outside the labs

Best Ice Cream Makers

The machines that churn out the most palate-pleasing ice cream, sorbet, frozen yogurt, and other cold confections, no matter your budget

Cuisinart 1.5 Quart Frozen Yogurt and Whynter ICM-201SB Upright Automatic Ice Cream Makers
Tops for frozen treats: Cuisinart ICE-21P1 Frozen Yogurt, Ice Cream & Sorbet Maker (left) and Whynter ICM-201SB.
Photos: Cuisinart, Michael Frank

It’s definitely ice cream season!

And if you happen to be a regular consumer of delicious frozen treats you’ve probably noticed that ice cream, gelato, and sorbet are all increasingly expensive.

Do the math and, depending your ingredients and where you shop, you might find making your own ice cream is less expensive than buying it, especially if you have a whole brood to feed. 

Well, anyway, that’s the excuse we give ourselves in my household.

More Outside the Labs

Another reason my wife, Karla, and I have made our own ice cream and sorbet for years is that we can control what goes into it. Even if we splurge on the finest ingredients (organic eggs and/or fruit, fancy chocolate, etc.) and don’t save money, the least expensive ice cream maker still delivers something far tastier than anything we’ve ever bought at the supermarket.

As with any product, there are pros and cons to owning an ice cream maker. The pros: Duh! Fresh ice cream whenever you want it (with a bit of advanced planning, as described below). Flavor varieties you dig! It’s easier than baking, too.

Cons? Well, sure, ice cream and sorbets, in general, are extra calories, so even though you might be tempted to use this appliance every day, you probably shouldn’t. There are a few other complexities depending on the machine you choose, which I described below.

Types of Ice Cream Makers

First, a note on how ice cream machines work. The details may vary somewhat from machine to machine, but most of them operate in essentially the same fashion: You pour in a liquid base (cow’s milk, nut or oat milk, yogurt, water, or juice and other flavorings) which is churned by a wand that also scrapes the ice that accumulates on the sides of the basin. Eventually, all of the liquid turns to a solidified confection.

In general, there are two main types of home machines. One requires you to pre-freeze the container in which the ice cream is made for at least 24 hours (or, in the case of one of the products we evaluated, you pre-freeze the actual mix). These models require freezer space and don’t allow for much spontaneity, but they are relatively small and inexpensive and can make top-notch frozen treats.

The second type is outfitted with a compressor that cools the liquid, eliminating the need for freezer space and time. With these there’s no need to plan ahead: You could decide in the afternoon that you want to serve ice cream after dinner and pull it off without a hitch.

We found that the units equipped with compressors produced the smoothest product. But convenience and performance come at a price: These machines are much more expensive than those that require pre-freezing, and they take up more counter and storage space. They also take plenty of muscle to move, but I suppose you could count that as a workout to earn your frozen reward.

Editor's Choice: Whynter ICM-201SB

Big, heavy, and worth every penny, the Whynter creamed (hah!) the competition by making the smoothest sorbet and ice cream.

Whynter ICM-201SB Upright Automatic ice cream maker

Photo: Michael Frank Photo: Michael Frank

Price: $315
Type: Compressor style (no pre-freezing required).
Dimensions and weight: 10.75x12.5x14.25 inches; 24.25 lb. 
Capacity: 2.1 quarts
Cleanup: Fairly easy, with a removable basin and a simple-to-scrape wand.
Time: 33 minutes for sorbet; 37 minutes for ice cream.
Where to buy: Amazon, Home Depot, Walmart

The Whynter is simple to operate and made the smoothest sorbet and ice cream of all the units we evaluated. The ice cream, especially, was well aerated and, unlike the product made by some other machines, stayed that way even after being stored in the freezer overnight.

The Whynter also comes with a few very handy modes: One pre-cools the unit and your mix before production, so that it’s the right temperature to yield the proper consistency; another lets you keep ice cream cold in the machine after making it and will keep the paddle churning, to maintain the same smooth consistency and ultra-creamy texture you get right when the machine has finished producing a batch, even when you scoop later.

Lastly, the wide basin shape makes it easy to scoop out your ice cream after the Whynter has finished. 

While it’s easy to operate, the unit is very tall. When it’s placed on a countertop, you may be adding ingredients blind (unless you happen to be very tall yourself) and after the ice cream is done, extracting the paddle is relatively awkward because of that height. It’s also heavy and large, so you’ll need ample room to store it.

Able and Affordable: Cuisinart ICE-21P1 Frozen Yogurt, Ice Cream & Sorbet Maker

Compact and relatively quiet, the Cuisinart produced our second-favorite batch of ice cream. 

Cuisinart 1.5 Quart Frozen Yogurt maker

Photo: Cuisinart Photo: Cuisinart

Price: $70
Type: No compressor (requires pre-freezing).
Dimensions and weight: 9.5x9x11.25 inches; 11 lb. 
Capacity: 1.5 quarts
Cleanup: Very easy, though a little mix got into fiddly joints and crevices.
Time: 14 minutes for sorbet; 17 minutes for ice cream (not inclusive of cylinder freezing time). 
Where to buy: Amazon, Home Depot, Target, Walmart

We really liked the consistent, creamy texture of both the sorbet and ice cream that came out of the Cuisinart. This was true both immediately after production and after we froze the ice cream and sorbet overnight.

