Which machines whip up the best ice cream?

How to be the best consumer you can be.
June 28 2005 7:14 AM

The Inside Scoop

Which machines whip up the best ice cream?

Illustration by Mark Stamaty.
Click image to enlarge.

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.

Stephen Metcalf Stephen Metcalf

Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.

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!

Methodology

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.

Results

The Rival is small, inexpensive, and basic—the gel canister acts as the base of the machine, and the motor and paddle rest on top of it. Though Rival has tried to tart things up by making the box très bilingual—pour l'usage domestique seulement!—this is about as basic as an electric maker gets. But, if the plan is to make a quick and dirty Philly-style—a coupla eggs, cream, sugar, Double Stuffs, and away we go!—this is an operable machine that generates an edible product. Gel canister machines don't vary much in any meaningful way, but I throw in this caveat: Several Amazon customers complained that the motor burns out quickly, and nothing about my Rival appeared particularly durable. This one's for the beach house and the kids. Despite the silly presence of the word Sorbetière on the box, don't even think about doing it French-style with this device.

Ease of Use: 7
Time to Completion: 6
Elegance: Nil
Final Product: Philly, a Yum-less 3.5
Total Philly: 16.5 (out of 40)
Total French: N/A

Cuisinart ICE 20
$49.95 on Amazon.com

Cuisinart has been setting the standard for well-made, unfancy, durable gel-canister ice-cream makers for years, and this update on the classic continues in that tradition. The concept is almost entirely the same, only now a ye olde bucketlike exterior graces the machine, lending it a hokey New England-y, nostalgic quality. If you want to go gel canister and plan only to perfect Philly-style ice cream, this one's for you. However, the difference between this and a compressor model is very noticeable on French-style recipes. I started with a Cuisinart, and liked it a lot, but I also understood its limits in servicing my growing obsession. (At one point, to keep the canister freezing, I mixed a batch of chocolate truffle out on the fire escape in the snow. My wife took this as evidence of sheer idiocy but had no complaints about the resulting Mid-Winter Chocolate Truffle.) I like this well-made machine, but if you plan to join the fellowship of the ice-cream nerds, this is merely an inexpensive starter.

Ease of Use: 7
Time to Completion: 7
Elegance: 4
Final Product: Philly, 8; French, 5
Total Philly: 26
Total French: 23

Remember when I said there were two kinds of ice-cream machines? I lied. Until the 1970s, the most common way to make homemade ice cream was to nestle a batter-filled canister inside a bucket containing ice and rock salt, which you would then hand crank. (The rock salt helps push the temperature of the liquid well below 32 degrees.) White Mountain has been making these bucket-style ice-cream makers for 150 years. If you want family fun and some Little House nostalgia, the White Mountain machines are terrific. You don't need to freeze a gel canister ahead of time, and you can make massive quantities. And if you are willing to continue stuffing the bucket with fresh ice and salt, you can keep the temperature freezing enough to churn out quite a smooth ice cream. However, even though the machine I tested featured an electric motor (requiring no hand-cranking), the White Mountain demands labor intensiveness of a completely different order; and the ambient heat of, say, a brutally hot day in a small Brooklyn kitchen makes the White Mountain a tough beast to feed. I enjoyed it, but this is a family ritual, not a gourmet's delight. That said, the White Mountain, used properly, makes up a creamier ice cream than the average gel-canister machine.

Ease of Use: 2
Time to Completion: 5
Elegance: 9
Final Product: Philly, 9; French, 8
Total Philly: 25
Total French: 24 

Gelato Jr. by Lello
$199.99 on Amazon.com

A series of Italian companies—Lussino, Musso, Simac, Lello, and DeLonghi—make top-notch built-in compressor gelato makers. Right now the Lello and the Musso (see below) are the most easily procured, and the Lello is a good machine for the money. The one-quart bowl is removable, for easy cleaning; the digital timer is precise; and the Lello chirps if the mix begins to over-freeze. For under $200, this isn't a bad deal, but I found some serious design flaws. First, the lid and paddle are attached to the motor by a Phillips-head screw, making cleanup difficult—as you wash the paddle and lid, you have to somehow keep water off of the motor. Also, drips seemed to catch nearly everywhere in hard-to-clean places. Nonetheless, this is a huge step up from the canister models.

Ease of Use: 6.5
Time to Completion: 7
Elegance: 4
Final Product: Philly, 8; French, 8
Total Philly: 25.5
Total French: 25.5

KitchenAid Mixer, Plus Gel Canister Attachment   
Attachment: $79.99 on Amazon.com, Mixer: $139.99

If you already own a KitchenAid Stand Mixer, you can purchase a special gel canister bowl for making ice cream. This makes a nice alternative to the Cuisinart. The advantage over the Cuisinart is the adjustable speed, allowing you to whip up a lighter, more aerated batter; and the mixer makes the initial batter-making—whipping the eggs into the sugar, then mixing in milk and cream—that much easier. Again, gel-canister technology produces a pretty sturdy Philadelphia, and an adequate French. I do think aerating the batter during freezing made this a lighter, slightly yummier ice cream—and you get double the capacity of the Cuisinart. Still, the price for these attachments—a canister, a plastic paddle—strikes me as absurdly high.

Ease of Use: 7
Time to Completion: 7
Elegance: In conjunction with the beautiful mixer, an 8.
Final Product: Philly, 8; French, 5
Total Philly: 30
Total French: 27

Cuisinart ICE 50BC Supreme
$246.51 on Amazon.com

Cuisinart recently added a compressor model to its ice-cream offerings, and they've cut some corners to keep the price down. The big one: Where most compressors take about 20 to 30 minutes to brew up ice cream, the ICE 50BC is supposed to take 30 to 40 minutes (or more). I was wary that a longer freezing time could result in larger ice crystals, which are more detectable to the tongue, thus giving your ice cream a grittier bite. But I was pleasantly surprised, as were my tasters. I found that the ICE 50BC did make a very nice ice cream, and in well under 40 minutes. A brushed stainless-steel box with no frilly-silly add-ons, the machine is also beautifully designed.

Ease of Use: 7.5
Time to Completion: 4
Elegance: 9
Final Product: Philly, 9; French, 8
Total Philly: 29.5
Total French: 28.5

Musso 4080 Lussino Dessert Maker
$594.95 on Amazon.com

If you're truly serious about making, and perfecting, a custard-style ice cream, I highly recommend shelling out the extra bucks for a Musso. If forced to come up with a downside, besides the price ... well, the Musso's bowl is not removable, so cleaning is a small hassle. And make sure you have the counter space: It is heavier and larger than the Lello or Cuisinart. Otherwise, this is a gem. The entire device, down to the bowl and paddle, is stainless steel; and the Musso's motor whips considerably more air into the batter than others. The freezer is more powerful, so in 20 to 25 minutes, you have a fluffy, soft-serve ice cream. About two hours later, after sitting in your freezer: Sublime! The final product, even with a crude, Philly-style batter, was exponentially better than that of any other machine, to a degree that amazed tasters. If you want to create top-notch ice cream, this is your dream appliance. No competition.

Ease of Use: 8
Time to Completion: 9
Elegance: 9.5
Final Product: Philly, 9.5; French, 9.5
Total Philly: 36
Total French: 36

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