Since the earliest crude creations operating with salt and ice to produce the freezing effect, ice cream machines have developed quite a lot.
But what do these machines actually do? Can you just put all ingredients together quickly and let the machine fix the rest? Contrary to what one perhaps could expect, an ordinary ice cream machine actually only has two purposes – to freeze your ice cream base mix as quickly as possible, whilst infusing a certain amount of air into the mix. In other words, most parts of the work will still have to be dealt with by you – the machine will “only” churn and freeze (simultaneously) the mix for you.
The origins – crank your ice cream by hand!
Some, particularly the originally hand-cranked bucket-type ice cream machines operating with rock salt and ice actually retain a certain popularity to this very day.
The hand-cranked models require only your (or your friends’) muscle energy to operate, need no pre-freezing and will literally deliver a bucket-load of ice cream in the end. Cranking will, however, require a certain sustained amount of hard work. You will also need a lot of ice and rock salt.
Just to prove the universality of the principle on which the hand-cranked models operate – If you have enough ice and salt at hand, and if you are ready to do quite a lot of shaking, you can actually make ice cream even in a plastic bag! Or why not test using your bike?
More common than the hand-cranked models today, however, are probably the different types of electrical ice cream machines, producing between 1/2 – 1 liter of ice cream in one batch.
Quick, universal ice cream machine advice
How, more exactly, each machine operates may differ. As stated in many recipes, you should “freeze the ice cream base according to the instructions of your machine.” Since you won’t have to make any of the churning/freezing by hand (provided that you don’t go for an ice and rock salt-hand churned one), you could focus on preparing the base well, for instance making sure that you only put already cold ingredients into your ice cream machine. Putting a still warm ice cream base in the machine will generally ensure lengthy freezing and, consequently, a lot of large, unwanted ice crystals to spoil the end-result.
As any steps that shorten the general time to freeze the ice cream are positive, solid flavouring ingredients should be pre-cooled before you add them to the mix.
Also, remember to normally add the solids towards the end: Flavouring ingredients like cookie crumbles, pieces of fruits, nuts etcetera should normally only be inserted just about before the ice cream is ready. If added earlier, the base will be too soft, and the solids tend to sink through and end up at the very bottom of your batch.
The two main types of electrical ice cream machines
Leaving the ice-and-rock salt machines aside, standard ice cream machines today tend to fall into one of two categories – self-refrigerating, and “freezer- assisted” ones. Self-refrigerating machines come with built-in freezing compressors. Freezer-assisted machines require some sort of pre-frozen canister to provide the freezing cold.
Freezer-assisted machines are less expensive, they produce fine ice cream but are much more likely to be left standing unused – as soon as you realize how little actual ice cream you will be able to get out of them at every occasion. To be able to freeze each batch, you will need to insert a pre-frozen canister. One such canister will normally only “last” one batch, before it needs to be put back to re-freeze in your freezer again.In other words, after each batch, you will have to wait several hours for the freezing canister to be ready for use again, before you can safely make another batch. Granted, the quality of the final ice cream is usually very good but unless you fancy inviting your friends over for a few teaspoons of it (alternatively filling your freezer with a number of spare freezing canisters, or working up a proper amount of batches ahead during a period of several days) the self-refrigerating compressor-type is much more recommendable.
Because of the built-in compressor freezing, these machines will be able to produce batch after batch after batch, as long as you have electricity in the house. On the negative side, they are more expensive and also tend to be somewhat bulkier. They also make more noise and generally weigh a ton.
Other types of ice cream machines
The Pacojet is a relative newcomer, still quite expensive but also very different from “standard” ice cream machines. The Pacojet comes with a beaker which can be filled with anything edible, then frozen in your freezer. When the beaker has been attached to the Pacojet, its razor-sharp blades then “shave off” whatever in there which has been frozen, turning it into ice cream (or sorbet) in literally no time at all. While being a favourite amongst many cooks, the high price tag is likely to be a deterrent for many households.
Other kitchen appliances (such as electric mixers, kitchen assistants and the like) may offer certain optional ice cream-making attachements. While being slightly different, they tend to require some kind of pre-freezing of the ice cream base or the attachment itself. They may, however, be a good alternative to freezer-assisted ice cream machines.
So, what to look for in a good ice cream machine?
Ultimately, affordability is likely to be one of the major issues for most people. How much would you be willing to pay for an ice cream maker? How much can you afford to spend? Your likely needs is of course also important.
While it might seem tempting to buy a cheaper, freezer-assisted machine (requiring pre-freezing/pre-frozen canister), you might soon come to regret such a choice. Ice cream lovers and aficionados should carefully consider whether the limitations in terms of output won’t defeat the whole purpose of having an ice cream machine – after all, what good is buying a cheap(er) ice cream machine, if it ends up not being used?
Still, as noted before, pre-frozen machines usually also make very tasty ice cream (just very little of it …) and some people might find them perfectly fitting to their needs. Generally speaking, however, I would strongly suggest that you invest in a self-freezing compressor type-machine.
Important other considerations for any ice cream machine would be the maximum and minimum volume capacity per batch, and the speed with which a batch is prepared (the quicker, the better). Will the machine allow for the preparation of successive batches?
Easiness of cleaning is another important aspect, as hygiene is very important for proper ice cream making. Sturdy construction, and (of course) appropriate freezing- and churning capacity would be other elements to consider.
Granted, you can make good ice cream as long as you have access to a freezer (go here for instructions!). But generally speaking, a good ice cream machine will make it much easier for you to reach the best results. And again – if you have the means and feel serious about ice cream: go for a compressor-self-freezing type! Even if it will cost you more to buy, you will not regret it!