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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

2 Answers 2

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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