An ice cream maker feature image

Ice cream is a favourite among kids, but who are we kidding? Adults love a good single scoop-dipped cone or double scoop in a cup with toppings, too. Ice cream is fun to eat after (or during) a day at the beach, to grab for excited kids when the musical truck comes barreling down the street, or for a treat at the local shopping mall. But what if you could make ice cream at home? You can, with an ice cream maker, which allows to bring the magic of homemade frozen treats right to your kitchen using minimal ingredients you probably already have in the fridge and pantry. Flavour it how you like, and add as many (or as few) toppings and mix-ins as you want, no extra charge.

Ice cream. You scream, I scream, we all scream for it, as the saying goes. Ice cream is one of those things everyone loves to indulge in from time to time. Even if you have dietary issues that make ice cream impossible to eat (think dairy sensitivities or lactose intolerance), there are dairy-free alternatives to traditional ice cream to savour on a hot, summer day or while curled up on the couch at night watching TV.

Should you get an ice cream maker for your home? This buying guide will tell you everything you need to know about them, how they work, and what to look for when choosing a model.

Table of Contents:

    1. What are ice cream makers?
    2. Types of ice cream makers
    3. Other ways to make ice cream at home
    4. What ingredients can you use in an ice cream maker?
    5. What to look for in an ice cream maker

What are ice cream makers?

Cuisinart ice cream maker with ice cream in a bowl.

An ice cream maker is a small kitchen appliance that can be used to make ice cream and, in many cases, other similar frozen desserts, at home. Back in the day, ice cream makers used a hank crank method, but nowadays, they have an electric motor. (Though you can still get simpler pre-freeze and manual models). The process involves either refrigeration or pre-freezing wet ingredients, then churning or mixing them until they get harder in consistency. It can take anywhere from 20-40 minutes to go from ingredients to ice cream.

Most homemade ice cream needs to be made and consumed right away. You may be able to freeze it after, but the texture might not be the same as store-bought unless you eat it fresh. With some machines, you’ll need to place the mixture in the freezer for a length of time to get the right consistency while the most premium, automatic models deliver ice cream shop-quality desserts you can eat right away.

Types of ice cream makers

This brings us to the two main types of standalone ice cream makers: self-contained compressor models and pre-freeze models.

Compressor ice cream makers

Woman eating ice cream from a compressor ice cream maker.

The easiest and most versatile type of ice cream maker, and arguably the most popular among those who want to make ice cream at home, compressor models don’t require any pre-freezing. How do the ingredients get cold enough to freeze? Through outside refrigeration that cools the bowl and churning paddle enough to freeze the ingredients as they mix. Usually measuring about a quart in size, up to 3 quarts, compressor ice cream makers work without any manual churning at all. Just add ingredients, turn the unit on, and let the machine do its thing. These small appliances are typically similar in size to the bread makers and sit on the countertop, plugged into power when needed. For inspiration, check out the Breville Smart Scoop ice cream maker review article. It has a built-in compressor and makes all types of ice cream, as well as frozen yogurt and gelato.

Pros with a compressor ice cream maker

Get larger batches: Since these machines tend to be larger, you’ll be able to make more ice cream at a time, perfect if you are using the machine for entertaining or if you have a large family. If you have a deep freezer where you can store pre-made ice cream, you might prefer a compressor model as well.

It works more quickly: You’ll also get ice cream much more quickly with minimal work and fast freezing since the entire process is automated.

Easy to use: Since the machine does most of the work for you, these ice cream makers are very easy to use. There’s no arduous churning on your part: you can literally set and forget. Put the ingredients inside, turn it on, have dinner, and by the time you’re done, dessert will be ready.

Has more features: You’ll enjoy more features with a compressor ice cream maker, like built-in timers and different hardness settings so you can go from something close to soft serves to a firmer texture, depending on preference.

Maintain temperature: Compressor model ice cream makers ensure that the right temperature is maintained through the process so you don’t end up with a soupy mess of liquid instead of firm, spoon-friendly ice cream.

