Questions keep on pouring into my digital inbox about all things ice cream, but surprisingly, rarely about the recipes themselves. 9 messages out of 10 are from ice cream-churning virgins, first dipping a toe into the great pool of frozen treats. It’s the very machines that turn liquid into creamy confections that are the cause of most confusion, since there are so many models on the market these days and little guidance for the inexperienced shopper. The one most critical tool to have on your side is the ice cream maker, and that can be an intimidating and pricy investment- But it doesn’t have to be. As excerpted from my latest cookbook, Vegan a la Mode…
Once a prohibitively expensive luxury item, both unwieldy to use and incapable of churning out any decent amount of ice cream, it’s a whole new world of frozen dessert technology out there now. Making ice cream at home has never been easier or more accessible, with countless options to delight your inner gadget geek. Originally limited to different sizes of hand-cranked wooden buckets, you can now find machines that will mix the base, chill themselves, churn the ice cream, do your taxes, and all under 30 minutes. Okay, perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration (it may take closer to 45 minutes), but frozen dessert technology has come a long way. Prices rise precipitously with each additional feature, so be prepared to pay for the luxury of a self-contained unit that can freeze simply with the flip of a switch.
For starters, let’s get one thing straight: I do not recommend hand-cranked machines. They may have an irresistible nostalgic quality, and the illusion of creating a more DIY experience, but trust me here, the novelty will wear off after the first batch, if not during the first batch. These archaic machines take much longer to freeze a quart of liquid base, can be terribly messy if they require salted ice as the chilling medium, and are downright exhausting. Plan to skip your workout if you’re churning ice cream by hand; the amount of labor that goes into such a process is no joke. If this hasn’t yet dissuaded you, bear in mind that at the point when it becomes thicker and even harder to crank, you must actually increase your vigor, to ensure that the finished ice cream has the smallest ice crystals possible, and thus smoothest, richest mouth-feel.
One of the most basic, affordable, and thus popular models is the simple freezer bowl design, which, just as the name suggests, has a separate insulated bowl that must sit in the freezer for a minimum of 24 hours before each batch. It’s essentially a giant ice pack shaped like a bowl, which rotates around a stationary but removable paddle. The downside is that you must plan your ice cream forays well in advance; a partially frozen bowl hastily pulled from the deep freeze will yield only slush. The big upside, however, is that $40 – $50 can get you one of these babies, brand spanking new. I would argue that these modest appliances are ideal for just about everyone, from newbie ice cream creators to those with intermediate experience. This is what I employed for many years, until the base fell on the ground one time too many and cracked beyond repair. Treat your machine nicely and it should last your whole lifetime.
If you have a stand mixer, there is likely an ice cream attachment created for your particular brand that can be purchased separately. A fine option, these are also of the freezer-bowl variety, but have the added benefit of making use of your existing appliance, saving space and hassle. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of multi-taskers, but there’s also something to be said for specialized equipment that does one thing, and one thing very well. These types are fine options, but are actually a bit more expensive than the stand-alone sort, ringing up at about $70 – $100. Additionally, when trialing the attachment designed for my KitchenAid® stand mixer, I found that the resulting ice cream was slightly icier than average.
Panicked when I had to replace my trusty freezer bowl machine, I turned to the generosity of my grandmother. It occurred to me that my grandpa had made sorbet every Thanksgiving, but since his passing, that contraption hadn’t seen the light of day. Luck was on my side, because my grandma was thrilled that I would take that bulky thing off her hands, which had simply been collecting dust for nearly a decade, and also because it turned out to be a self-freezing unit. I shouldn’t have expected anything less from my grandpa, a self-confessed gadget lover. Fond of having the top-of-the-line tools before anyone else on the block, though the machine was perhaps twenty years old, it was still a state-of-the-art ice cream churn. This variety of machine has in-set bowls that typically can’t be removed, which makes for trickier clean up, but freeze down from room-temperature to a state of readiness in about five minutes. You can generally churn consecutive batches to your heart’s content, with a 10 – 15 minute pause in between. A good substitute for this outdated brand now would be the Cuisinart® ICE-50BC Supreme Ice Cream Maker, which has largely the same design and functionality. For hardcore frozen dessert divas, these are your only option, but they will set you back quite a few pretty pennies. Most start at about $250, and can escalate all the way to $1,000 and beyond, depending on the brand and capacity. For some, the investment is absolutely worthwhile, but most can get by just fine without such a fancy tool.
Of course, there are also many methods for making ice cream without any specialized equipment altogether… But that’s another post.