There once were the days when the only way you could make ice cream at home was to fill a bucket-style machine with loads of salt and ice and churn the ice cream with a crank. Now, many of these machines are equipped with electric motors. Devotees of the old-fashioned method can still buy a traditional maker -- with or without a crank -- for about $30 to $60. But there are other ways to make frozen treats at home.
Gel-canister ice cream makers, which come with an inner bowl that must be frozen for up to 24 hours, are another popular option. They cost about $60, but budget units can be purchased for as little as $35. A more expensive method is to use a self-refrigerating model that comes with an internal compressor. These machines allow ice cream fiends to churn out batch after batch with minimal prep. These deluxe models, which run about $200 and up, won't be covered in this report.
Each type has its advantages and disadvantages. Freezable bowl models eliminate the mess of rock salt and ice, but because the bowl must be kept in freezer up to 24 hours, it takes up (sometimes valuable) space. Typically, the freezer bowl can make only one batch at a time, although some users report making more than one. The traditional machines come with a hefty fun quotient, but they require a lot of ice and salt -- and manpower if using the hand crank. However, it is possible to make many back-to-back batches of ice cream as long as your arms hold out. Households that already own a KitchenAid Stand Mixer manufactured after 1990 have yet another option: Buy the KitchenAid Ice Cream Maker Attachment. It comes with a freezer bowl and a dasher, also known as a paddle, and most owners say it is easy to store. However, it produces an airy ice cream that lovers of very hard ice cream won't enjoy.
The best ice cream makers rapidly stir a basic recipe at very cold temperatures to keep large ice crystals from forming. Air is beaten into the mix to give it a smooth, creamy texture. An ice cream machine will churn for as little as 15 minutes or as long as 40 minutes. However, once it's done, the ice cream will resemble soft-set ice cream. Most users put the ice cream into air-tight containers and transfer into the freezer for at least another hour to allow it to harden some more.
We identified the best units by consulting professional testers and experts such as Good Housekeeping, Which? magazine and Cook's Illustrated as well, as individual owner reviews on Viewpoints.com, Amazon.com, BedBathandBeyond.com and Cooking.com. We analyzed and sorted these ice cream makers into four categories – all-around best, cheap, old fashioned and attachment for a stand mixer.