How to Get Started in Making Your Own Ice Cream

Noah Fecks

It’s always the right time to learn how to make this delectable treat.

Too few ice-cream lovers witness the transformation of cold dairy goop to ice cream before the first attempt at making their own. So expect a swirl of anxiety in your first batch of ice cream, with possible chunks of doubt. Despite the assurance of the simplest recipes, the phase change from liquid to solid still seems like alchemy. The spinning paddle of your ice-cream maker becomes hypnotic as the minutes tick by. Don’t be surprised if you pray for the miracle of ice cream. I did, as I hovered over an infallible premixed vanilla kit.

But it will freeze. It always does. Slowly the soup of cream and sugar will grow, cresting over the mixer’s paddle as the ice crystals form. You still won’t be certain it’s ice cream. But if the sugar content is in the ballpark and the machine is cold enough, you’ll at least have a sweet dairy slushie. Like many kitchen endeavors, making ice cream is wholly unnecessary and supremely satisfying. And the process can drag out over a weekend, or wrap up in an hour after dinner. It’s up to you. Either way, you’ve still made ice cream.

anatomy of ice cream


Know that ice-cream making relies on an impressive amount of chemistry and physics, but any decent recipe (we offer a pretty good one) will have figured out the details. That means you can focus on the physical act of creating and enjoying until your stomach aches.

The Tools

Or, Make Your Own Ice Cream Maker

In Defense of Vanilla

By Jeni Britton Bauer, Owner of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams

vanilla ice cream with a scoop in container as background macro scooped out ice cream, top view

Zakharova_NataliaGetty Images

I love all vanilla ice cream. After my own, I’d get a pint of Häagen-Dazs, and then the Dairy Queen vanilla cone I grew up with. Vanilla is a big, round flavor that makes you feel good. It’s rich and emotional. As an ice-cream maker I’m always trying to find the next vanilla, another flavor with feeling, but nothing quite matches it.

Everyone thinks it’s plain, it’s not. Vanilla is so complex, like a wine, whiskey, or chocolate—definitely chocolate—and it reflects where it’s from. Each vanilla has its own personality. Madagascar beans are smooth and creamy. Beans from Indonesia have smoke and caramel flavors. When I first opened the Ndali Ugandan beans I use now, they smelled like jasmine, honey, leather, and doughnuts.

A lot of ice creams use artificial vanilla, and that’s interesting, too. You can get really close to the real thing and it’s good. I won an ice-cream con-test with artificial vanilla, but you will get more flavors from natural. The leathery smoke, you can only get that from a bean.

The Recipe

Ice cream is a balancing act of fat, sugar, water, and air. You can take two days for a recipe as a professional does, or whisk together a mix and be scooping in 20 minutes, or pick a sane but sweet middle ground. Here’s a breakdown of the ice-cream-making process—all steps but the mixing and churning are optional.

For the full tour, we’ll follow a versatile recipe from Emily Luchetti, executive pastry chef to four San Francisco restaurants and author of A Passion for Ice Cream. This vanilla recipe can be adapted to almost any flavor you like.

Step 1. Mixing and heating: In a bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, 1⁄4 cup sugar, and salt. In a heavy saucepan, combine the milk, cream, remaining 1⁄4 cup sugar, vanilla bean and seeds, and any other flavor (like mint leaves). Cook the milk mixture over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until almost simmering. This homogenizes the liquid, dispersing the fat and stabilizing the tasty globules with milk protein.

Step 2. Egg pasteurization: Slowly pour the liquid into the egg mixture, whisking as you pour. Return the mixture to the saucepan. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a heat-resistant spatula, until the custard reaches 175 degrees Fahrenheit and lightly coats the spatula. This pasteurizes the raw eggs, and can be skipped in an eggless recipe.

Step 3. Chilling: Strain the mixture into a freezer bag or bowl, discarding the vanilla bean and other flavorings. Whether you’re cooking from scratch or using a no-heat recipe, get your liquid as near freezing as possible before churning. The faster it can freeze in your ice cream maker, the smaller the ice crystals and the smoother it will feel. For quick cooling, especially if your mix is coming off the stove, dunk it in a large bowl of ice water after straining.

