Troubleshooting Homemade Ice Cream
Sometimes things don't go to plan. And unfortunately, this can happen quite a lot when we start making our own ice cream. Especially if we're experimenting. Which of course, is one of the best things about having our own ice cream maker!
But if you're having problems, then you've come to the right place. Because on this page I'll help you work out exactly what's going wrong and show you how to fix it.
First of all, why does homemade ice cream cause us so many problems? Well, making ice cream is as much a science as an art. It's a very delicate substance with three states (solid, gas and liquid) in perfect balance. And if we upset that balance, things can go very wrong, very quickly!
But when things do go wrong there's really just three places that we should be looking:
- our preparation
- our ice cream maker
And in this order too. Why? Well, when our ice cream turns out bad, there's a natural inclination to blame the ice cream maker, especially if we're just starting out and we're perhaps using a new machine.
But while it's always a struggle to make really good ice cream with a domestic machine and it's not unknown for ice cream makers to be faulty out of the box, this is the last place we should be looking.
Every domestic ice cream maker is capable of making very good ice cream if we use a good recipe and we prepare it and the machine properly. So if we're having problems, lets look at these things first, in order to rule them out, before we start blaming the machine.
With that in mind, here's some of the most common problems we can have with homemade ice cream...
My ice cream is icy
This is probably the most common problem with home made ice cream. And it's caused by large ice crystals forming in the mixture as it freezes.
Large ice crystals are usually the result of either too much water in the mix or excessively long freezing time. Or often both, since lot's of water means the mixture will also take longer to freeze.
Why would there be too much water in the mixture? Either the recipe is unbalanced or it wasn't prepared properly. Let's look at the recipe first.
Recipes can be unbalanced for many reasons. But in this case, we're talking about recipes that contain too much "free" water, which is water that's able to move about, unhindered by other ingredients.
If there's too much "free" water in the mixture, when it freezes it all comes together to form larger crystals.
The water in ice cream comes from the liquid ingredients: the milk and the cream. Solid ingredients: the sugars, skimmed milk powders, stabilizers and eggs (which solidify when heated) will stop that water from moving about freely.
You can see this visually. When there's more solids and therefore less free water, the mixture looks thicker. This is because it contains less water that's able to move about unhindered.
So, remember: more solids means less free water. And less free water means smaller ice crystals and less icy ice cream!
If we're using a recipe from a well respected book or a decent website, it should already be well balanced. The problems often start when we want to experiment with less sugar or less fat in our recipes. These adjustments will result in more free water and bigger ice crystals.
So my advice here: start out with well established, balanced recipes. When you want to start experimenting, run your new recipe through an ice cream calculator, making the necessary tweaks to ensure it's balanced!
Badly prepared recipes
Even if we're using a well balanced recipe we can still mess things up by not preparing it properly!
Ingredients should be measured out correctly. So make sure your scales are accurate.
If we're using powdered stabilizers, especially gums, there's several ways things can go wrong. Gums are incredibly potent, so we tend to use very small quantities. You'll need scales that are accurate to at least 0.1g to get those quantities correct.
Gums will also clump together if they're mixed directly into liquid. And when they clump together, they don't work properly. So we should always mix them into the sugar (and any other dry ingredients) very thoroughly before we add the milk and the cream.
Different stabilizers are activated at different temperatures. Most require heating. And if we don't use a thermometer to measure the temperature of our mixtures, we'll never be sure we've got to the temperature where the full extent of their powers is unleashed!
Likewise with eggs. To get the most out of eggs they need to be heated. Generally to 170 °F (77 °C). If we're not doing this accurately, we can't be sure they'll restrict the movement of the water as much as we'd like.
Lonnnggg Freezing Times
Finding good, well balanced recipes is easy. And with a bit of practice, most of us should be able to follow them properly! So I think more often than not, icy ice creams are down to the fact that domestic ice cream makers can take a long time to freeze our mixtures.
Why do longer freezing times produce icier ice creams? Well, remember the problem is large ice crystals. Ice crystals are formed in the machine. And the longer the mixture spends in the ice cream machine, the larger those ice crystals grow.