The sorbet was a bit icier and less perfectly consistent than that made by the Whynter and Breville (both compressor-style machines), but that was easily remedied by dragging a spatula around the sorbet to smooth out some of the ice mid-churn.

As with the Amazon Basics model, a thin layer of both the ice cream and the sorbet remained frozen to the sides of the cylinder, which is a waste. Still, the difference in the quality of frozen confections the Cuisinart turned out compared with our top pick is small, while the price difference is not.

If you don’t mind having to pre-freeze the cylinder, we have no doubt you’ll be happy with this machine. And the smaller footprint and lighter weight makes the Cuisinart much easier to store.

Other Ice Cream Makers Evaluated

Amazon Basics Automatic Homemade Ice Cream Maker

An affordable option that produced decent sorbet and ice cream, but left us doubting its durability.

Amazon Basics 1.5 Quart Automatic Homemade Ice Cream Maker

Photo: Amazon Photo: Amazon

Price: $30
Type: No compressor (requires pre-freezing).
Dimensions and weight: 8.78x7.51x10.59 inches; 5.08 lb. 
Capacity: 1.5 quarts
Cleanup: Very easy, though some of the ice cream mix will invade the dome that houses the motor. You can clean the dome by freeing it from two retaining buttons, but these feel flimsy, like you might not want to free that lid too many times.
Time: 12 minutes for sorbet; 16 minutes for ice cream.
Where to buy: Amazon

The Amazon Basics model created desserts that were perfectly delicious and palatable. If we’re going to be picky (and we are), the chocolate sorbet had a touch of graininess that was especially noticeable after freezing overnight, and the vanilla ice cream was denser and less consistently aerated than the other units produced. 

As with the Cuisinart, you lose some of your dessert to the walls of the cylinder, and in this case you lose a bit more. We also found its overall design to be less user-friendly than the other models we evaluated.

Invariably, the whole machine would at some point in the process rock and judder, with the motor tick-tocking the wand back and forth rather than rotating it in a circle.

“Um, do we maybe want eye protection?” Karla wondered aloud when this happened during sorbet production. Given the racket this machine makes and its apparent lack of sturdiness compared with the other models we evaluated, I’d worry that it simply wouldn’t hold up to repeated use.

Breville BCI600XL Smart Scoop

This user-friendly model made excellent sorbet and ice cream that lost some luster after freezing overnight.

Breville BCI600XL Smart Scoop ice cream maker

Photo: Breville Photo: Breville

Price: $485
Type: Compressor style (no pre-freezing required).
Dimensions and weight: 15.75x11x11 inches; 30 lb. 
Capacity: 1.5 quarts
Cleanup: A little tricky. Some liquid seeped beneath the spindle that holds the main basin in place, and it’s tough to reach inside the narrow cavity and clean that afterwards.
Time: 43 minutes for sorbet; 47 minutes for ice cream.
Where to buy: Amazon

The Breville can be programmed to different hardness settings, ranging from relatively soft, for sorbet, to harder for ice cream. It has a handy keep-cool setting and one to pre-chill your mixture, allowing you to skip the fridge time to get the mix cold (and know it’s at just the right temperature) before processing. 

It’s simple to operate, and the sorbet and the ice cream came out delightfully smooth. But the sorbet became a bit grainy and the ice cream a lot more so after spending the night in the freezer. Letting both concoctions melt a bit relieved some of that grittiness.

The Breville takes longer than the other machines and is exceedingly heavy. It was the biggest machine of the bunch and it throws off a great deal of heat from its compressor, too. That may not be an issue if you’re making ice cream for Thanksgiving dessert, but it’s not so great if you’re cranking the Breville up for some relief from the summer heat.

Ninja NC301 CREAMi

Compact and quick, the Creami pulverizes a frozen mixture into something that resembles ice cream but did not leave us convinced.

Ninja NC301 CREAMi ice cream maker

Photo: Ninja Photo: Ninja

Price: $199.99
Type: No compressor (requires pre-freezing).
Dimensions and weight: 6.52x12.07x15.95 inches; 13 lb. 
Capacity: 1 pint
Cleanup: The easiest of any machine we evaluated due to the Creami’s unique design.
Time: 3 minutes for sorbet; 90 seconds for ice cream.
Where to buy: Amazon, Best Buy, Target

Roughly the size of a drip coffeemaker, the Creami doesn’t take up much counter space and is very easy to clean. It’s very quick, but also very loud. Just make whatever ice cream or sorbet mix you desire and pre-freeze the contents in the Creami’s pints overnight (the instructions suggest 24 hours). Load the frozen pint into the Creami, hit one of the presets that include ice cream sorbet, gelato, and milkshake, and the CREAMi goes into action.

