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Credit: Joe Lingeman

This Is the Summer to Learn to Make Ice Cream — We’ll Show You How

published Jul 2, 2020
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This is it — this is the summer that you’re really, finally going to make ice cream in your own kitchen. You don’t need any fancy equipment or ingredients to make quality ice cream that rivals your favorite scoop shop. I’ve been making ice cream at home for at least a decade, and I’m here to tell you that it’s easy, fun, and satisfying. Once you’ve grasped the basics, you’ll have all the skills you need to make endless flavors and combinations.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ice Cream 

It is helpful to understand what ice cream is (and what is often mistaken as ice cream) and the four main styles of ice cream making. Legally (as defined by the FDA), ice cream is “a food produced by freezing (while stirring) a pasteurized mix of dairy ingredients.” Ice cream must have a butterfat no less than 10% and must not weigh less than 4.5 pounds per gallon of ice cream. This definition is why you’ll find some frozen products sold as “vanilla cones” or “frozen treats,” because they either skip dairy in favor of oil-based fats or contain too much air. Real ice cream is a combination of ice, fat, sugar, and air; focusing on those four essentials will make for easier and better-tasting ice cream at home. 

There are four ice cream bases that make up most of the recipes you see here at Kitchn (and that scoop shops also use to produce ice cream, too.)

Credit: Joe Lingeman

The Basic Ice Cream Making Process, Explained  

Let’s walk through the ice cream making process for a custard-based ice cream. This classic method will also teach you the steps for making Philly- and egg-free style ice creams with a few modifications. 

Cook the ice cream base: You’ll start at the stovetop for both custard and no-egg (but cornstarch-thickened) bases. Like with making pudding, you’ll heat the dairy (a mixture of milk and cream with most custards) on the stovetop. Then beat the eggs (or just yolks) with the sugar. Carefully ladling the warm milk mixture into the egg-sugar mixture is the trickiest part. This step is called tempering; adding the milk a little bit at a time keeps the eggs from curdling and allows the mixture to stay super smooth. Finally, return the whole mixture back to low heat and stir gently until it thickens. The mixture will be thinner than custard, but thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. 

Chill the ice cream base: Before you churn and freeze the ice cream base, you first need to chill it. You can do this over an ice bath if you’re in a hurry, but real ice cream pros cool their mixture to room temperature for about an hour, and then chill it overnight. This extra-long cooling time is known as curing (more on that below). Cooling the ice cream base before churning helps the ice cream develop smaller ice crystals during churning, which makes for smoother ice cream. You can add extracts, flavoring oils, and more to the chilled base, but save robust mix-ins (like cookie bits) until after churning.

Curing the ice cream base, optional: Curing is purely optional, but is said to improve both the flavor and texture of your ice cream because it ensures the base is super cold going into the ice cream churn and it allows flavorings, like vanilla bean or cocoa, to really permeate the whole base. Curing also gives you time to chill your ice cream maker’s base for at least 24 hours before you churn. 

Churning your ice cream: If you use an electric ice cream maker with a freezable bowl, which we highly recommend (more on that below), follow the manufacturer’s directions for churning time and speed. Most recommend starting with a completely frozen freezer bowl and adding the chilled base with the machine running. (The reason again is smaller ice crystals for a better ice cream.) Most machines take 20 to 25 minutes to churn about a quart of ice cream. After churning, expect your ice cream’s consistency to be more like soft serve rather than hard and chewy. Big note: You do not need an ice cream machine to make ice cream (more on that below!).

Hardening the ice cream: Freeze the churned ice cream for at least four hours, but preferably longer before serving. The longer you freeze your ice cream after churning, the harder it will be; freshly churned and just hardened (say the minimum four hours) ice cream will melt faster and have a thinner mouthfeel than ice cream that has been frozen for 24 hours. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Machines and Methods for Churning Ice Cream at Home 

An ice cream machine is really nice to have if you make ice cream once a month or more. Kitchn editors love this model that is under $100 and makes two quarts of ice cream at a time. But most home ice cream machines require freezer space for the bowl and storage space for the machine. Our favorite ice cream maker does require freezer space for its bowl, but truly delivers the most bang for your ice cream buck in a compact and easy-to-use machine. 

Countertop compressor-based machines are more expensive and bulkier, but don’t require any freezing time or freezer space. Their built-in refrigeration system does all the chilling while churning. I’d only recommend a countertop compressor for home cooks making ice cream once a week or more. (Also, can we be friends if you are?) 

You can also hack an ice cream machine at home using a bowl-in-bowl method and a hand mixer with ice and salt. You’ll just need two bowls that nest inside each other — it is helpful if the larger bowl is about twice the size of the smaller bowl. Fill the large bowl with ice and lots of salt (kosher is fine; ice cream salt or rock salt is just cheaper if you can find it) and then you’ll set the smaller bowl, filled with the ice cream base, in the ice bowl and beat it with your hand mixer. This post explains the whole process in much more detail

Lastly, you can still find those nostalgia-inducing hand-cranked models that hold a literal bucket of ice cream. They’re a bit pricey online and I don’t recommend them outside of large family gatherings, as they require tons of ice, tons of ice cream base, and lots of manual labor. 

Get all of our reviews and picks here: The Best Ice Cream Makers to Buy in 2020

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Ice Cream FAQ

When do I add mix-ins?

Add flavors like vanilla extract, peppermint oil, and chocolate directly to the ice cream base, but add chunky mix-ins right at the end of churning or fold them in before freezing. This reduces breakage of cookie or berry chunks and prevents damage to your ice cream machine too. 

What’s the best way to store ice cream?

Any airtight, freezer-safe container works well. You want a container with a little bit of head space, but not tons, to prevent freezer burn. I’m a big fan of these Rubbermaid containers — they hold a perfect quart of ice cream, seal tightly, and allow me to see what flavor is inside without opening them. 

What’s the best way to clean the freezer bowl of my machine without completely defrosting it?

Warm water and a flexible bench scraper works really well for cleaning the freezer bowls of most ice cream machines without completely thawing it. But keep in mind that you won’t be able to wash the bowl and churn more ice cream, no matter the model. You’ll need to clean and refreeze the freezer bowl before making more ice cream. 

Our Best Ice Cream Recipes

Classic Ice Cream Recipes

No-Churn Recipes

Super Fun Flavors

No-Dairy Ice Creams