But why do domestic ice cream makers take so long to freeze our mixtures? Because most of them are under powered. So they have weak motors that rotate blunt, plastic paddles, very slowly. But that's not all...
If they use bowls that are pre-frozen in our freezers, those bowls start to warm up as soon as they're removed from the freezer, so they gradually loose their freezing power. And even if they use built in freezers for constant cooling, the compressors are not powerful enough to chill the mixture very quickly.
Unless we buy a top end domestic ice cream maker, there's nothing we can do about the freezing power of our machine. However, we can make it easier for our ice cream maker by getting everything as cold as possible before we start churning.
By everything, I mean 1) the ice cream mixture, 2) the bowl that it will be frozen in and 3) the container that the final ice cream will be stored in.
Cooling the mixture
Once we've made the mixture, we must cool it down as much as possible before it goes in the ice cream machine. I like to leave cooked mixtures in the fridge overnight. But if you're in a rush, you can add it to a zip lock bag and use an ice bath to get the initial temperature down, before transferring it to the fridge for another couple of hours.
Even uncooked mixtures will benefit from an hour or so in the fridge.
The idea is to get the mixture as cold as possible. Most fridges are around 39 °F (4 °C) and to be honest, that's the very warmest our ice cream mixture should be when it goes in the machine. I'd recommend using a thermometer to measure the actual temperature when you're first starting out.
Sometimes I'll even pop the mixture in the freezer for an hour or so, giving it a good blast with a hand blender to break up any ice crystals that might have formed before I pour it into the ice cream maker.
Cooling the bowl
The bowl that the mixture will be churned in should also be as cold as possible before we start.
If you're using a machine with a bowl that's pre-frozen in your freezer, it needs to be in there for at least 12 hours, (preferably overnight), to fully freeze.
These bowls are lined with a liquid gel that freezes solid. So one way to tell if it's ready is to shake the bowl. If you can still hear the gel sloshing about after 12 hours, it's definitely not ready yet!
If you've got a freezer with an adjustable temperature, it's a good idea to set it as low as possible when you add the bowl to help get it as cold as you can.
If you're using a machine with a built in freezer, turn it on for at least 15 minutes to pre-cool the bowl before you add the mixture.
Most of these ice cream makers don't have a proper pre-cool function. So it's just a case of adding an extra 15 minutes to the timer and starting it up. The compressor and the motor will start at the same time, so the paddle will be spinning in an empty bowl, but that's not a problem.
So, your mixture's as cold as possible and the bowl of your machine is as cold as possible. Now, when you add the mixture to the bowl, this gives your machine a real head start: it will freeze the mixture faster so it will spend much less time in the machine and the ice crystals will be smaller.
Making sure the bowl stays cool!
With compressor ice cream makers, we need to be sure that the machine is constantly cooling as it's churning. Otherwise the mixture will start to warm up and it won't freeze.
On some machines, if you press the stop button to pause the churning (perhaps to test the consistency or temperature of the ice cream), the compressor will also turn off and it won't immediately come on again when you restart the churning.
In fact, it can take several minutes for the compressor to restart and there'll be a considerable amount of melting during time. This will obviously increase the overall freezing time, which will have a detrimental effect on the smoothness of the ice cream.
Likewise, if the timer reaches zero, the machine will automatically stop and even if you turn it back on immediately, although it will start churning, the compressor won't start up again immediately.
So, once the mixture is in the machine and churning, avoid pausing the machine until the ice cream is ready to be removed! If you can see that the timer is going to run out before the ice cream is ready, add more time while it's still running rather than waiting until it's stopped.
On the Breville Smart Scoop, there is a similar problem if you forget to start the machine once it's pre-cooled. Towards the end of the pre-cool cycle, the machine is rotating the paddle anyway. So once the beeper tells you to add the mixture, it's easy to forget that the machine has not actually started yet and simply pour the mixture in and walk away.
Some minutes later the pre-cool will finish and the machine will turn off (because you didn't actually start the machine). Even if you hit the Start button immediately to start churning, the compressor wont turn on again for some minutes, during which time there'll be a lot of warming and the whole pre-cool process becomes a complete waste of time!
