowl from the freezer, it's only going to get warmer.
And this means that the removable bowl machines will be freezing the mixture more slowly towards the end of the churning than at the beginning.
But does is make a discernible difference in the ice cream?
Well it can do. The biggest influence on ice cream quality is the mixture recipe. With a good recipe and the right technique you can make fantastic quality ice cream with all three types of machine.
But if you want to start cutting corners in your preparation or pushing the boundaries of the recipes then you'll notice a degradation in quality with the removable bowl machines before the other two.
The built in freezer models seem to deal better with egg-less or low fat recipes. And for me a least, they seem more consistent in the quality of the final product.
However, if you follow all the tip and tricks to keep the mix cold and follow well balanced recipes, you'll get superb quality ice cream for all three types of machine.
Choosing the best type of ice cream maker for you
We know that all the machines are capable of producing great ice cream. So, which type you choose will depend on a whole load of other personal preferences.
These include how often you'll be making ice cream, how many people you'll be making it for, and what type of ice cream you want to make.
Here's a reminder of the important features of each type:
Ease of use
Ice and Salt
Up to 6 quarts
$ - $$
Up to 2 quarts
Up to 2 quarts
$$ - $$$
And here's a summary of why I think you should buy or avoid each one:
Ice and Salt
- big families, BBQs, parties
- big spaces
- smaller spaces
- frequent use
- no waiting
- multiple batches
- small spaces
- frequent use
- making lots of ice cream
- unorganized people
- small spaces
So hopefully you've now got some idea of which type of ice cream maker will be best for you. Let's move on and look at some of the different individual models in each group.
Three great Ice and Salt Machines
As we've already seen, the ice and salt style ice cream makers tend to have much bigger capacities than the other machines. Indeed, the three I preview here can all churn out at least 4 quarts of ice cream per batch.
This is twice as much as the other types of machines and it's why the ice and salt ice cream makers are so good for parties, BBQs and large families.
And don't forget ice and salt machines can produce back to back batches. So once the first is finished, as long as you've got enough ice and salt, you can crack on with the next one!
1. Hamilton Beach 4 Quart Ice Cream Maker (68330N)
The best thing about this Hamilton Beach ice cream maker is the price! Usually available at less than $30, it's one of the cheapest ice cream machines on the market.
The next best thing about this machine is it's capacity. It can produce 4 quarts of ice cream per batch making it great for big groups and parties.
It's as straightforward to use as other ice and salt machines. Which means you've got to make sure you've got plenty of ice (8 - 12 pounds) and a fair bit of salt (about 3 cups) before you start.
And you'll need to place the machine in a kitchen sink or somewhere else with good drainage, as things can start to get messy once the ice begins to melt.
But as long as you follow the instructions carefully, the Hamilton Beach should produce great quality, soft serve consistency ice cream after around 20 to 40 minutes.
You'll know it's ready as the motor will turn off when the mixture gets to a certain thickness. This is a great feature that should save unnecessary wear on the motor and the gears.
However, this is very much an entry level machine. Apart from the aluminium canister, the construction is entirely from plastic. The motor is slightly under powered and struggles with some recipes. And over time, the gears may wear out making the whole machine unusable.
But despite the doubts over the the long term reliability of this machine it still comes with a 1 year warranty, so if anything goes wrong it that time it can be replaced!
The thing that you need to remember here is that the Hamilton Beach is a budget ice cream maker. If you're looking for something cheap and cheerful that can be used to feed big groups of people a handful of times a year then this is a great choice.
If on the other hand, your looking for a machine to more regularly and want something that's going to last a good few years, it makes sense to look for a machine with a slightly higher build quality...
2. Nostalgia Vintage Collection 4 Quart Ice Cream Maker
A step up in build quality, the Nostalgia Vintage ice cream maker also features attractive retro styling!
Harking back to the olden days of hard churned machines, the Nostalgia features wooden slats and brass hoops. However, these are merely decorative and surround a sturdy plastic bucket that's better equipped than a wooden container to deal with the strains of ice cream churning!
