When I was 13, I learned what it meant to churn your own ice cream by hand. My grandmother had just moved from North Dakota to live near us in Pittsburgh and she brought with her an old ice cream maker that she had used for years. It was an old wooden hand-crank with a thin aluminum canister insert and space for ice between the canister and wooden bucket. And of course, room for lots of rock salt to lower the melting point of the ice.
On a hot summer day, my dad asked me if I wanted to try fresh homemade ice cream - and like the naive 13-year-old I was, I happily said yes. I then spent the next two days cracking out ice cubes and transferring them into gallon freezer bags so that there would be enough ice to make the ice cream. And when the big moment came to churn the ice cream, it was I who spent a dreadful hour turning the crank and replenishing the ice.
I'd like to tell you the final homemade ice cream was worth it - but it really wasn't. In fact, I never wanted see homemade ice cream again. Besides all the hand-churning and messy rock salt, the final ice cream just wasn't as creamy or delicious as ice cream from a carton. Even worse, it froze rock-solid (thanks to the skim milk base) and had a texture closer to shaved ice than creamy ice cream. The naive 13-year-old felt betrayed by the empty promises of homemade goodness.
In truth, the real secret to embracing homemade goodness lies in simplicity. Forget about cracking out ice cubes for two days or finding room in your freezer for a giant bag of ice or hand-cranking a machine for an hour. If you have the patience to use an old-fashioned ice cream hand-crank, I applaud your dedication to the nostalgic. But for the rest of us who just want easy homemade ice cream, buy an ice cream maker.
If you're counting, this is now the fourth kitchen appliance I have recommended. First I lauded bread machines (an fantastic investment), then a food processor, then a stand mixer, now an ice cream maker. And if you're counting your pennies and wondering which appliance you should buy first, I would go with the bread maker and then an ice cream maker. Unless of course you rarely eat bread or ice cream, then buy the food processor and stand mixer. Unless you don't really cook or bake, in which case, don't buy any of these appliances and invest in some good cookbooks.
I've already devoted an entire post explaining the time-saving benefits of owning a bread machine. But the same reasons really apply to owning an ice cream maker. If you, or those you cook for, eat ice cream, an ice cream maker enables you to put the love back into ice cream and sorbets by making them yourself (and thereby avoiding cartons of pre-made convenience laced with preservatives, artificial food dyes, and other surprising ingredients for stabilization and texture). A good ice cream maker will also simplify your life (no more ice and rock salt), allow you to churn ice cream, frozen yogurt, sorbet and gelato, and make the whole process so easy you'll happily abandon pre-made convenience.
In fact, you could probably get your wary 13-year-old to happily make a batch of ice cream from start to finish every week if you owned a simple ice cream maker. Simply pour in the ice cream base, flip the machine on, set a timer and walk away. Within 30 minutes, all that's left is to eat the perfectly churned ice cream.
Of course, there are techniques for making ice cream without an ice cream maker (feel free to research), but I find these techniques really do not result in the smooth creamy texture I crave. Because if I'm going to abandon those cartons of pre-made convenience at Walmart, I want a truly satisfying replacement that's worth the effort and attention of an impatient and easily distracted 13-year-old. Crystalized ice milk simply doesn't cut it.
So maybe this ice cream maker pep-talk has you wondering, "What machine should I buy?"
I despise recommending specific brands or products because reliable brands of today may be garbage tomorrow. So instead I'll describe what I love most about my machine and what I don't want in an ice cream maker. Your priorities may differ, so take your own needs into consideration before investing in any appliance.
- Consistency: I want reliable results. So I will settle for nothing less than a machine that can deliver perfect results every time. I'm extremely pleased with the performance of my Cuisinart in terms of the consistency of the final churn. No matter what the ingredient mix of the ice cream base, I always arrive as a beautifully creamy consistency once the machine has worked its magic. No crystallization, no soup, just perfect soft-serve reliability.
- Simplicity: I only use machines that simplify my life - I don't need any more complexity from fancy gadgets with all kinds of digital menus and timers to learn. So I prefer a machine that's super simple to figure out and super easy to assemble and use. My Cuisinart ice cream maker is very simple with just two settings: ON and OFF. No menus, no built in timers, no complexity. And there are only 4 pieces to the machine that are super-easy to assemble: the base, the frozen canister, the dasher, and the locking lid. Even better, the cord tucks away inside the base of the machine to simplify storage.
- Size: I live in an apartment with a small kitchen and limited storage. So I'm very sensitive to the size of appliances and I want machines that can be easily tucked away and hauled out as needed. At the same time, I want a machine with enough capacity to handle a decent batch size - who wants to spend time making tiny batches of ice cream every few days? I own a 2-quart capacity machine and couldn't be happier - the overall size is surprisingly compact, the freezer canister requires less freezer space than some (like the KitchenAid bowl attachment), and the machine is surprisingly light-weight for easy lifting from lower cabinets.
- Durability: If I'm going to invest in a dedicated machine, I want it to last for batch after batch after batch without any problems. And I don't want to have to clean away salt or take apart pieces to prevent corrosion. I've had my machine for 2+ years without any issues. And I've made a lot of ice cream. The motor is fairly quiet, it never seems to sound strained, and it has never overheated or shut-off due to strain, even after 30+ minutes of continuous churning.
- Ice-less: Maybe you enjoy cracking ice, saving it in plastic bags, and stock-piling to make ice cream - I don't. Maybe you enjoy pouring rock salt over the ice and marveling at how fast the ice melts - I don't. Maybe you enjoy cleaning up the salt-water mess that remains after extracting your churned ice cream - I don't. I prefer an ice cream maker with a freezer canister - you simply chill the canister in the freezer for 24-48 hours and you're ready to make ice-less ice cream.
- Price: You can find ice cream makers at all different price points, but you should be able to find a good machine between $50 to $100 brand new. And if you're really lucky (and you're ok with shopping at thrift stores), you might be able to find a used machine for substantially less cash. The point is, you don't need to break the bank to enjoy the ease of an ice cream maker...