The machines come in two styles: pricey self-refrigerating appliances that churn out continuous batches, and cheaper models with removable coolant-lined canisters. The latter must be frozen (usually overnight) before each use, requiring both precious freezer space and super-cold temperatures. To get the scoop on both styles, we churned vanilla ice cream and lime sorbet in six models (two self-refrigerating and four canister models ranging from $30 to $300), surveying texture, overrun percentage (the amount of air whipped into the ice cream, which can span from 0 to 100 percent), and noise, plus general user-friendliness.
Flavors being equal across the board, this was a texture contest. Depending on how quickly the mixture freezes and how much it’s agitated, ice cream ranged from hard and dense to airy and insubstantial, while sorbet varied from solid to slushy. (Ideally, the base is frozen quickly, but agitated enough to incorporate air and break up ice crystals.) The canister-style models all took longer to make ice cream that was dense versus airy, producing loose, soft-serve-style ice cream that needed to be frozen for several hours to firm up. Self-refrigerating models, on the other hand, immediately produce firmer, ready-to-serve frozen treats. Meanwhile, overrun ranged from 3 to a whopping 80 percent, the best machines churning out creamy, smooth results that hovered just above 25 percent—in line with our favorite premium pints from Ben and Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs. (The machine that created 80 percent overrun made ice cream that was almost foamy.)
Every machine was noisy—most fell between 80 and 90 decibels—but quieter models hummed along below 85 decibels (about as loud as city traffic from inside a car). The piercing Cuisinart Pure Indulgence Frozen Yogurt-Ice Cream & Sorbet Maker ($79.95) registered over 90 decibels, the level at which sustained exposure can cause hearing loss.
For the ice cream elitist and bargain-hunter alike, we picked both a premium (read: self-refrigerating) model and a canister-style best buy. Of the former category, the Whynter SNÖ Professional Ice Cream Maker ($219.99) is capable of making continuous batches that are firm enough to enjoy straight out of the machine; plus, it packs user-friendly perks like a digital timer and easy-cleaning parts. More budget-minded shoppers will appreciate the Cuisinart Automatic Frozen Yogurt-Ice Cream & Sorbet Maker ($49.99). This model’s ice cream and sorbet rivaled the winner’s—at less than a quarter of the price.