There's something special about the rich, creamy consistency of soft serve that can't be replicated by your average pint of ice cream in the freezer aisle. But with a soft-serve machine or ice cream maker, you can easily replicate your favorite ice cream shop swirl, customize your flavors, and create countless other delicious summer treats.
In this guide to soft-serve ice cream machines, we've highlighted everything you need to know about making ice cream at home and offered recommendations for the best ice cream maker based on your budget and personal soft-serve preferences.
What to Look for in an Ice Cream Maker
While making a batch of ice cream at home does require a little more effort than buying a pint at the store, it does come with its advantages. Ice cream makers allow you to customize your creations using organic ingredients, reduced sugar, alternative sweeteners, or fresh fruit. Plus, you can create delicious desserts that fit your dietary needs using non-dairy milk and other omissions. To ensure every batch goes smoothly, consider the following when you're comparing brands and models:
- Freezer Bowl Capacity— This container determines how much ice cream you can make at once in the product. If you plan to make large numbers of servings, look for models with bowl capacities of 2 quarts or larger.
- Multiple Settings— While some models come equipped with just one churn setting, others feature multiple that are specially designed to make desserts like gelato, sherbet, and frozen yogurt or accommodate flavors with chunky add-ins like cookies, candy, or nuts.
- BPA-Free Parts— High-quality machines will be made using BPA-free plastic or stainless steel parts that ensure your ice cream is safe for your family to consume.
- Easy Cleanup— Look for ice cream makers with special features like a removable drip tray and dishwasher-safe mixing arms for easy cleanup.
- Freezer Space— If you don't have two freezers, it may be challenging to squeeze the freezer bowl in your freezer so it can cool down overnight before you make a batch.
- Quality— When it comes to ice cream makers, you get what you paid for. While a low-end model might save you money upfront, it probably won't outlast more than a few batches. So if you plan to use the machine often, it's worth taking the time to read reviews and splurging on a brand that's a bit higher end.
Types of Home Ice Cream Makers
These days, there are a variety of styles of ice cream maker on the market. To help you narrow your search, here's what you need to know about the most common types of ice cream machine:
- Hand Crank— As the name suggests, these traditional machines require you to churn your soft serve the old-fashioned way: by hand. So, unless you're truly dedicated to the craft of ice cream making, avoid the unnecessary arm workout and select a machine with a motor.
- Freezer Bowl— These modern machines churn ingredients inside a bowl lined with power cooling liquids. They're affordable, versatile, and easy to use, but you'll need to leave the freezer bowl in the freezer overnight beforehand to mix your ice cream successfully.
- Compressor— This user-friendly style requires minimal effort thanks to built-in compressors that constantly cool the mixer's contents. While they come with a higher price tag, compressor ice cream makers don't require pre-freezing.
The Best Soft-Serve Ice Cream Machines for Delicious Ice Cream at Home
This Soft Serve Ice Cream Maker from Cuisinart is undoubtedly one of the best ice cream makers on the market in 2021. Not only does it whip up delicious soft serve, but it also churns out ice cream, frozen yogurt, sorbet with ease. A cone holder on the side and three built-in toppings dispensers for sprinkles, nuts, and other mix-ins bring the joy of an ice cream parlor into your very own kitchen. The all-in-one style is perfect for a birthday party, family reunion, company picnic, and other ice cream-worthy events.
The Cuisinart ice cream maker's 1.5-quart freezer bowl features a double-insulated wall filled with cooling liquid that helps your soft serve freeze quickly and evenly as the BPA-free plastic mixing arm aerates the ingredients to create the creamy texture you love. Thanks to a streamlined design and several removable parts, the dispensers, chutes, and mixing container are surprisingly easy to clean.
Best Single-Serve Ice Cream Machine
DASH's My Pint Electric Ice Cream Maker is the perfect product for single-person households, healthy dessert lovers, and ice cream lovers who struggle with portion control. The lightweight, compact design makes it a practical addition to any small kitchen, dorm, or RV.
The small handheld ice cream maker features a 0.4-quart mug-style freezer bowl that's just the right size for a single serving of ice cream. Its lid comes equipped with a churning arm that creates the perfect consistency. Just plug it in, press the button, and you'll have delicious gelato, frozen yogurt, sorbet, sherbet, or ice cream in just 30 minutes or less! Plus, the small mug tucks easily into the freezer to help firm up further or keep your leftovers chilled until you're ready to finish them.
Best for Vegan Ice Cream
Yonanas' Original Frozen Healthy Dessert Maker transforms frozen fruit into delicious homemade desserts like sorbet, pie fillings, parfaits, bonbons, dole whip, frozen mixed drinks, and countless other yummy vegan treats. All you need to do is insert the frozen banana or fruit of your choice into the chute, press down the plunger, and voila! You can enjoy a healthy dessert in just minutes without the effort and hassle of making a full batch using a regular machine. It is a great addition to any vegan kitchen and offers a healthy alternative for people trying to cut back on empty calories.
The compact size and chute-style operation make the device both space-saving and easy to clean. The chute, plunger, and blade are top-rack dishwasher-safe, so you can spend less time cleaning up and more time creating new flavors.
Best on a Budget
Cuisinart is one of the most trusted names in kitchen appliances and cooking products for a good reason. Their products boast high-quality parts, easy operation, and countless rave reviews on Amazon. While their 1.5-Quart Ice Cream Maker is more affordable than other ice cream makers, it still offers all the versatility and durability of high-end models. While it offers the perfect mixing temperature for soft serve, you can also serve up other delicious summer recipes like frozen yogurt, sherbet, gelato, sorbet, dole whip, and non-dairy milk ice cream.
The inner container is a large capacity 1.5-quart freezer bowl that's double insulated to keep your contents ice-cold in the bowl as they churn. The machine also has a see-thru lid so kids can watch the soft serve thicken without disrupting the machine. Cuisinart's Ice Cream Maker comes in an array of fun color options: cream, light grey, pink, red, sorbet, white, and yellow.
Best Old-School Ice Cream Machine
The Nostalgia Electric Bucket Ice Cream Maker churns your soft-serve the old way using rock salt and ice. Its exterior wood bucket is reminiscent of the hand-cranked machines popular before mechanized models were available. Locked firmly on the motor mount of the ice-filled wood bucket sits a 4-quart aluminum canister that's large enough to mix multiple batches at once. Try starting with one of Nostalgia's pre-made ice cream mixes in a simple flavor like chocolate and vanilla and dividing the frozen mixture into smaller batches with fun mix-ins.
The Electric Bucket Ice Cream Maker comes equipped with a double-churn paddle that creates a rich, creamy texture every time. The mixer comes complete with a see-through storage lid so you can throw your leftovers in the freezer right in the mixing bowl. An easy-carry handle makes it easy to take your ice cream from your countertop to a kid's party, backyard BBQ, or movie night on the couch.
Worth the Splurge
While the Breville Smart Scoop Ice Cream Maker is a bit of a splurge, the delicious batches of ice cream and soft-serve it churns up are worth every penny. The compressor-style machine offers twelve hardness settings that ensure each batch reaches the right consistency for its specific ingredients and desired end result. The bowl automatically senses the hardness of the mixture based on your selected setting and adjusts to the correct settings to keep your treat that exact consistency for up to 3 hours. While the machine can operate fully automatically, you can also manually adjust the settings to create your perfect treat.
The interior bowl has a 1.5-quart capacity and is cooled by a self-refrigerating compressor, so you'll have to remember to toss it in the freezer before you use the machine. Plus, the sleek stainless steel exterior is easy to wipe clean.