I got my first ice-cream machine in the middle of winter, and by the time spring had arrived, I’d cranked out more ice cream than I (and my ever-growing circle of ice-cream-loving friends) had ever consumed in a single summer. It’s not something I’m terribly proud of, and I only mention it now to make a small point, which is that making ice cream at home can and should be a year-round activity.
You’ll find a wide range of ice-cream machines on the market. I’ve limited this article to the three most popular and available styles: the old-fashioned can and bucket models that require crushed ice and rock salt; the cylindrical canisters with a sealed-in coolant that must be frozen before use; and the ultramodern countertop units that rely on compression (just like your refrigerator)
Regardless of the technology, all ice-cream machines operate on the same principle. They introduce air into a liquid custard mixture using a paddle, called a dasher, while simultaneously freezing it. As it turns, the dasher scrapes the frozen mixture from the sides of the canister and pushes it toward the center, allowing new ice crystals to form along the sides. The whole process usually takes 20 to 30 minutes.
Bucket freezers put you in control
For more than 100 years, the most popular home ice-cream machines were the bucket freezers that use salt and ice. You can find these classics at garage sales for less than $10 (make sure the metal parts haven’t rusted from exposure to the brine) or new models for $150 to $200.
These old-fashioned machines, which come in electric and manual models, let you control the freezing temperature with the proportion of salt to ice. With the manual crank models, you also control the dasher speed. Bucket freezers are available in a variety of sizes, with the 4- and 6-quart sizes most common. And as long as you have a ready supply of ice and salt, you can make a second batch immediately after the first one is done.
The cons to bucket freezers are that they require a lot of crushed ice, the briny slush can be messy, and the electric motors are very loud. Also, since the mixture is poured into a closed metal canister, you can’t see the ice cream so you need to pay attention to other clues to gauge doneness.
How to control texture: churn speed and temperature
The two big factors that determine the quality of the ice cream are the speed of the dasher and the temperature of the coolant. Dasher speed determines how much air gets incorporated into the custard. A dasher that turns slowly will trap less air, yielding a dense ice cream reminiscent of gelato. “If your objective is to make an ice cream that will exceed Häagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s in quality, then you want a machine that doesn’t go really fast,” says Andrew Hingston, an ice-cream entrepreneur in California who was graduated from the same ice-cream school that gave Ben and Jerry their start.
A faster dasher introduces more air, and the result is a lighter ice cream. At the same time, a faster dasher scrapes ice crystals from the sides of the can more quickly, which keeps those crystals nice and tiny. The smaller the crystals, the smoother the ice cream.
The temperature of the coolant—whether it’s salt and ice, antifreeze, or a compression freezer—determines how fast the custard freezes, which in turn affects the ice cream’s texture. A rapid freeze will give you smaller ice crystals and smoother texture—up to a point; too quick a freeze (faster than 20 minutes) will likely give the opposite result. A lethargic freeze means the ice cream must be mixed for a longer time, which risks an airy, almost fluffy dessert, or worse: if your custard mixture has a high butterfat content, you might even end up with bits of butter in the ice cream.
Cylinder Freezers: More hands-off
In the early ’80s, home ice-cream machine technology took a giant leap forward with sealed-in coolant machines, also called cylinder freezers. At room temperature, the coolant is liquid—shake the can and you’ll hear sloshing. After several hours in the freezer, the liquid freezes, and the cylinder gets cold enough to freeze ice cream. These machines usually hold 1 or 1-1/2 quarts, are simple to use, and are affordable, starting at about $60.
Most cylinder freezers have a hole in the lid, through which you pour your custard after the dasher has started to turn, to keep the custard from freezing solid the second it hits the cylinder. The hole comes in handy later in the process, too, when you might add crushed cookies, chocolate chips, or other flavoring ingredients. The electric motor may be part of the base unit or mounted on the lid. Both styles work fine, but I found the bottom-motor design to be less cumbersome.
The biggest disadvantage to sealed-in coolant models is the long pre-freezing time, which inhibits spontaneous ice-cream parties and immediate second batches. If you have lots of freezer space, you can just keep the canister in the freezer all the time.
Self-Cooling Units: Ice Cream on Demand
At the far end of the technology and price scale are the self-cooling (also called self-contained) models that use compression to cool the ice-cream-making bowl. These are bulky, sensitive to being moved, and quite expensive, starting at $400. They need about as much space as a bread machine, not just for the machine but also for its air vents. Some units have permanently installed mixing bowls, which are awkward to clean.
Self-cooling units can be worth the expense, however. They’ll streamline the process if you make ice cream very frequently or for big crowds. Although their bowls usually make only 1-1/2 or 2 quarts at a time, they can make batch after batch of ice cream without hesitation. They’re also the easiest to use, demanding nothing except a brief (5- to 10-minute) pre-cooling period, which is accomplished with the mere push of a button before pouring in the custard.