So, don't forget: when the machine beeps towards the end of the pre-cool cycle, you need to add the mixture AND hit the start button to start making the ice cream!
Cooling the container
One last things you can do is to pre-chill the container that you'll transfer the ice cream into. Even 20 minutes in the freezer as the ice cream is churning will reduce the amount of melting that occurs as the ice cream is being moved from the machine to the freezer. And less melting, means less re-freezing, which means smaller ice crystals and less icy ice cream!
My ice cream isn't smooth
I can think of three possible reasons why your ice cream isn't smooth. And to work out which one it is, you need to think about in what way exactly the ice cream's not smooth!...
- coarse, with a roughness that melts away in the mouth
- sandy, with a roughness that doesn't melt in the mouth
- lumpy, with tiny globules that give way under the tongue
If it's coarse with a roughness that melts away in your mouth, your tongue is probably detecting large ice crystals. This is the most common defect in homemade ice cream.
It can be caused by low amounts of solids in your recipe, not enough (or the wrong type of) stabilizers, or excessive freezing time in the ice cream machine. For more information and step by step instructions on how to fix it, check out the "My ice cream is icy!" section above.
If your ice cream has a sandy texture that doesn't immediately melt away in the mouth, your tongue is probably detecting lactose that's crystallized out during freezing. In homemade ice cream, this is usually caused by too much skimmed milk powder (SMP) in the mixture.
If you've added SMP and it's pushed the milk solids-non-fat (MSNF) levels in the mix above 16%, lactose crystallization is very likely.
The good thing is: it's really easy to fix! Simply add less SMP. It's a good idea to run your recipe through my ice cream calculator as this will tell you the the levels of MSNF in advance.
If you can detect tiny, lumpy globules that give way under pressure from the tongue, then there has probably been excessive fat de-stabilization during churning. Excessive what?!
Without going too far into the science, when we're churning ice cream we want some of the fat particles in the milk and the cream to clump together to form long strings that'll protect the air bubbles introduced by the paddle.
This is called fat de-stabilization (or partial coalescence) and is a good thing. However, if too many fat particles clump together, the globules become big enough to be detectable by the tongue. Also called "buttering", this is a bad thing!
What causes too many fat globules to clump together? Well, if there's too much butterfat in the recipe. Or just a reasonably high butterfat content and then too much churning. And if you're using emulsifiers, too much will also cause excessive fat de-stabilization.
So, this one's easy to fix as well. Use less cream and more milk to reduce the butterfat content in your mixture. You can check your butterfat levels using my ice cream calculator.
You could also try churning your ice cream mixture for less time. The longer you churn high fat mixes, the more chances there are of this "buttering". And if you are using emulsifiers, simply use less!
My ice cream is too soft
I cover this issue in the "My ice cream is not freezing at all!" section below. It's usually down to unreasonable expectations...
Most domestic ice cream makers are not capable of producing ice cream that's any harder than soft scoop. Once the mixture has reached this consistency in your ice cream maker, it should be transferred to your freezer to harden further.
My ice cream is too hard
This is a common complaint with homemade ice cream. And it's true, when we take it out of the freezer to eat, it's usually rock hard and impossible to scoop!
This can be caused by several factors. Homemade ice cream usually contains much less air than the stuff you buy in the store. Air keeps ice cream soft. So the less there is, the harder your ice cream.
It can also be caused by low fat or sugar content. Fat doesn't freeze. And sugar lowers the freezing temperature of the water in our mixes. So they both keep our ice cream soft. But for health reasons, we often want to reduce the amounts of fat and sugar in homemade ice cream and unfortunately this will make it harder.
It's pretty difficult to get more air into your ice cream, although you could try whipping the mixture before you add it to the machine. And maybe you don't want to add more sugar or fat to your recipes?
My advice would be simply to take your ice cream out of the freezer 15 minutes before you want to eat it, so it softens up a bit! If you put it in the fridge, rather than on the counter top, although it will take longer to soften, it will do so more uni-formally, so you won't get melted ice cream round the edges of the container while it's still hard in the middle.