Cons with a compressor ice cream maker

More expensive: Because of the larger size, more automated process added features, and ease of use, compressor ice cream makers tend to be more expensive. You’ll only want to invest if you have the space for one and if you plan to make ice cream at home often.

Can be more difficult to clean: Since these are usually large and heavy machines, they can be more difficult to clean. The bowl is usually removable so you can easily hand wash it in the sink. The compressor unit, however, requires that you handle it with care.

Must be cleaned quickly: While you might be anxious to enjoy that sweet treat right away, it’s important to clean a compressor model ice cream maker right away after using it. Not doing so could cause the mixture to harden and stick to the sides, making clean-up more difficult.

Pre-freeze ice cream makers

Some machines need to be pre-frozen in order to freeze the ingredient mixture while you manually churn it. Once sufficiently cold, this aerates the mixture and keeps the ice crystals small so that you still get that delicious, creamy texture. You might have seen larger versions of pre-freeze ice cream plates in certain local ice cream shops, usually where employees make the ice cream with your selected toppings right in front of you. These are effectively a form of pre-freeze ice cream makers.

Cuisinart pre-freeze ice cream maker

For countertop small appliances of this kind, they’ll typically have a cylinder that you freeze ahead of time, place in the machine, and it will spin and churn the ingredients, creating the ice cream without the need for built-in refrigeration. Check out the Cuisinart Ice Cream and Frozen Treat Maker review article to learn more about these types of ice cream makers.

Pros with pre-freeze ice cream makers

Perfect for chest freezer owners: If you have a chest freezer in your basement or garage, you can afford the space required to store a bowl, even two, when not in use so it’s always ready to go for homemade ice cream.

Great for smaller families: These machines are smaller and only make a single batch at a time, but if you have a small family, or you’re a single person or couple, this might be all you need, and exactly what you want.

Easier to clean: Since these only consist of a removable bowl and paddle, cleaning is simple. Wash both in the sink with warm water and soap, dry, and you can even place the bowl right back in the freezer once done if you have space. The paddle, meanwhile, can go in a drawer until you’re ready for the next batch.

Cons with pre-freeze ice cream makers

Need to prepare ahead: Because the bowl has to be sufficiently frozen, you need to make sure it’s placed in the freezer the night before, or at least a few hours before you want to make ice cream. This means frozen treats on a whim are out of the question, unless you have the space to keep the bowl frozen at all times.

Requires space: This leads to the next con, which is that you need to have sufficient freezer space to store the bowl, even if it is just temporarily. If you tend to have a freezer full of food, you may not have room for it.

Only makes small batches: You are limited to the smaller size of the bowl, which means you can only make a small amount of ice cream at a time. If you entertain a lot, have a large family, or want to pre-make ice cream to freeze, you will have to do it in batches.

Other ways to make ice cream at home

Believe it or not, you can theoretically make ice cream at home without a dedicated ice cream maker. The results might not be as true to what you get in your local ice cream shop, but these alternatives are worth considering as well.

Stand mixer ice cream maker attachments

Kitchenaid stand mixer with ice cream bowl attachment.

If you own a stand mixer from a brand like KitchenAid or Cuisinart, did you know that there is an optional ice cream maker attachment? It consists of a bowl that must be kept frozen and connected to the base of the machine in place of the standard stainless-steel bowl. Use the mixing attachment to whip up a batch of the tasty treat in under half an hour.

In addition to ice cream, a stand mixer ice cream maker can make sorbet and gelato as well and can make up to 2 quarts. The attachment, one of many KitchenAid offers, fits most bowl-lift KitchenAid stand mixers, with the exception of a few models, so make sure to verify compatibility with your machine before buying. And keep in mind that you will have to pre-freeze the bowl, and given it’s large size, you’ll need a lot of freezer space to accommodate it.