The Nostalgia Vintage will produce 4 quarts of ice cream per batch and like all ice and salt machines can make back to back batches.
And while costing just a few dollars more than the Hamilton Beach machine, it features a significantly more robust motor. So not only does it cope better with thicker mixtures, it's also less likely to wear out over time.
Apart from the wooden slats and brass hoops the construction is entirely plastic. And the build quality is obviously not as good as the more expensive salt and ice machines.
However, all in all this a very reliable machine. Be aware though it does only come with a 90 day warranty!
3. White Mountain Appalachian 6 Quart Ice Cream Maker
The White Mountain Appalachian is the very top of the range when it comes to salt and ice machines.
It features a genuine pine wood bucket, a 12,000 RPM metal clad commercial grade motor, and a patented triple action dasher. All protected by a five year warranty.
It can make a whopping 6 quarts of ice cream per batch. And the ice cream it produces has a reputation for being the smoothest and creamiest around!
What's not to love? Well...
White Mountain used to be the ultimate American made, old style ice cream maker. A premium product with a justifiably premium price tag.
However since the company moved manufacturing to China there have been increasing numbers of complaints about the quality of their machines.
Whether all of the complaints are justifiable is debatable. However, it seems that some dip in quality has occurred.
But the fact is, if you're looking for a 6 quart capacity ice cream maker there isn't a whole lot of choice. And the White Mountain Appalachian remains by far the highest spec'd machine available.
It's still covered by an impressive 5 year warranty. So if you don't like what you receive, send it back!
Three great Pre-freeze Bowl Machines
As we've already discussed, pre-freeze bowl machines are great for regular use in smaller kitchens. They're really straightforward to use, they don't make any mess and they're all pretty cheap.
The removable bowl market is dominated by Cuisinart. And the quality of their machines is so good I wouldn't recommend buying any other brand.
1. Cuisinart ICE-30BC Pure Indulgence 2 Quart Ice Cream Maker
The Cuisinart ICE-30BC is one of the most popular ice cream makers on the market. And with good reason.
It's well made, compact, easy to use and makes consistently good ice cream. It was the first ice cream maker I bought and I still use it today.
It can make 2 quarts of ice cream per batch which is at the top end of what you'll get from a non ice and salt machine.
The freezable bowl is thick and sturdy and is double insulated so it cools evenly and warms slowly. However, since it's a big 2 quart bowl, check you've got enough space in your freezer before you buy it!
The controls are simple, just "on" and "off". But most importantly the motor is very powerful. This means it always get's the job done and there's none of the gear slipping and screeching you get with cheaper machines.
Sure, it's not quiet. But automatic ice cream machines are never quiet. And you have to remember to pre-freeze the bowl the night before you make a batch. But that's the same for all these machines.
So, unless your planning on making ice cream for big groups, I think this is one of the best entry level ice cream makers available today. Check out my complete review of the ICE-30BC.
2. Cuisinart ICE-21 1.5 Quart Ice Cream Maker
The Cuisinart ICE-21 is essentially the baby brother of the ICE-30. It works in exactly the same way but has a 1.5 quart capacity rather than the 2 quarts you get with the ICE-30.
This means that the whole unit is smaller. And lighter. And the bowl takes up less room in your freezer!
So choosing between them is just a matter of deciding which capacity suits you best. To some extent this is about how much ice cream you eat. People that eat more will tend to prefer the larger capacity machine.
3. Cuisinart ICE-70 2 Quart Ice Cream Maker
If the ICE-21 is the baby brother of the ICE-30BC, the ICE-70 is it's flashy uncle. It has the same 2 quart capacity but replaces the simple manual "on/off" button with a small LCD screen and control panel.
You don't get that much extra functionality with the ICE-70. But depending on your priorities it could be worth the slightly higher price tag.