My wife ran out of the room in terror because the machine gets as loud as using a leafblower in a closet, but the duration is ultra-short and in the end you get contents that are close enough to ice cream or sorbet that, if you’re not a perfectionist, could be absolutely satisfying. 

Directly out of the machine, both the sorbet and the ice cream were similar in texture to what the best machines in our evaluation produced. The Creami doesn’t mix in as much air, and the texture for both was slightly more like soft-serve, but the flavors were perfectly delicious!

The texture erodes, however, after freezing overnight, hardening up so that scoops straight out of the freezer are icier and flakier than you might want. Re-churning your pint in the Creami returns it to the original texture, but having to do this multiple times as you eat through the pint might feel like a chore.

The Process: How I Evaluated These Ice Cream Makers

First, know that this should say how “we” evaluated these ice cream makers, because my wife drew on her early culinary school experience to oversee the large-scale production of ice cream and sorbet base required to evaluate all five machines at once. 

To evaluate the machines, we chose a very rich chocolate sorbet recipe that isn’t difficult to follow and will have guests falling over with glee at the resulting decadence. (Remember that dairy-free formulas both freeze harder and melt a lot more quickly than traditional ice creams, so you need to monitor your serving timing more closely.)

The vanilla ice cream recipe, food writer Melissa Clark’s custard-based crème anglaise classic, is a bit more challenging, but we chose it because most ice cream aficionados will use a crème anglaise-based custard to achieve a truly gourmet dessert.

bowl of ice cream
The More The Merrier: Homemade vanilla ice cream and chocolate sorbet.

Photo: Michael Frank Photo: Michael Frank

Most recipes provided by the manufacturers produce a yield of one or two pints, depending on the machine’s capacity. To produce our two bases for a yield of five times as much ice cream/sorbet for our evaluations, Karla made a quadrupled batch of the chocolate sorbet mix.

Making enough of the ice cream base was more complicated, as it’s very difficult to get that much liquid to exactly the right temperature to thicken nicely and then to cool it down rapidly before it overcooks and curdles.

Making separate batches for each machine would not be fair, since any slight variable in base texture might influence our judgment of how each machine performed. So, Karla made four separate batches of the original 1.5-pint-yield recipe, rapidly cooled each down individually in ice baths, combined them into one large batch to ensure consistency in flavor and thickness, cooled that overnight, then divided it into five portions to evaluate each machine. Karla is now owed a vacation and possibly precious gemstones.

As per the instructions for the machines (and the recipes), we made sure to chill each batch properly in the refrigerator overnight, which is especially important for the models that use pre-frozen cylinders. (Adding liquid that isn’t sufficiently chilled in those machines will result in incompletely frozen final products.) For the Ninja we froze the two manufacturer-provided pint containers with the liquid inside.

The next day we cleared every surface in our kitchen and began the ice cream factory, getting the machines whirring, churning, and in the case of the Ninja, violently attacking the mix. We ran the evaluation with the sorbet first.

Then, because the cylinders for both the Cuisinart and the Amazon Basics have to be chilled again before you can fairly make another batch, we refroze those and then broke down the kitchen again the next day and ran through the vanilla. We timed each machine, too, for how long it took to make both the sorbet and the ice cream. 

We sampled the results both right out of the machines, focusing on texture more than flavor (which, with identical ingredients, didn’t vary). The better machines delivered a smooth, dense structure that we associate with “richness.” We sampled them again 24 hours later, after freezing all batches overnight, on the theory that you’re likely to want to make ice cream in advance and slowly eat down the product of your labor in subsequent days.

We gave higher marks to machines that made ice cream that remained smooth after spending a night in the freezer, without becoming grainy or forming ice crystals. We also factored ease of use and ease of cleaning into our evaluation.

Ice cream maker in use
Smooth Move: The Whynter in action.

Photo: Michael Frank Photo: Michael Frank

This product evaluation is part of Consumer Reports’ “Outside the Labs" reviews program, which is separate from our laboratory testing and ratings. Our “Outside the Labs” reviews are performed at home and in other native settings by individuals, including our journalists, with deep subject matter experience or knowledge and are designed to offer another important perspective for consumers as they shop. While the products or services mentioned in this article may not currently be in CR’s ratings, they might eventually be tested in our laboratories and rated according to an objective, scientific protocol.

Like all CR evaluations of products and services, our Outside the Labs reviews are independent and free from advertising. If you’d like to learn more about the criteria for our lab testing, please go to CR’s Research & Testing page.

When you shop through retailer links on our site, we may earn affiliate commissions. 100% of the fees we collect are used to support our nonprofit mission. Learn more.

Michael Frank

Michael Frank is a freelance writer who contributes to Consumer Reports on the intersection of cars and tech. His bias: lightweight cars with great steering over lumbering, loud muscle cars any day. You can  follow him on Twitter (@mfwords) and  Instagram (mfwords).