High-powered blenders

Even some higher-powered blenders can make ice cream. They work quickly and you won’t get the same creamy texture you would with a dedicated ice cream maker. But if you’re looking for a healthier option with frozen fruits, cream (or alternative), and toppings of your choice, you can get an ice cream-like dessert treat from some high-powered blenders. The great thing about blenders is that you can use them for so much more as well, and they are usually found on most kitchen countertops anyway. However, the results won’t be the same.

One thing you can, however, make in a blender that will turn out absolutely divine are milkshakes. Pop in ice cream you made in a dedicated ice cream maker, or even store-bought ice cream, along with some milk and ice, blend it up, and enjoy.

Yonanas fruit dessert maker

The Yonanas machine doesn’t technically make ice cream, but it does make delicious frozen treats you can eat in place of ice cream. And it’s super easy to use. All you do is feed frozen fruits through the chute (it’s best to let them defrost for a few minutes so they more easily pass through) and push them through. It will slowly emerge from the other end and into your cup or bowl with an ice cream-like texture. Think banana mango, strawberry peach, or go crazy with blueberry avocado.

The machine offers the perfect way to use up fruits that are about to spoil: wash, remove stems or peels if applicable, place them in Ziplock bags in the freezer, and pop them out for a healthy, no-sugar-added (nor any other ingredients for that matter) treat that adults and kids, alike will love.

What ingredients can you use in an ice cream maker?

Young boy with Yonanas machine.

To make traditional ice cream, there are a few key ingredients you’ll need to have at home.

overhead view of Cuisinart ice cream maker

Essential ingredients

  • Heavy cream (or dairy-free alternative; see below)
  • Milk (or cultured milk for frozen yogurt)
  • Sugar

Optional ingredients

  • Vanilla extract (or other flavoured extracts)
  • Eggs (for a more custard-like ice cream)
  • Flavouring (chocolate, fruits, nuts, vegetables, herbs)
  • Sauces (chocolate, caramel)
  • Cocoa powder
  • Fresh or frozen fruit
  • Toasted nuts
  • Spirits (reduce the sugar if you add brandy or rum since the alcohol will prevent the ice cream from freezing as firmly)

What else can you make in an ice cream maker?

Ice cream makers aren’t just for traditional ice cream. You can make other sweet frozen treats, too.

Gelato: Hailing from Italy, gelato is a frozen treat similar to ice cream, but with a few marked differences. While gelato technically means ice cream in Italian, the ingredients differ slightly. Gelato also includes milk, cream, sugar, and flavouring, but it’s typically richer and creamier in texture. The most authentic type of gelato will use more milk and less cream and does not contain egg yolks. It’s also typically served at a slightly warmer temperature than ice cream.

Child eating frozen dessert

Frozen yogurt: The big difference here is that frozen yogurt replaces the cream with cultured milk. Also containing sugar, frozen yogurt tends to result in a tangier taste, and healthier options will contain live and active cultures, which can actually contribute to your gut health (though the added sugar still makes it a sweet dessert treat).

Sorbet: Those with dairy issues appreciate sorbet because it’s typically made without dairy products. Rather, it includes just fruit and sugar. Because of this, the consistency is icier versus creamy. In addition to being served in cups and cones, some high-end restaurants ise sorbet as a palate cleanser between dishes, or even as an ingredient in cocktails. Some sorbets even incorporate vegetables like cucumbers or herbs like mint, basil, and thyme. You can really experiment with sorbets.

Sherbet: Similar to ice cream, sherbet contains dairy, like milk, cream, or buttermilk, affording a nice, creamy consistency. It can sometimes also include egg whites or gelatin, which help to stabilize the texture so you get that nice, rich, scoopable or lick-able treat.

Can you use milk alternatives in an ice cream maker?

Chocolate ice cream with ice cream maker

Dairy-free folks who salivate while watching those cones being filled and served, knowing they can’t indulge, might completely write off the idea of getting an ice cream maker for home. But you don’t have to! You can use milk alternatives in many machines.