Step 4. Aging: Professionals routinely age their mixtures in a refrigerator overnight. This cold rest crystallizes the fat, helping the mixture retain air while churning to create a less dense ice cream. Skip this if you prefer a thick scoop.

Step 5. Churning: Whatever your mixture of fat, water, and sugar, this is where it becomes ice cream. Practically every machine operates the same: The mixture is dumped into a metal bowl surrounded by a sub-freezing cold source. A paddle churns the mix, scraping the freezing layer off the sides of the bowl and folding it back in with added air.

Step 6. Hardening: Even in the best ice cream maker, only half the water will be frozen at this point. Transfer the soft serve to a pre-frozen container—this is a good time to mix in candy chunks or fruit syrups—and store in your freezer at least four hours to harden.

The 20-Minute Ice Cream Alternative

Premade mixes make ice cream in under an hour, no matter your machine, and act as an easy base for more creative flavors. For example: Goose the Williams-Sonoma Vanilla Starter with a quarter cup of bourbon. Mixes from Williams-Sonoma and Triple Scoop are reliably delicious, but will turn out icier from lack of egg yolk and are admittedly less fun than making it from scratch.

Now, Customize the Recipe

How To Add Spirits

Most quart recipes can accommodate two ounces of liquor before the freezing point drops noticeably. Bourbon is an easy complement for vanilla. The spirit’s oak-barrel aging lends its own vanilla character.

How To Add Fruit

Lower the water content of fresh fruit so it won’t freeze solid. Brian Smith, founder of Brooklyn’s celebrated Ample Hills Creamery, offers two options: Macerate the fruit overnight by sprinkling it with sugar, then removing the juice that’s released—save it for lemonade or a cocktail. Or put the fruit in a saucepan (sugar optional) and simmer away the water to create a syrup.

How To Add Beer

Beer is also high in water. For a quart recipe, Jake Godby, co-owner of occasionally avant garde (like a foie-gras ice-cream sandwich) Humphry Slocombe, recommends taking eight ounces of beer and simmering it down to four ounces. A chocolate base—great for stouts and porters—also absorbs more liquid thanks to the cocoa solids.

How To Add Anything Else

Steep it in your recipe’s milk, says Smith, who used a 15-minute soak of toasted bread to make a cinnamon-toast ice cream.

How To Make an Ice Cream Empire

Ben Cohen and his business partner, Jerry Greenfield, never planned on building a business. Forty years later, Ben & Jerry’s is sold in 35 countries.

Popular Mechanics: How did it all begin?

Ben Cohen: So, what can I tell you? The story goes, ice cream started with Marco Polo. He had runners who would bring ice from…cold places I guess, and they’d flavor it.

PM: Did you have this interest in ice cream before Ben & Jerry’s?

BC: No, not really. We never planned on, you know, having a big ice-cream business. It was an era of homemade ice cream, like Steve’s Ice Cream in Massachusetts. We just wanted a shop like that.

PM: What the company grew to—was it justas surprising to you guys?

BC: Well, we were just trying to survive. We opened in Burlington, Vermont. It gets cold here. In the winter people stopped buying ice cream. We weren’t thinking about the future, there wasn’t much of a strategy. Vermont as a market isn’t so good. There aren’t a lot of people.

PM: I went to school in Vermont, so I know that.

BC: Aha! Right. But, what it has are tourists. They got introduced to our ice cream and demanded it when they got home.

PM: The crazy chunks and swirls, where’d you get that inspiration?

BC: Ever since I was a kid, whenever my mother served ice cream for dessert, I would find some cookies or candies. Chop ’em up, mush ’em around in the ice cream. It was kind of second nature when I started making ice cream to do the same thing.

PM: Do you still make ice cream at home?

BC: For special flavors, special people. I made “Bernie’s Yearning” for the election.

PM: Favorite Ben & Jerry’s flavor.

BC: Last night I finished a pint of Chubby Hubby that was even better than I remember.

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