The Best Ice Cream Maker for Ice Cream, Frozen Margs, and So Much More
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The Best Ice Cream Maker for Ice Cream, Frozen Margs, and So Much More

Jul 12, 2023

By Zoe Denenberg

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Maybe you think the best ice cream maker is belongs only in the offices of sirs Ben and Jerry. When you think about making ice cream from scratch, the first question that comes to mind might be: Why bother? “In a nation obsessed with ice cream (the US ranks number two in the world for ice cream consumption per capita) there’s no dearth of good—even great—icy treats that are incredibly easy to come by,” says BA Food Editor Shilpa Uskokovic. You can find excellent pints in the frozen aisle of just about any grocery store, so is it really worth the trouble to make your own?

For Shilpa, the answer is a resounding, enthusiastic yes. That being said, it’s not worth making homemade ice cream if you just want plain vanilla—leave that to the professionals. “When I make it at home I want to make the real deal. I want the better-than-store-bought kind with wild, reckless flavors that beg the question, are you high? I'm not settling for some no-churn version that tastes like compromise and condensed milk,” Shilpa says. “In this pursuit, only an ice cream machine can deliver.”

Yes, it’s single-use. (Actually, it’s not—you can make really good frozen margaritas in one). Yes, it takes up cabinet space. But the payoff from the very first pint is so, so sweet. As for the question of which ice cream maker is best, we have thoughts.

Remember making ice cream in a bag as a kid? Shaking a mixture of cream and sugar in a sealed zip-top bag of rock salt and ice magically produces a smooth, creamy treat that resembles ice cream. Most of the ice cream makers on the market are slightly higher tech, but actually operate on the same premise as that lo-fi technique (and don’t require 10 minutes of continuous shaking): Cold plus agitation equals ice cream.

There are two basic types of at-home ice cream makers: models that rely on a frozen bowl, and models that come with a built-in freezing mechanism called a compressor.

Freezer bowl machines are the most basic of the bunch—some of them don’t even require electricity. An insulated bowl that you stash in the freezer delivers the cold factor to the equation; a paddle aerates the custard and keeps it moving in the rotating bowl, slowly freezing it into ice cream. These simple models are what Shilpa recommends for most home cooks: “With a bit of planning and freezer space, a model where you freeze the insulated bowl insert first (for at least eight hours) is your best bet at home,” she says. Most freezer bowl models have pared-down settings (the options rarely exceed “on” and “off”), making them straightforward and easy to use. “These types of machines are often affordable and dependable because the technology is minimal, and it’s my preferred choice over machines with a built-in compressor,” Shilpa says.

The one major con of these machines is that you have to wait for the bowl to freeze each time you want to make a batch of ice cream. If you plan to make more than 4 quarts, you’ll need to wait another 12–24 hours for the bowl to re-freeze before proceeding with the next batch.

Starting a small-batch ice cream business out of your home kitchen? (My cousin Alexa is!) It might be worth investing in an ice cream machine with a built-in compressor. Perhaps the biggest perk of this type of machine is that you don’t have to pre-freeze the bowl—the machine has a built-in refrigerating unit that cools the ice cream as it churns. Since you don’t have to wait for a bowl to freeze, you can make multiple batches of frozen, silky bliss in a row. As long as you have the base, you can have ice cream ready in no time.

Now for the cons: compressor ice cream machines take up a lot more space (most are the size of a small air-conditioning unit) and are significantly more expensive. “I did the math and it never really breaks down,” Shilpa says. “You’d have to spin ice cream every day for 2 years to justify not just buying a pint.” Plus, these machines tend to have more settings, which some would argue overcomplicates the process and creates more room for error. All in all, most of the compressor models available to consumers aren’t worth the investment—that is, most of them.

Lastly, a note that in addition to ice cream, each of our favorite machines is also capable of churning batches of frozen custard, frozen yogurt, gelato, and sorbet. And that’s on versatility.