Vegan and dairy-free ice cream is common in most shops nowadays, though with limited flavours. That means having an ice cream maker at home allows you to experiment with tons of toppings and unique flavours you can’t get in your local shop.

Which dairy-free alternative should you use? Typically, cashew milk and coconut milk are the best milk alternative options since they have higher fat content. But you may also be able to use almond milk. If you prefer oat milk or another type that doesn’t have as high-fat content, you can add thickeners like corn starch, vegan butter, tofu, or olive oil to help get the right consistency.

The best and closest substitute for heavy cream, however, is coconut milk. The good news? You can find it in abundance, usually in cans, in just about every grocery store.

What to look for in an ice cream maker

Ice cream in cones

There are a few key things to look for before choosing the right ice cream maker for you and your family.

Size

Consider how much ice cream you will want to make at a time as well as how often you think you’ll make ice cream to determine the size. If you will be making it enough, even in small batches, and have countertop space, it might be worth investing in a larger model you can keep out 24/7, or at least during the summer months. If you think you’ll only want ice cream infrequently, opt for a smaller model.

Speed

In most cases, it will take 20-40 minutes to get ice cream from any machine. But you need to also consider the pre-freeze time with pre-freeze models, especially if you don’t have the space to keep the bowl in the freezer 24/7. If you think you’re more likely to want ice cream on a whim, opt for a condenser model that is more automatic, takes minimal effort, and can get the job done as quickly as possible.

Ease of use

The ice cream maker should be easy to use with simple and intuitive button controls. You might, for example, want your older kids to be able to make ice cream themselves, and it should be simple enough for them to understand how to do so. Or maybe you want younger kids to help you as you make it so they feel involved in the process.

Simple cleanup

The worst part of any small appliance is the clean-up, so ones that make clean-up a breeze are worth investing in. Find a model that has removable parts that you can hand wash or, even better, pop in the top rack of the dishwasher for cleaning.

Noise

Some ice cream makers are louder than others, so if you plan to make a batch while you’re working from home, or late at night when others are already in bed, or if you live in an apartment building with thin walls, you’ll especially want to pay attention to noise levels. Find a machine that touts quieter operation.

Transparent cover

I mean, what’s the fun in making ice cream at home if you can’t see it actually being made? May compressor model ice cream makers come with a transparent lid so you can see the ice cream being made when you use the automatic mode. It’s a small detail, but for a young child, especially, it will mean a lot.

Ice cream maker settings

Various settings

Do you love soft-serve ice cream while your spouse loves ice cream with a harder texture? Does one kid want harder ice cream loaded with plenty of mix-in treats (think globs of cookie dough, crushed cookie pieces, or bits of leftover cheesecake) folded into it while the other child is looking for a soft swirl or eat with Belgian waffles? Some ice cream makers have various hardness settings, including up to a dozen, so everyone can get not only the flavour but also the texture exactly how they want it.

Durability, reliability, and performance

Make sure you’re choosing a model from a reputable brand that is known for its durability, reliability, and performance. It’s worth investing a bit more in a machine that you know will work well and efficiently, and that will last for years to come.

Safety

Safety for these machines includes not only things like child locks (so your 4-year-old doesn’t excitedly try to make a batch themselves when you turn away for a minute) to BPA-free materials.

Extra features

Some ice cream makers have additional features that will come in handy for busy families. This might include keeping cool functions, perfect if you make a batch before dinner but won’t get to eat it until the meal is over and it’s time for dessert. Some have digital displays that are easy to read, and others have automatic hardness settings. Some even come with recipe books to get you started with some fun flavour and ingredient ideas.


Take the next step

Ice cream maker with cones

Going out for ice cream is a special occasion for many families, and it’s tough to say no to the kids when the ice cream truck comes rolling by. But being able to make your own fresh ice cream from home is a great way to liven up Friday night family dinners, impress friends and family with dessert at parties, and even an indulgent sweet treat whenever the craving strikes.

Check out plenty of ice cream makers at Best Buy Online.

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