Alternatively you could add alcohol to your mixtures! Just like sugar (and salt), alcohol reduces the freezing point of water. So if you add one or two tablespoons of vodka (or any other 40% liquor) per quart of mixture, you'll find your ice cream stays a little softer in the freezer.
Vodka is good if you don't want to affect the flavor of the ice cream. But you can use any 40% liquor as long as the flavor compliments the other ingredients!
My ice cream tastes of candy
Sometimes ice cream can develop a very sweet, almost caramel like flavor that reminds me of candy. This seems to happen if I'm heating a mixture that contains skimmed milk powder (SMP).
The flavor is probably a stronger version of the cooked milk flavor that develops when we overheat milk. By cooking the mixture without SMP and then mixing it in a little later when the mixture's cooled down a bit, I'm able to avoid this flavor completely.
My ice cream tastes greasy
If your ice cream tastes greasy and leaves an unpleasantly cloying film in your mouth, then the butterfat content is probably too high. Try using less cream and more milk. And check the butterfat content using my ice cream calculator.
My ice cream tastes weak and watery
Weak, watery ice creams may not contain enough solids. Try adding some skimmed milk powder (SMP). Or you can experiment with stabilizers. A little bit of salt may bring out some more flavor as well!
My ice cream melts too quickly
This is another common issue with homemade ice cream. But again, it's usually down to several issues, including the amount of air, fat, solids and stabilizers there are in the ice cream.
Ice creams that contain lots of air and fat tends to melt slowly. Why? Well, the air insulates the ice cream against warming and the fat stabilizes the ice cream structure.
But homemade ice cream usually contains much less air than the stuff we buy in the store. And for health reasons we often try to reduce the fat when we're making ice cream at home.
Ice creams that contain high proportions of solid ingredients and stabilizers also tend to melt slowly. This is because solids and stabilizers thicken the mixture, which helps it to resist melting when it's frozen.
But many homemade ice creams don't use any stabilizers (beyond eggs) and don't add extra solids.
So to try and prevent your ice creams melting so quickly there are several things you can try:
- increase the fat content
- add extra solids in the form of skimmed milk powder (SMP)
- add more eggs
- use other stabilizers
My ice cream isn't freezing at all!
One thing we need to be clear about: a domestic ice cream maker will never churn out ice cream with the same hard texture as the stuff you buy in the store. It's not possible.
In fact, most domestic ice cream makers aren't able to harden the ice cream to anything more than a soft serve type consistency. When you've reached that texture, the machine has actually done it's job and it's time to transfer it to the freezer for any further hardening.
So if, when you say "my ice cream isn't freezing at all", you mean it's not freezing past Mr Whippy consistency, then you haven't got a problem, you've got unrealistic expectations! 'Cos that's never going to happen.
However, if your ice cream still has a soup like consistency after 40 minutes in the machine, then you've definitely got a problem and a perfectly valid grievance! But we should be able to easily establish what that problem is by a process of elimination...
Could it be the recipe?
The first thing to look at is the recipe. Have you added too much sugar, salt or alcohol? They will lower the freezing point of the mixture. And too much of any of these ingredients could stop the ice cream freezing altogether.
You can use my ice cream calculator to check your recipe is balanced. But my advice is to start with a recipe from a well respected book or website and follow it to the letter.
Are you chilling the mixture properly?
If you're still having problems, then maybe it's an issue with the way you're preparing the mixture. Are you completely chilling the mixture before you add it the ice cream maker?
If you add warm mixture to an ice cream machine, then it won't freeze very well, if at all. The mixture needs to be at fridge temperature (39 °F /4 °C) or colder. Maybe use a thermometer to make sure it is!
Are you chilling the bowl properly?
If the mixture is cold enough, then maybe the bowl in the machine isn't. If you're using a freezer bowl machine, are you sure you fully froze the bowl? Give it a shake. If you can hear liquid sloshing about inside the walls of the bowl, then it's not been chilled for long enough.
But even if you can't hear any unfrozen liquid sloshing about, that doesn't necessarily mean the bowl is fully frozen! Check the temperature of the sides of the bowl with a thermometer. It should be the same temperature as your freezer. And your freezer should be around 0 °F (-18 °C). Are you sure your freezer is working properly?!
