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Should I buy an ice-cream maker?

We've got the scoop on this coolest of kitchen appliances.

homemade icecream at home lead
Last updated: 18 November 2021
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Checked for accuracy by our qualified fact-checkers and verifiers. Find out more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Are you a softie for ice cream? Buying it ready-made may be convenient, but making your own from scratch has its benefits too. Not only is it a fun, family-friendly activity, but it's also a great way to go super niche and experiment with flavours. 

Homemade ice cream is also ideal if any members of your household have a food intolerance or specialist diet, as you know the exact ingredients that have gone into it. 

"Ice-cream makers can be a great option for anyone who has a lactose intolerance or who is vegan," says Fiona Mair, CHOICE's home economist. "You can also control what ingredients are added, so there are no artificial flavours, colours or preservatives."

But, cool as they are, are ice-cream makers worth the cost?

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What are ice-cream makers?

Ice-cream makers are household appliances that turn a basic liquid base or custard – a mixture of cream, milk, egg yolks and sugar, plus any flavourings – into frozen ice cream through a process of chilling and churning. 

A rotating paddle keeps the liquid moving and lets in air, while also scraping down the sides. The movement helps stop large ice crystals forming as the base of the liquid freezes. The smaller the crystals, the smoother your ice cream will be. 

What else can you do with an ice-cream maker?

You can make gelato, fruit sorbets, frozen yoghurt (some recipes don't even require you to make a custard first) and slushie drinks. 

There are also hundreds of recipes online for specialist varieties, including sugar-free and dairy-free ice cream.

using a ice cream maker at home

Freeze-first ice-cream makers are generally cheaper than self-freezing models.

Types of ice-cream maker

There are two basic types: freeze-first and self-freezing. Which one is right for you depends largely on things such as budget, size and convenience. 

Freeze-first ice-cream makers

Freeze-first, or 'pre-freeze', models require you to freeze a canister before you start churning out ice cream. They're cheaper and more common than self-freezing models. You can buy them either as standalone appliances or as bowls to use with existing stand mixers.

How do they work? 

They usually consist of a canister with walls filled with a liquid coolant. You'll need to keep the liquid in the freezer until it has frozen (which can take anything from eight to 24 hours), after which the bowl will be cold enough to freeze your custard. 

Pros

These models are cheaper than self-freezing ones because they don't have a built-in compressor. They also tend to be smaller, so they take up less room on your benchtop. 

If you already have a stand mixer, an add-on ice-cream maker accessory can be a great space-saving alternative – brands such as Breville, Kenwood, KitchenAid and Smeg all sell them.  

Cons

Using them calls for some planning. Also, the bowls can be large, so you'll need to have room in your freezer. Another downside is that you can't make more than one batch of ice cream at a time (unless you have a separate pre-frozen bowl). The end result can be very soft too, so you may need to freeze it to firm it up, depending on your preference – which takes more time. 

Self-freezing ice-cream makers

These fully automatic standalone  appliances have an in-built compressor, making them quicker and easier to use. 

How do they work? 

Thanks to a built-in refrigeration unit, these machines chill the canister to freezing temperature while their paddles keep the liquid churning. 

Pros

You don't have to do any freezing in advance, so you can whip up a batch of ice cream whenever the mood strikes. That makes these machines super convenient if you've got a large family or don't have a lot of freezer space. You can also churn out another flavour straightaway, and some models let you tailor the firmness of your ice cream to get it just the way you like it.

Cons 

Their convenience doesn't come cheap – self-freezing machines are much more expensive than pre-freeze canisters. They're also bigger, so you'll need more counter or storage space.

How much do ice-cream makers cost?

As with any appliance, prices vary. Pre-freeze models are cheaper: expect to pay anything from $50 to $219. Compressor models cost anything from $299 up to $659 for a top-of-the-line model.

Freezer bowl attachments for stand mixers cost between $134 and $219.

Is it cheaper to buy or make ice cream?

Unless you take advantage of promotions, buying high-end brands of ice cream from the supermarket isn't cheap – tubs can cost up to $13 each. 

"There are so many premium-style ice creams on the market with a variety of flavours that can cost a small fortune, especially when you have a large family," says Fiona. 

If you regularly buy ice cream on your weekly shop it may be worth considering an ice-cream maker

CHOICE home economist, Fiona Mair

Ice cream may start off with cheap, basic ingredients, but it's when you start adding flavours such as chocolate, nuts and fruit that the bill begins to rise. 

