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There are three main types of ice cream makers available today: the gel canister style, where you have a detachable canister that you pre-cool in a freezer for about a day before use; the built-in freezer style, which has a built-in compressor and is ready to use just a few minutes after you plug it in; and the traditional bucket style, which uses ice and salt to cool the ice cream as it is being made. Gel canisters are the cheapest and the built-in freezer models are the most expensive to buy.

For ease of use and convenience, built-in freezer models are the best, followed by gel canisters, with the traditional bucket models requiring the most effort. But bucket models can make four to six litres at once, while most gel canister and built-in freezer - or compressor - style models make only one and a half to two litres at a time. Bear in mind that compressor machines are quite heavy, so you'll need to have a permanent place set aside on your counter top if you go for one of these, and you'll have to leave room in your freezer to store gel canisters in your freezer if you opt for a gel canister machine. Bucket models can get quite messy, so are probably not the best if you live in a flat without easy access to an outside drain.

All three types of machine work on the same basic principal: a paddle mixes the ingredients and scrapes the sides of a rotating inner container. In the outer container, a freezing agent keeps the ingredients cold enough to become ice cream. As the paddle churns the ice cream, air enters the mixture to create a smooth and creamy texture, resulting in finished ice cream in about 20 to 30 minutes. Most machines, apart from the most expensive of the compressor types, require you to leave the ice cream in an airtight container in the freezer for a few hours after making a batch, to reach the right consistency for eating.

Gel canister machines are generally the most compact appliances, and you can now find models with two tubs that can be used at once, so you can make up two flavours at the same time. However, because the canister needs to be in the freezer for up to two days before use, unless you have another frozen canister ready you can only make one batch of ice cream at once, so a spare canister would be a good investment. Though that's a fair bit of space you need to set aside in your freezer, of course.

The built-in freezer ice cream makers allow you to make another batch straight after the last one, as there isn't a canister that needs to be in the freezer for hours, so are great for parties or spontaneous ice-cream cravings. But they weigh a lot and can cost more than double the purchase price of an equivalent gel canister model.

Classic bucket models are based on the traditional way of making ice cream, where a canister is placed inside a large cooling bucket filled with ice and rock salt. You can make much bigger volumes in these, and there's nothing to freeze in advance. Although you can find models with either hand cranks or electric cranks, even with the electric option, it's still a labour-intensive process, because you have to keep filling up the bucket with ice and salt.

Desirable extras for ice cream makers include electric timers and shut off sensors (to tell you when your ice cream is ready) and lids with openings to allow extra ingredients like fruit or nuts to be added during the churning process. If possible, try and go for a model with easily detachable pieces that make cleaning up easier.

An alternative to all these methods, if you already have a kitchen blender or food processor, is to buy an attachment that basically converts your blender into a gel canister style ice cream maker. These generally work well, and save space in the kitchen, although some do have a relatively small capacity compared to bespoke machines.

Author R. Germain
date added Wed 05 08 2009

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