Our all-around favorite ice cream machine is the Cuisinart Frozen Yogurt-Ice Cream and Sorbet Maker. “It consistently makes ice cream from a cold base in under 20 minutes—always a good thing when it comes to ice cream making (the quicker the churn, the smaller the ice crystals and smoother the end result),” says Shilpa, who has used both Cuisinart’s 2-quart and 1.5-quart models and loves them equally.

This ice cream maker’s double-walled insulated bowl stays frozen for longer, and the sleek stainless steel exterior looks great on the countertop. Simply turn the machine’s singular dial to the “on” setting and the bowl will begin to rotate; pour the base through the opening on top and toss in mix-ins at your leisure. This machine is easy to use, quieter than other models, and relatively foolproof; the one downside is that this model does not have a built-in timer, so remember to set one on your phone. We recommend checking on it every 5 minutes or so; a standard batch takes up to 25 minutes to churn. This machine can churn up to 2 quarts of ice cream, equivalent to 4 pints.

An ice cream maker that looks just like this one shows up at my local Salvation Army store approximately once a week. (Ambitious homemade ice cream pursuits, abandoned!) That’s where I snagged my 1.5-quart Cuisinart, a slightly smaller, more playful version of our top pick above. Does it look like a child’s toy? Yes. But does it do a damn good job? Absolutely. And, it’s pink! (Okay, there’s a white one too. But pink is so much more fun.)

Shilpa uses the sleek silver 2-quart model in the Test Kitchen, but this 1.5-quart version is what she uses at home. It does just about everything that the fancier 2-quart model can do, but it’s slightly smaller, made of plastic (except for the bowl, which is made of stainless steel), and produces a maximum of 3 pints per batch. Again, this model does not come with a built-in timer, so remember to keep an eye on the ice cream while it churns; things may move slightly faster in this machine, as it holds less ice cream base. At around $50 at the time of writing, it’s an affordable option for the home cook looking to make a grand finale for their summer dinner party.

If you’re going to shell out the money for a compressor, you might as well go for the best. According to Shilpa, that’s the Lello 4080 Musso Lussino. Each model of these pristine 1.5-quart ice cream makers is hand-assembled in Italy. The stainless-steel bowl and paddle get cold, fast, and once you’ve churned a batch, it’s easy to clean. It comes with a timer for perfectly-churned frozen confections, every time. But most importantly, the ice cream it makes tastes great. Epicurious associate editor Jarrett Melendez tested the Lello machine and was extremely impressed with the results. “This machine produces the absolute best quality ice cream of every single machine I tested, hard stop,” writes Jarrett. “It was creamy, without even a hint of crystallization. Even more impressive: It stayed that way after freezing overnight.”

That being said, the machine is a whopping 38 pounds and costs over $1,000. Still, it makes some of the best ice cream you can get without a commercial machine.

“To me, the sound of an electric whir in the background is the sound of summer,” says SEO editor Joe Sevier. For him, homemade ice cream is all about nostalgia, and this Nostalgia Store ice cream maker is just right. “For as long as I can remember, it was my mother’s sworn obligation to provide the ice cream for our annual Fourth of July family reunion,” Joe says. “Batch after batch of Milky Way ice cream made its way from this old-school freezer to storage vessel as we worked to whip up another round.”

This ice cream maker, which produces up to 4 quarts of the stuff, doesn’t even require an outlet. It runs on an electric motor, which (somewhat loudly) whirrs as a plastic paddle cranks the ice cream base into creamy submission. The ice cream that comes out of this machine is slightly icier, with a texture closer to soft-serve than hard ice cream.

Why go for the old-fashioned, charmingly lo-fi, powered-by-ice-and-salt machine? “I prefer this style of machine to others because I can leave it outside if it’s deemed too noisy indoors, or I can stash it in a bathroom to churn away while we commandeer the kitchen for other purposes,” Joe says. “There’s no need to chill the drum between batches as with some models. And just look at the price! Comparatively, it’s a steal. If the bright aqua or magenta doesn’t draw you in, they even make a model in the guise of a mint-chip ice cream cone. Nostalgia is right.”

The best ice cream maker for most home cooks:A slightly smaller, still-great version:The best professional-grade, compressor ice cream maker:An old-fashioned fave:frozen bowlcompressor