Slate has relationships with various online retailers. If you buy something through our links, Slate may earn an affiliate commission. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change. All prices were up to date at the time of publication.
In search of the perfect gift? Read more of Slate’s holiday gift guides here.
Ice cream has a summery reputation, but I see summer as the time for other people’s ice cream: ice cream sandwiches or drumsticks from the tootling ice cream truck, sampling up a storm at the cool new scoop shop, or reaching into the deep freeze at the convenience store to grab a Klondike Bar. Cold months, however, are a great time to make ice cream: now is the time that frozen treats are less about cooling off and more about voluptuous tastes and textures.
Homemade ice cream is a high payoff effort: It’s easy to make (definitely easier than baked goods, especially if you veer toward egg-less Philadelphia-style ice creams), and it is indulgent, intense, and the right amount of showy (any dessert maker who claims not to crave attention is a liar). It’s high dessert season and having superior ice cream on hand truly elevates the pies, tarts, and cookies that pile up during the holiday season. In general, ice cream is a make-ahead treat, so it’s a great way to add deliciousness to a holiday meal that doesn’t involve a whole bunch of day-of stress. And the ice cream flavors of winter are delicious unto themselves—there’s no pressure from a backlog of summer fruit, instead you can indulge in the best-quality citrus of winter, warm spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, and the full spectrum of minimalist dairy flavors like eggnog, goat cheese, and dulce de leche. And ice cream as a form is incredibly riffable: once you have down the basics, you can start swirling in fudge ripples, fruit compotes, or even leftover pumpkin pie and bourbon balls.
If you are tempted to take up the art of the freezer—and I encourage you to do so!—or if you live with a dessert-making enthusiast who might want to dive into a new sweet genre, here’s a list of helpful tools to get you or the pastry chef in your life well on the way to ice cream nirvana.
First, you’ll need a machine. If you live in a small space and/or are just dipping your toes into ice cream-making at home, then you’ll likely want a petite machine with a separate canister that you must pre-freeze before the day you churn your ice cream. They work really well and are more moderately priced than some heavier duty options: the Cuisinart is a classic. The downside to this type of machine is that you need to have frozen the canister for more or less a day before you freeze your ice cream—so unless you have multiple canisters (and the freezer space for them) you are limited to a single batch per day of homemade ice cream. I also really dislike washing the partially frozen canister after spinning a batch of ice cream.
A compressor-style ice cream freezer has added to my ice-cream spontaneity—turn it on, and it automatically starts freezing the confection of the day. This kind of machine is also a lot easier to clean, but of course, it takes up more storage space, and it costs more than the canister style. The Whynter electric ice cream maker has a narrower footprint than some other models.
Another beauty of ice cream is that beyond the machine, it doesn’t really require much specialized equipment. You’ll need some bowls and pans that you likely already have. A big stiff whisk is very helpful for minding custards on the stove or whirling in melted chocolate or nuts. A fine mesh strainer allows you to get a very smooth texture in your base, straining out any microscopic eggy bits. And of course, you will want a good scoop. The Zeroll scoop, which conducts heat from your hand into its scoop, is the all-time classic with no springs or levers to break.
I guarantee once you buy an ice cream maker, you’ll be hooked, and once you are, ice cream storage containers merit serious consideration. While the ice cream is churning, you’ll want to freeze the containers they will go into, because ice cream straight from the machine is fluid and still easily melted—it’s basically soft serve. I like BPA-free plastic tubs for ice cream. Recyclable paper containers are also a good option, particularly if you like to give ice cream as a gift. If you want to carry that pint over the hill and through the woods, then you may also want to invest in an insulated ice cream container that will keep your desserts frozen in transit.
The single most valuable ice cream-making tool is inspiration. The great ice cream books for laypeople are heavily vetted stalwarts, like The Perfect Scoop book by dessert guru David Lebovitz. First published in 2007, its already exacting recipes have been revised and updated. He’s a modern classicist with lots of clean, intense flavors largely inspired by France (prune and Armagnac ice cream) and Italy (Gianduja gelato). He has a sorbet recipe for almost every fruit you can think of and his formula for chocolate ice cream is glorious.
My family is mildly obsessed with Jeni’s ice cream because of Jeni Britton Bauer’s pop flavor sensibility, impeccable textures (lots of mix-ins) and excellent mail order program. Her cookbook, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream at Home, is a knockout for her innovation in home-ice cream texture too. Eggs are the most traditional thickener for a rich ice cream base, but Bauer advocates borrowing a bit of stability from cream cheese to keep ice creams from developing frosty crystals. Her very-easy-to-make ice creams are dense and smooth and her flavors range from classic (she makes an excellent pistachio) to cheeky and modern (gorgonzola with walnuts, baked apple sorbet).
And if you are seeking a more culturally-specific approach to frozen desserts, then Fany Gerson’s absolutely lovely cookbook Mexican Ice Cream is a treat. Filled with travel photos and stories of ice cream makers from Michoacan to Oaxaca, the book documents the traditions of Mexican helados, both modern (horchata, coffee-cajeta) and traditional (rose petal ice cream, rice pudding ice cream).
Finally for the most technically minded home ice cream explorer, Dana Cree’s 2017 Hello, My Name is Ice Cream, is a wonderful manual in what you might do to nail your own specific frozen dessert textures. She walks you through the science of smooth ice cream at length and offers reader their choice of texture agents from corn starch to commercial stabilizer (sounds scary and hard to get but easily ordered online). I also applaud Cree’s commitment to a full chapter on sherbets—underrated fruit-plus-dairy desserts that really call out for a revival.
Homemade ice cream’s delights are infinite, but I find my greatest pleasure in making it comes from the ease with which I can endlessly improvise. If you fell for the early-pandemic pleasures of sourdough, you might also find that ice-cream making is its own meditative practice: once you nail a base recipe you like, you have a basis for whim-driven experimentation that can carry you through the dreary weather and dark nights. Maybe you’ll even develop a flavor to incorporate some of that sourdough: vanilla-cinnamon toast anyone?