"Buying ingredients when in season or on special can reduce the overall cost," says Fiona.

kids making ice cream at home

An ice-cream maker is particularly useful if you or your family have special dietary needs.

Can I make ice cream without an ice-cream maker?

Yes! Many recipes, such as this one for homemade strawberry ice cream, only require a food processor or blender, although, for a smooth texture, you'll need to whisk up the mixture regularly, as it freezes. 

"When making ice cream at home without an ice-cream machine, the secret is to semi-freeze then beat, and repeat this a few times," says Fiona. "This will give a creamy texture and help to reduce any ice crystals forming." 

When making ice cream at home without an ice-cream machine, the secret is to semi-freeze then beat, and repeat this a few times

Fiona Mair, CHOICE

Own a Thermomix? If so, let it do all the grunt work and take care of the pre-cook of the custard for you, although you'll still need to repeat the freeze and churn process. Search out recipes online, or skip straight to this salted caramel version.

You'll also find 'no-churn' recipes online that, after an initial whisk, let you  'freeze and go', such as this one-step coffee ice cream from Nigella Lawson. 

You can even go DIY with the ice-cream-in-a-bag method and give the kids a science lesson to show how salt lowers the freezing temperature of water! The popular ice-cream balls that you throw and shake around to aid the 'churning' process are made according to the same principle.

Should I buy an ice-cream maker? 

An ice-cream maker can be a worthwhile investment if you're a big fan of ice cream, entertain regularly, or have special dietary needs. If you make lots of ice cream, or specialist batches, going homemade can be cheaper. It's also a fun way to get children involved in the kitchen.

Features to look for

Be sure to consider ease of use before buying. For instance, does the model have a clear lid so you can check on progress? Is it fiddly to set up? Are the components dishwasher-safe, or will you have to hand wash them? 

You may want to think about noise levels too if you have young children at home, or how long the entire process takes, taking into account any pre-freezing, cooking of custard and churning. 

A final bit of advice? "Make sure if you are going to buy one, that you'll use it," says Fiona. "There may be a little trial and error initially, so look for a brand that has a comprehensive instruction manual with recipes."

How to make ice cream

For a delicious homemade ice cream, follow this recipe from Fiona. 

You can use this recipe with most ice cream makers and benchtop mixers with ice cream maker attachments. We made our ice cream in a KitchenAid Stand Mixer (Pro Line Lift Stand Mixer 5KSM7581) using its ice cream maker attachment (Model 5 KICA0WH). 

French vanilla ice cream recipe

If your ice cream maker requires that you place the bowl in the freezer ahead of time, make sure it's in the freezer for at least 24 hours before you start preparing the custard. For a soft serve consistency you can serve straight after churning. For a firmer texture, freeze ice cream for at least three hours after churning. 

Ingredients 
  • 300mL pure cream 
  • 300mL full cream milk 
  • 8 egg yolks 
  • 200g caster sugar 
  • 500mL thickened cream 
  • 1 vanilla pod, seeds removed 
  • Pinch of salt 
Method 

1. Prepare custard 

In a medium saucepan, gently heat the pure cream and milk until very hot but not boiling. Remove from heat and set aside. 

Place egg yolks and sugar in a bowl and using a benchtop mixer or hand mixer whisk on medium speed until thickened slightly (approximately one minute). 

Continue mixing, gradually adding the heated cream and milk until combined. 

Pour mixture back into the saucepan and add vanilla pod and the scraped seeds. Cook over a gentle heat stirring constantly until slightly thickened, but not boiling (the mixture should be steaming). 

Transfer the resulting custard into a large bowl and stir in thickened cream and salt. Remove the vanilla pod and discard. 

Cover with plastic wrap allowing the plastic to touch the custard so as to protect from forming a skin. Refrigerate for at least eight hours. 

2. Churn 

Prepare the ice cream maker attachment or an ice cream maker following manufacturer's instructions. 

Select speed suggested by manufacturer and while running, pour chilled custard into the ice cream maker bowl, being careful not to over-fill the bowl. 

Continue churning for 20 minutes, or as suggested by manufacturer. 

3. Freeze 

At the end of this time your ice cream should be the consistency of soft serve. For a firm ice cream pour into a container and freeze for at least three hours. 

Makes approximately 15 half cup serves.

Cost: Approximately $0.70 per 100mL (we used quality ingredients. Cost can be reduced by using cheaper ingredients). 

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