Making the truly rapturous quart of homemade ice cream requires, like archery or motorcycle maintenance, a certain Zen. It takes care, patience, and, above all, technique. So much so that you should ask yourself going in, Do I really want this?, since there are plenty of fine mass-produced and artisanal varieties on the market. For many people, these obviate any need to make their own. But I won't lie to you. Stick with it and you will produce unearthly delights.
I decided to brew my own for three reasons: I was in search of something inane but purposive to help me procrastinate; I found it hard to procure good organic ice cream; and homemade ice cream is really freaking good. Our local deli is owned by a Breton named Christophe who, hearing of my new obsession, quickly became my guru. When I described to him some candy-glutted concoction I was planning, he shook his head in gentle pity: "Steve, you must first ... perfect ... your base." He was right: All ice cream, no matter how esoteric, is created from a simple base of cream, milk, sugar, and, depending on the recipe, eggs.
There are two kinds of homemade ice cream—Philadelphia-style and French-style. Philadelphia-style is made from an uncooked batter without eggs (or very light on eggs), but heavy on cream. You can whip up a Philadelphia-style base in a matter of minutes, and it's more than adequate as a sweet, creamy base for crowd-pleasing mix-ins like Oreos or cookie dough.
French-style ice cream relies heavily on the richness of egg yolks. (In France, says Christophe, a substance may not legally be labeled "ice cream" until it contains eight egg yolks per quart.) Before chilling, the ingredients are cooked into an ultra-silky custard, a process that requires a good, heavy saucepan, a reliable instant-read thermometer, and laboratorylike concentration. French-style is mandatory for delicate or exotic ice cream, as it allows you to steep ingredients like fresh vanilla beans, cinnamon, or ginger into the heated cream mixture. Overall, the result is a more sumptuous, smoother, ice cream.
Whichever route you choose, Philly or French, you'll want a machine that fits your needs and does justice to the panache and sheer labor required to make a brilliant gelato, sorbet, or old-fashioned chocolate ice cream. To that end, I tested six of the most readily available ice-cream machines. There are two basic kinds of machines: Inexpensive models featuring a gel canister that needs to be frozen until it is harder than calculus. Once frozen, a paddle is lowered into the canister, and the canister fits into a motorized base, which rotates it. The batter freezes along the interior edges of the frozen gel canister; the paddle scrapes it off, hardening, mixing, and aerating the batter at once. More expensive machines contain built-in freezers, with obvious advantages: A built-in compressor maintains a constantly low temperature throughout the freezing process (whereas a gel canister starts to thaw the instant you remove it from your freezer), and consecutive batches can be made without waiting 24 hours for the canister to re-freeze.
Both of these methods may sound tedious, but with some patience, you can make an ice cream that rivals Häagen-Dazs, Ben & Jerry's, and Breyers. From there you can take on the artisanals—the Il Laboratorio del gelatos and Ciao Bellas—and the regional superstars, like Graeter's of Cincinnati. And then finally you can say: Oh, look ye mighty, on my vanilla soft fruit crumble and despair!
I made a giant batch of both Philly- and French-style in each ice-cream maker to ensure that any variations in the final product were thanks only to the machine in question. Warning: Almost all ice-cream machines designed for home use produce a milkshake-y goop barely recognizable as true ice cream. You must transfer said goop to a clean, airtight container and freeze it for at least two hours (for it to properly "ripen," as we ice-cream nerds like to say).
I rated each machine in the following categories on a scale of one to 10: ease of use, time to completion, elegance of design, and, of course, pre-eminently, on the quality of the ice cream. For the Philly batch, I made a rudimentary cookies and cream. For the French batch, I cooked up a basic cinnamon gelato. I tasted the ice cream thrice—as it came out of the machine (the goop may not be ice cream, but it is irresistible), after it had "ripened," and then again the following night, with wife and friends. The variations in quality were unmistakable and confirmed by the various tasters. Here are the results, from worst to first.
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