In his book, Alton Brown’s Gear for Your Kitchen, Alton Brown says of old-fashioned ice cream makers, “Everyone loves ice cream, and the average American consumes more than 23 points a year. Maybe that explains why people have put up with those hand-crank machines for the last 150 years, and why they remain popular despite the invention of electricity in the development of the electric ice cream machine.” So today, I’m playing the side of the defense and will be making the case for these old-timey devices. Here we’ll look a little into history, some advantages, and disadvantages, as well as how to get the most from your machine.
I believe the story goes, it was the Roman emperors, who had servants, passing blocks of ice from far away lands, to make some of the first ice cream’s. Fast forward a few hundred years, and we find in 1846, a patent for an invention to make ice cream created by a lady named Nancy Johnson.
Hindsight is 2020 and so, unfortunately, she saw her patent to a local businessman who ended up getting rich. Now fast forward again another hundred and 50 or so years and we have the modern ice cream freezer, which uses a bowl that you put in your freezer. But today, many people still choose to use a hand-powered machine; why is that?
The old-fashioned, hand-powered ice cream freezer has quite a few disadvantages. For one thing, you need lots of ice and rock salt. They also have a reputation of being messy, with melted rock salt and ice slurry, leaking all over the place. All this, and you have to hand crank it for at least 20 or 30 minutes before you end up with a bowl of dessert. Well, I’ll make the case here, that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. First, if you really love ice cream, then you’re going to watch a hand-powered machine. You see when you crank the machine by hand, you receive feedback. More specifically, you can tell in the ice cream mixture is starting to freeze. That means, you can crank faster, and thus work more air into the ice cream. Air is essential to ice cream because, without it, you basically have a cream popsicle. So air is responsible for the mouthfeel. Another advantage is the amount of ice cream that you can make. Usually electric models, a common one and ½ quart capacities. Hand powered models on the other hand usually come in four or 6-quart capacities, so if you need to make ice cream for a lot of people you either need a lot of electric machines, or a hand powered one. The third advantage is because their hand powered, you can make ice cream anywhere. Want to go camping and have homemade ice cream? If you’re planning on using an electric model, you need a generator and a freezer. If you’re using a hand powered model, it’s a quick stop to the bait shop for some ice, whip up the mixture on your camping stove and voilà homemade ice cream in the middle of nowhere.
-As an aside, if you came to this page looking for a vintage ice cream maker manual this one for the white mountain ice cream freezer should help you out. I know there are many brands and such but a lot of them are pretty similar to the white mountain unit…anyways back to our regularly scheduled broadcast…
Before, I mentioned some of the disadvantages of a hand-powered ice cream maker. While there are some tips, that make those disadvantages a non-issue. So while you can’t reduce the amount of ice needed, bags of ice are very cheap and so I don’t think it really matters. If you’re going to the store, to get the ingredients for the ice cream mixture, you might as well pick up a couple of bags of ice, and that goes for the rock salt to. About the mess, many of the old-fashioned machines used wooden outer buckets, that was made up of slats rather than a solid bowl. As the ice melts, it would leak between the slats. The simple solution is to place the latest ice shavers in a larger shallow dish and use it in that. That way, the rock salt and ice slurry stays in the shallow dish and is easily discarded. Now about hand cranking, if you really can’t bring yourself to invest 20 or 30 minutes of manual labor into your favorite frozen dessert, there are electric motors that will do the work for you. However if your number one concern is about the quality of the ice cream you make, and you have children… or other family members, you might want to google the term division of labor. By that I mean, put all those freeloaders to work. Also, to make the ice cream maker more stable for hand cranking, my grandmother would place a towel over the machine and have my little brother sit on it while we would take turns cranking it. If you decide to use this tip, I want to point out that my little brother was fairly light at the time, perhaps no more than about 25 pounds or so. I don’t want to be responsible if 250 pounds, uncle Bob, sit on your machine.
By now, you’re probably wondering, where can I buy an old-fashioned ice cream maker? If you’re dead set on a new machine, you pretty much have one choice: the White Mountain ice cream freezer company, now owned by a rival, is about the only company making a machine of reasonable quality. These machines can be quite expensive, usually running around $200 or so. Because they last so long though, I don’t really think the price is so much of a consideration. Antique machines, on the other hand, are still quite usable and affordable on many of the auction sites. If you choose to go this route, please take caution. Before buying, you’ll want to know if the seller has a good reputation and also if the machine is working or not. Also, make sure that there are good photos and don’t hesitate to ask the seller for more photos. If the seller doesn’t answer your questions or is hesitant to send more photos, that’s a clue that you should probably look at a different machine. On the other hand, vintage machines are usually built to a much higher standard. And by vintage, I’m talking about machines from the 50s 60s and 70s. Finally, you want to make sure that your machine comes with all the parts that it’s supposed to have. If the seller doesn’t know, find a different seller.
Hopefully, by now, you’ve been persuaded that a hand powered/old-fashioned ice cream machine is a worthy investment. Their advantages outweigh the disadvantages and there are very simple workarounds for the disadvantages. Finally, I’m going to leave you with a couple of thoughts, that are really meant to be philosophic. It sounds kind of heavy for ice cream doesn’t it? It seems that this day and age, everyone is looking for a way to do everything a little faster and a little cheaper. A little faster and a little cheaper, in my mind, is just another way of saying a diluted experience. It’s a lot easier, to dump your ingredients into an electric machine, and go back into the living room and watch TV. In this scenario, it’s hard to imagine ice cream as the treat is supposed to be —- a long time ago only nobility could even get it. To close, I want to leave you with a quote from one of my favorite books, One Man’s Wilderness. “Eight and a half miles can be covered in minutes with a car on an expressway, but what does a man see? What he gains in time he loses in benefit to his body and mind.”