The most interesting feature is the ability to optimize the machine for 3 different types of frozen dessert. By choosing either "ice cream", "gelato" or "sorbet", you set the machine to rotate at a specific speed and for a specific length of time which best suits that particular dessert.
For gelato, the idea is that a dasher that rotates slower for a longer period of time will beat less air into the mixture and give you a denser more gelato like final product.
For sorbet the dasher rotates at the default speed but for longer again which should suit it better. And for ice cream it rotates at the default speed again but for less time.
You can also adjust the timer to any duration you like. Once it's done, it will beep every 5 minutes for 30 minutes or until you turn it off.
For me the timer is not super useful. There are plenty of other ways to time the machine. But the ability to control the density of the final product will be really attractive for those interested in gelato and sorbet.
Otherwise the ICE-70 is pretty much the same as the ICE-30. It's a slightly bigger machine. But the ice cream, it produces is of the same quality. So really it's just a case of deciding whether those extra features are worth the extra cost.
Three great Compressor Machines
The machines with built in freezers are perhaps the most convenient of all the ice cream makers. And they're certainly the most expensive!
They're best suited to families with a little more space, who make ice cream regularly and want the whole process to be as simple and straightforward as possible.
With all of these machines there's always a possibility that there's something wrong with the freezer when you receive it. The compressors can easily arrive damaged and in this case they just won't work properly at all. In this case you have a dud!
However this should be obvious as soon as you make the first batch of ice cream. And as long as you bought it from a reputable outlet there should be no problems returning it for a working replacement.
There's quite a few to choose from and to a large extent it's a case of deciding whether the extra features that some of the machines provide are worth the extra cost. Let's have a look at three of the best...
1. Cuisinart ICE-100 1.5 Quart Ice Cream Maker
Another machine from Cuisinart. And it's another winner. Whether it's removable bowls or built in freezers, you can rely on Cuisinart to produce really good ice cream makers!
The ICE-100 is relatively simple compared to some of the other machines. But everything it does, it does really well.
It has a 1.5 quart capacity and uses a removable aluminium bowl to make cleaning easier. The transparent lid allows you to see what's going inside and has an opening that makes adding extra ingredients simple.
It's the only machine that has 2 different paddles: one for ice cream and one for gelato and sorbet. This is because gelato and sorbet generally contain less air than ice cream and a different shaped paddle can limit the amount air that's beaten into the mixture. This is a really useful feature if you're interested in trying different types of frozen treats!
You can turn the freezer on before you start churning to make sure it's as cold as possible when you add the mixture. And there's a timer so you can set the machine to churn for up to 60 minutes. Once the set time is reached, the machine will stop churning but will keep your ice cream cold for up to 10 minutes.
You do need to bear two things in mind with this machine. Firstly, although it's supposed to have having a 1.5 quart capacity, it struggles to contain more than 1.2 quarts with the mixture sometimes overflowing the edges of the bowl. Secondly, small amounts of mixture can sometimes get into the gear on the bottom of the bowl and if they're not cleaned up they will go rancid over time and produce a nasty smell.
However neither of these issues are insurmountable. Firstly, since it can make back to back batches you can simply make slightly smaller quantities per batch. And secondly the seal over the gear can be removed so it's not difficult to clean any stray mixture should it enter the gear.
All in all this is a very reliable, simple to use machine. It come s with a 5 year warranty in the UK and a 3 year warranty in the US. And it makes great ice cream with no fuss!
2. Whynter ICM-200LS 2.1 Quart Ice Cream Maker
The Whynter ICM-200LS is very similar to the Cuisinart ICE-100 in terms of the range of functionality it offers.
But there's one significant difference: it has a 2 quart capacity. This is unusually big for built in freezer machines, especially at this price range. And if you like to make large amounts of ice cream it's a big bonus.
Other than that, it's very like the Cuisinart machine. There's a transparent lid with an opening that lets you add extra ingredients. The timer defaults to 60 min but can be set to any time less than that. And once it's finished churning it automatically keeps the mixture cool for 10 minutes.