If you're using a compressor ice cream maker, are you pre-cooling the bowl? You should always try to have the empty bowl cooling in the machine for at least 15 minutes before you add the mixture.
On most machines this just means turning it on 15 minutes early. In this case, the paddle will be spinning in an empty bowl. But Musso ice cream makers let you run the compressor independently of the paddle. And the Breville Smart Scoop has an automatic pre-cool function which will take care of everything!
However you do it, the important thing is that you're not adding the mixture to a bowl that's at room temperature.
Is it a faulty ice cream maker?
But what if you're using a good recipe and you're preparing it properly? And it's completely chilled before you add to an ice cream maker that's also been pre-cooled? If you do all this and it still looks like soup after 40 minutes, then maybe your machine is faulty!
Troubleshooting freezer bowl ice cream makers
If you're using a freezer bowl machine and you're sure it's fully frozen to around 0 °F (-18 °C) or less when it comes out of the freezer, then perhaps it's warming up too quickly.
My Cuisinart bowl comes out of the freezer at around -9 °F (-23 °C) and after 20 or 30 minutes churning it's still at a respectable 12 °F (-11 °C). If yours is much warmer, that could be the problem.
Troubleshooting compressor ice cream makers
If you're using a compressor machine, then maybe the freezer isn't working properly. Compressor machines should be able to pre-cool their bowls to at least -15 °F (-26 °C).
Some machines will show you the current temperature on their LCD displays and these are more or less accurate in my experience. If you doubt them or you don't have a machine that displays the temperature, you can always test them with a cheap infrared thermometer.
Once the mixture is added to the bowl the temperature will rise and it will always take some time for the compressor to lower it again.
In my experience, they never get back down to -15 °F (-26 °C). Instead they'll hover around -2 °F (-19 °C). But this should be enough to get the job done adequately. If your machine is displaying a significantly higher temperature, then this is probably the issue.
Of course, if your machine doesn't display the temperature, it's hard to know what's going on! But again, you can always measure the temperature with an infrared thermometer. You may need to stop the machine in the middle of churning and this may ruin your batch but at least you'll get some idea of what's happening.
Was it mistreated in transit?
If your compressor doesn't freeze properly from the day you take delivery of the ice cream maker, then there's a good chance that the problem occurred in transit.
Usually it's the result of the box having been tipped onto it's side or upside down. For sure, the boxes usually say "^ THIS WAY UP ^", but busy or careless delivery guys don't always see or heed the instructions!
If the ice cream maker is rests on it's side or upside down, the coolant liquid will drain from the compressor to another part of the machine and it wont be able to freeze properly.
But if this has happened, all is not lost! You just need to leave the ice cream maker standing upright for around 24 hours so that the coolant liquid drains back into the compressor.
Now, even if the ice cream maker is delivered to you the right way up, you have no idea if it's been the right way up for the entire duration of it's journey. So it's a good idea to unpack it, place it where you're going to use it and and then leave it for 24 hours before you turn it on to make sure the coolant is in the compressor.
Because if you turn it on while the coolant isn't in the compressor, not only will it not freeze properly but it could also damage the compressor, so that even when the liquid has drained back, it won't work properly.
So my advice is to definitely leave your new compressor ice cream maker upright and in position for 24 hours before trying it out, just in case!
If in the end you decide that your machine is faulty, get in touch with the manufacturer immediately.
There's loads of things that can go wrong with homemade ice cream. And it can be quite frustrating when we're first starting out. Because it's not always clear why things are not working!
But it's important to remember that while (unless we spend a fortune) we'll always be battling with under powered ice cream makers, all domestic machines are capable of making amazing ice cream.
All we need to do is help them along a bit. This means using well balanced and well prepared recipes, getting our mixtures as cold as possible before we add them to the machine, and ensuring the machine has been thoroughly pre-cooled.
If we do all this, then in many cases our problems will disappear! However, if the solutions I suggest here are not working for you or you're having any problems that I don't cover on this page, let me know in the comments below and I'll do my best to help you sort them out!