Consumers on a quest to make their own ice cream currently have a number of options, each of which works in a completely different way. Most ice cream makers operate using the same principle: Ingredients are stirred inside a very cold canister to create a uniform consistency and to aerate the ice cream as it freezes. The differences between types of models -- and in the resulting differences in cost and convenience -- depends on how the ice cream machine keeps the canister cold while the ingredients are processed. The method used can also affect the ice cream's consistency.
In one corner, you've got old-fashioned, bucket-style ice cream makers, which consist of a wooden or plastic bucket with a metal inner canister. While the inner canister turns using an electric motor (or a hand crank for the ambitious), you add ice and rock salt to the outer container to keep the canister cold. While fun to use, these machines should be used outdoors or near a drain, since runoff from the melting ice can make this event messy. Old-fashioned ice cream makers also output crowd-sized amounts of ice cream -- most can output 4 to 6 quarts in 20 to 30 minutes.
Gel-canister ice cream makers, another option, are typically small enough to sit on a countertop, and are less expensive than old-fashioned, bucket-style models, ranging in price from $50 to $80. Like their name suggests, gel-canister ice cream machines have a removable canister, a component that needs to be completely frozen prior to ice cream making. These canisters, which are essentially insulated freezer bowls, have hollow walls filled with a special cooling gel. Once the canister is frozen, it's then placed back into the ice cream maker to provide the cold temperature needed to turn the liquid ingredients into ice cream. Most gel-canister ice cream makers have electric-powered motors that turn a stirring mechanism, but we did find one model with a hand crank. Gel canisters are capable of making up to 2 quarts of ice cream in about 20 minutes, often with further freezer time needed to firm up the ice cream. Additionally, to make several batches of ice cream with a gel-canister machine, users need extra pre-frozen canisters; one canister won't stay cold enough to freeze multiple batches.
The most convenient and expensive type is a self-cooling ice cream machine. Using freezer coils, a compressor and a gas (gases cool when condensed), these large countertop ice cream makers don't require you to pre-freeze anything; they pretty much run by themselves. That's great for spontaneous ice cream making, but these machines are a lot more expensive (from $300 to $700). A bonus is that these ice cream makers can create frozen drinks, gelato and consecutive batches of ice cream without any downtime.
Cook's Illustrated magazine conducts the most recent professional testing of ice cream makers. In a 2010 review, editors test two self-cooling and four canister-style ice cream makers by mixing batches of vanilla ice cream and lime sorbet in each. Two of the six earn a "highly recommended" rating, and three additional ice cream makers are "recommended with reservations." Editors evaluate ease of use, noise and the texture of the prepared frozen treats (including the presence of ice crystals), both immediately after preparation and after two days in the freezer. In general, editors find that canister-style ice cream makers produce dense, rather than airy, ice cream, and take longer to do so than their more expensive, self-cooling counterparts. Ice cream made in canister-style ice cream makers generally must be frozen for a few hours to achieve a firmer consistency, while self-cooling ice cream machines produce a firmer finished product. Every model in this test is noisy, but one operates at over 90 decibels; repeated, long-term exposure to this noise level can actually result in hearing loss, editors say.
RachaelRayMag.com recommends five ice cream makers in a 2008 roundup; according to the article, editors tested dozens of ice cream makers, but only the top five are discussed. Because this isn't a product type that turns over frequently (models tend to stay on the market for several years), we found that older reviews still have some value. Slate.com has a 2005 ice cream maker review that's still one of the most comprehensive articles we found. In the piece, reviewer Stephen Metcalf examines four manual ice cream makers and three self-cooling machines, using each to whip up Philadelphia-style and French-style ice cream and taste-testing the results with friends and family. Each machine was rated on ease of use, quality of the end product, the machine's design and the time it takes to make a batch of ice cream. Although Metcalf conducted his review in 2005, all but one ice cream maker included in testing are still available.
Real Simple magazine tests out 14 ice cream makers of various styles. Real Simple rates the machines for ease of use and cleaning, in addition to added features (such as the ability to crush and mix candies), but offers no details about their testing methodology. They also don't list every model tested -- only those that make their top three. Similarly, CountryLiving.com recommends five ice cream makers with a brief discussion of performance based on the author's personal experience. We also turned to individual product reviews on SeriousEats.com, TheKitchn.com and About.com to fill in the gaps for newer products not covered elsewhere. (Note: ConsumerSearch is owned by About.com, but the two don't share an editorial affiliation.)
For more feedback, we turned to owner-written reviews at Amazon.com, Viewpoints.com and Cooking.com. Many owners say that the gel canisters used for some machines often require freezing times beyond what is recommended; otherwise, the ice cream can turn out runny.