Beyond that you can also set the machine to churn without cooling (which is useful for pre-mixing ingredients or adding extra ingredients at the end). And you can also set it to cool without churning (which is good to pre-freeze the bowl or keep the mixture cool for longer at the end).
This is reliable machine with a big capacity. There's not so many bells and whistles. But if you want a reasonably priced machine that can knock out big, back to back batches of ice cream this would be a good choice.
3. Breville BCI600XL Smart Scoop 1.5 Quart Ice Cream Maker
The Smart Scoop is the machine with all the bells and whistles. Whether you prefer full manual control or want a completely automatic experience, this machine can deliver both.
In automatic mode you simply choose one of four options: ice cream, gelato, sorbet or frozen yogurt. The machine then does the rest: churning and cooling the mixture in the optimal way for each.
If you want to get more involved, there are 12 hardness settings to choose from with the machine automatically adjusting itself to achieve the desired consistency.
All these automatic settings can also be overridden by using the machine in manual mode. Here you can simply set the machine to run for any time between 5 and 180 minutes. But don't worry: if the mixture gets too thick it will automatically stop anyway.
Once the mixture stops churning it goes into a keep cool mode which can maintain the ice cream in the desired condition for up to 3 hours!
It will even play some music when it's finished, with a choice of 3 in built tunes. Of course, if you're not keen on this touch the music can be turned off!
There are plenty of other touches you don't get with the other machines. There's a child lock on the lid to stop over unenthusiastic fingers wandering into the mix. There's a an audio alert that lets you know when it's the best time to add extra ingredients. And you can toggle the temperature read outs between Fahrenheit and Celsius.
As I said, this is the best ice cream maker for those that want maximum convenience and loads of extra features.
So those were a selection of the best ice cream makers available at the moment. It's clear to me that the best machine for you will depend on how you'll be making ice cream.
If you're making ice cream for irregularly for really big groups of people at parties and BBQs then you'll need a machine with a big capacity and maybe one that can churn out back to back mixes.
In this case an ice and salt machine might suit you best. These are available with 4 and 6 quart capacities. And as long as you've got enough ice and salt you can make a new batch as soon as the first ones finished.
In which case, if you're on a very tight budget and you're not looking for a machine that's going to last a long time, the Hamilton Beach 4 Quart machine is really, really cheap. Just be aware that you might not get too many hours use from it before the motor starts to go.
If you're able to spend a just a little more money, the Nostalgia Vintage Collection 4 Quart machine is much more robust with a far stronger motor. And it should last significantly longer.
And if 4 quarts isn't enough, not only will the White Mountain Appalachian machine give you 6 quarts per batch, it's also got a significantly better build quality than both of the other machines. And as long as you look after it, it should last many years.
If you're making ice cream more regularly for smaller numbers of people and have limited space or a limited budget, then a machine with a removable bowl could be the best choice for you.
Cuisinart are the best brand to go for here. The ICE-30BC offers very simple, straightforward functionality and 2 quarts per batch.
While the smaller ICE-21 will give you 1.5 quarts and might be better if you have less space or just don't need so much ice cream!
The ICE-70 also has a 2 quart capacity and can be optimized for ice cream, gelato or sorbet, so it's a great choice for those that like to experiment!
But if you've got the space and can afford to spend a little more, the convenience of an ice cream maker with a built in freezer might be the best choice.
Cuisinart again do a fantastic job with the ICE-100, producing a reasonably priced, dependable machine that will knock out 1.5 quarts of quality ice cream time after time.
If you need more ice cream then the Whynter ICM-200LS will give you 2.1 quarts per batch and similar functionality to the Cuisinart machine.
And if you want an all singing (literally) all dancing machine that can do everything for you, the Breville BCI600XL Smart Scoop is packed full of features that make ice cream making as simple and straightforward as possible.
I hope this post has been helpful. If you have any questions or comments, please let me know below...