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Obviously, there's the amount that it can make in one batch, and there seem to be three basic types (ones you freeze the bowl ahead of time; ones you pack it with salt and ice, and ones that refrigerates themselves).

... and I know I'm looking for one that I don't have to hand-crank ... (I did more than enough of that as a kid)

... but beyond that, are there any features I should be looking for when buying a machine?

If it makes a difference ... I'd mostly be making sorbet with it, as I don't handle dairy well, but I might make ice cream or gelato to share with other people.

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Semi-related Tip: check out your local thrift stores and garage sales before buying a new one. Ice cream makers are like fondue pots and pasta rollers; people often get them as gifts or thinking they'll use them and then don't, so you can find like-new ones at bargain prices. – Allison Mar 11 '11 at 12:57

3 Answers 3

You covered the big differences. Everything else is going to be brand and manufacturing quality.

My opinion on the different types:

For small amounts and small budgets I really like my cuisinart with the prefrozen bowl. The bowl gets so cold in my chest freezer that I don't even have to take the time to chill my mixture if I'm in a hurry. It always has plenty of cold leftover.

The ice/salt type either hand cranked (that's what kids are for) or electric are nice if you need to make batches back to back. You can obviously refill them instead of refreezing a bowl.

I don't have experience with the self refrigerating variety as they are out of my budget for the occasional homemade ice cream.

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I agree with the entire paragraph about the Cuisinart with the prefrozen bowl. I have the same model and the same great experience with it. Wouldn't trade it for anything. Look for the special package they have that comes with two bowls, it was on a nice sale where the second bowl was essentially free - great to be able to make a "normal" kind (strawberry, chocolate) for certain people and something crazy (chunky monkey) for myself and the more adventurous when we have a dinner night. – stephennmcdonald Mar 11 '11 at 5:09
I love our cuisinart too! sorbets are surprisingly easy to make and we always keep our bowl in the freezer. – Manako Mar 11 '11 at 17:04

I have a Donvier brand ice cream maker. It's a hand-cranked kind with an insert that you pre-freeze. Unlike the old-fashioned salt/ice kind, the hand-cranking involved is super minimal, so don't necessarily discount that option. (Basically, you just need to scrape the ice cream off the sides of the insert occasionally, so it's usually something like crank it around 2-3 times every 5 minutes and it only takes about 20 minutes to freeze the ice cream.... you'll likely spend more time stirring your ice cream/sorbet mixture during prep, than you will after adding it to the machine!)

I would personally recommend this style since it means there are fewer components to break and they tend to be much less expensive. The pre-frozen container is part of what makes it so speedy, but obviously it means you can only make 1 batch at a time and it takes up space in your freezer. I think the only reason to get the kind with built in refrigeration is if you want to make multiple batches in a row and you plan to use it a lot.

Whichever style you choose, buy the largest one that your kitchen can accommodate since you can make a small batch in a big machine. I got mine at a garage sale and as a result, it's the pint size, rather than the quart size and it's the one thing I don't like about it.

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If you really like ice cream and you're prepared to spend the extra money and accept a larger machine then in my experience you'll get better and more reliable results with a machine that has its own compressor.

I initially used an Andrew James machine without a compressor and top drive paddle and it only had enough freezing power for one 700 ml batch of ice cream mix that had been completely pre-chilled in the fridge for many hours and there wasn't any room for error with experimental mixtures that didn't freeze as quickly (e.g. mixtures with added alcohol). If churned too long the mixture started melting again. It also required the bowl to be frozen for 24 hours to work - 8 hours was not enough. Limiting churning power and pretty much impossible to stop churning to check the mix without risking it freezing solid, the paddle sticking and not being able to restart.

I've now got the Cuisinart ICE-100 and it's in a different league. Much more powerful churning mechanism and robust paddles. Longer warranty. The mixture can be churned from warm (well below boiling point for safety though). Completely consistent smooth results. Much less sticky frozen residue on the side of the cannister to jam the paddles. Removable bucket so the mixture can be added easily to the bucket without the paddle or lid in the way. Bottom driven paddles so it's easy to remove the lid during churning to allow warm mixes to cool more quickly, stop and restart the churning, add extra ingredients or check the results. The machine can churn one batch after another. No more than an hour to churn from hot to frozen per batch and much less for cooler mixtures. Highly recommended (disclaimer: I have no connection to Cuisinart and paid full retail price).

I've cooked large amounts of mix and churned the first batch from warm, the second from room temperature, the third from fridge temperature, the fourth after chilling in the fridge overnight - the texture and flavour are the same in each case in my experience. I think the point of the standard advice to leave the mix in the fridge to 'mature' is to make sure that the mixture is cold enough for machines without a compressor.

My only problem with the ICE-100 is that using the optional gelato paddle results in gelato that's so dense that it freezes solid in a standard home freezer after a day and can't be scooped. I think dense gelato with less air really needs to be stored in a higher temperature freezer or served within a few hours. I prefer the standard ice cream paddle. Any other owners care to comment on their ICE-100 gelato paddle experiences?

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Thanks for the detailed run-down. I still haven't bought one ... I was leaning towards the ones w/ compressors, but I was finding reviews saying that many of them would break their paddle off when churning gelato. I'm starting to question if that's a sign that that the plastic is bad, or insufficient sensor to determine when it's frozen & bogged down. I'll have to look into how the paddles attach, as you mention bottom mount sounds better. – Joe Mar 29 at 1:56
You're welcome. Ice cream making is my latest obsession :) – persiflage Mar 29 at 15:29
The paddles on the ICE-100 are very tough compared with most I've seen and the mechanism is very powerful. I usually turn the machine on to pre-chill, take out the bucket and add the mixture outside the machine (can do this with or without the paddle in place for convenience). The paddle can't stick as the bucket isn't freezing until it's been in the machine a few minutes. I've never managed to make it stick yet. Sticking is much less likely in a compressor machine as the rate of cooling of the mixture is constant - freezer canisters tend to freeze very quickly at the start then slow down. – persiflage Mar 29 at 15:47
As long as you don't overfill, the mixture sticks to the paddle when it starts freezing. If lots of mixture sticks to the edge then that can jam the paddle - I reckon that's more likely in a frozen canister machine because of the rapid freezing at the start. – persiflage Mar 29 at 15:50

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