Who says you can't get real soft serve at home? Look—here's the S.P.M. U-Go Ice Ceam Dispenser. Its list price is almost $10,000, but it's on sale for just $7,899!
Is it still a "home" ice cream machine if you can no longer afford your mortgage?
Luckily, Cuisinart has a cheaper solution. At only $73 on Amazon at the time of writing, you can own the company's ICE-45 1.5-quart soft serve ice cream machine, better known as the Cuisinart Mix It In.
The Mix It In really does unlock the full flavor and texture of soft serve ice cream, not to mention whatever mix-ins you can dream up—just like your local ice cream parlor. But how does it work, and is it right for you? We were more than happy to find out....
What is this thing?
The Mix It In is a countertop soft serve ice cream machine that—like all home ice cream machines—uses a frozen, insulated drum, rather than a commercial refrigeration compressor, to freeze your ice cream base. The user inserts the drum into the top of the machine, pours in the base, and covers it with a lid. The lid has an integrated, motorized churning arm that turns your homemade ice cream base into soft serve.
So you aren't stuck with boring vanilla, the same motor that drives the churning arm also turns gears that dispense your choice of mix-ins, which are small goodies like sprinkles or chocolate chips housed in three plastic containers on the left side of the machine. Each container has a white tab at the bottom, and you can pull out any one, two, or all three tabs to choose which mix-ins will be used.
Credit: Kyle Looney and Jeremy Stamas
There's a wide opening on the top of the lid, where you'll pour in your base, and here you can also look and see when your ice cream's ready. When it is, pull the large dispensing lever on the front, gravity drops the ice cream out of the drum, the mix-ins are—yes— mixed in, and dessert snakes down into your waiting bowl—just like the ice cream parlor, or your college's cafeteria.
What's it really like to own?
A couple things first-timers may not know about ice cream. Number one: In terms of ingredients, ice cream is totally uncomplicated. Take some milk, dissolve sugar into it, add cream, and a little bit of vanilla extract. That's literally all it takes to make a vanilla ice cream base. From there you can add cocoa for chocolate ice cream, mint extract for mint ice cream, and so on.
Number two: Churning great ice cream actually takes some practice as far as timing. Churn too little and your base will be watery—especially for soft serve. Churn too much and it'll start to taste like butter (which might sound awesome, but actually doesn't taste quite right).
So the reality is you can easily make your base ahead of time and keep it in the fridge. If anything, the cream and teaspoon of alcohol in the flavor extract will actually extend the shelf life of your base. And the insulated drum can simply live on a flat surface in the freezer when it's not in use. On the other hand, you'll need to watch the ice cream more closely as it's actually churning. The texture won't be right until after 10 minutes, but after 25 minutes it'll be overchurned.
Pro-tips for perfect soft serve
No appliance is perfect, but there are ways to work around some of the Mix It In's shortcomings.
First, cut up your mix-ins nice and small. Sprinkles are fine, but M&M's or Reese's Pieces should be chopped beforehand, and you'd be wise to bust up peanuts in a food processor before spooning them into the mix-in container. You'll also want to avoid sticky mix-ins. To test the limits of the Mix It In we tried using chopped up Snickers bars, and these didn't pan out at all. Gravity is doing most of the work actually mixing your ingredients together, so if they stick to one another it's bad news.
In the manual, where you'll find plenty of recipes, you'll also find a suggestion not to overfill the drum with liquid base, otherwise the drum could overflow. We certainly didn't have problems with overflow, but if you stick with the proportions in the manual you'll have another problem: under-freezing.
Most of the included recipes will result in about three cups of ice cream base, but by the time the Mix It In freezes that much base into the texture of soft serve, it'll be long overchurned. For better, quicker results, we recommend going with half batches at a time.
We also hope you'll avoid—and we hope Cuisinart will omit in the next version—the integrated ice cream cone holder. This is little more than a cone-sized recess in the plastic housing, and all it does is expose three or four of your cones to air and make sure they go stale more quickly. To accommodate the stacked up cones, the Mix It In is also needlessly tall at over 17 inches. That's more than the distance between some countertops and cabinets, meaning you may not be able to tuck the Mix It In away underneath.
Is it easy to clean?
Compared to other complex small appliances, the Mix It In is relatively easy to clean. Much easier than, say, a juicer.
Five components, all removable, will have ice cream or toppings on them and need to be quickly rinsed with hot soapy water: the insulated drum, the churning arm, the dispensing lever apparatus, the mix-in chute, and the drip tray if needed. These pieces click into and out of place easily, so cleanup should take less than two minutes.
Be aware that cleaning the insulated drum will raise its temperature, so you'll need to freeze it for 12 hours before using again. (Hint: A fully frozen drum won't make any sloshing noises if you shake it.)
Should I buy one?
If you're not particular about soft serve versus hard ice cream, there are plenty of more compact home ice cream makers out there. Of course, you'll have to add your own toppings by hand. Who's got the time?
If, on the other hand, you are positively bankrupting yourself on soft serve ice cream and you've got at least 18 inches of clearance between your countertop and cabinet, plus a willingness to learn the quirks of this unique machine, get ready for a game-changer.