WebstaurantStore / Food Service Resources / Food Prep / Hard & Soft Serve Ice Cream Machine Guide
fork and pencil
Hard & Soft Serve Ice Cream Machine Guide

Hard & Soft Serve Ice Cream Machine Guide

Whether you're deciding to open an ice cream shop or adding ice cream to your menu to boost profits, our selection of commercial ice cream machines ensures there's a perfect fit for your unique business. This guide will go over the types of ice cream machines and how to choose the right one based on size, style, and special features. Be sure to check out our ice cream maker reviews as well!

Soft Serve vs Ice Cream

The difference between soft serve and hard ice cream essentially lies in their milk fat percentage, overrun percentage, holding temperature, and the type of machine used to make them.

Vanilla soft serve in a cup

Soft Serve Ice Cream

  • 3% to 6% milk fat
  • 40% to 65% overrun
  • Stored at 25 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Made with a soft serve ice cream machine

Hard ice cream in ice cream cones

Hard Ice Cream

  • 10 to 16% milk fat
  • 35% or less overrun
  • Stored at 0 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Made with a batch freezer

Types of Ice Cream Makers

Soft serve ice cream machines and batch freezers are the two main types of ice cream makers. Which one you will need for your business will depend on the type of frozen dessert you're looking to serve.

SaniServ 401 AIR 20 qt. countertop air cooled soft serve ice cream machine

Soft Serve Ice Cream Machines

Soft serve ice cream machines freeze liquid ice cream mix under agitation and then dispense directly from the machine into a cone or cup.

  • Allow operators to dispense on-demand with the pull of a lever
  • Can hold finished product for long periods of time
  • Come with one or two hoppers
  • Come with either single flavor dispenser, double flavor dispensers, or double flavor with twist feature dispensers
  • Typically feature a low mix indicator
  • Available in countertop and floor models
  • Available in air-condensed and water-condensed models
  • Some models can be used to also dispense frozen yogurt, custard, gelato, and/or sorbet

Carpigiani READY 802 G TRU 2-A 27 qt. air cooled ice cream batch freezer

Batch Freezers

Batch freezers allow you to produce a batch of one type of frozen dessert, like hard ice cream, by whipping and freezing the liquid mix into a creamy, smooth texture.

  • Features a beater that adds air to the mixture and scrapes product from the unit’s sides for optimal consistency and maximum extraction
  • Finished product must be transferred to an ice cream freezer to store and serve
  • Available in countertop and floor models
  • Available in air-condensed and water-condensed models
  • Some models can also be used to dispense gelato, custard, sorbet, and/or sherbet

Person dispensing chocolate ice cream from a soft serve machine

Soft Serve Ice Cream Machine Types

There are two types of feed systems for soft serve machines: gravity-fed and pressure-fed. These functions denote how the liquid mix is fed from the hopper into the freezing cylinder of your machine.

Gravity-Fed Soft Serve Machines

Gravity-fed machines rely on gravity to feed mix into the freezing cylinder with a fixed air ratio. Because there is less ice cream overrun with gravity-fed soft serve machines, the ice cream is more dense and flavorful than ice cream made with a pressure-fed soft serve machine.

  • More affordable
  • Easier to clean
  • Simpler to maintain
  • Fewer moving parts compared to pressure-fed machines
  • Lower overrun yield
  • Ice cream is not as soft and creamy

Pressure-Fed Soft Serve Machines

Pressure-fed, or pump-fed, machines have a pump in the hopper that feeds the mix into the freezing cylinder, which allows operators to control the amount of air that is added to the mix. Because there is more ice cream overrun with pressure-fed soft serve machines, the ice cream is more soft and creamy than ice cream made with a gravity-fed soft serve machine.

  • Higher, more controlled overrun yield for a higher-quality product
  • Helps maintain constant pressure in the freezing cylinder for consistency
  • Ideal for high volume production
  • More expensive
  • More difficult to clean and maintain
Person dispensing frozen product out of a batch freezer

Batch Freezer Types

There are three types of batch freezer styles: horizontal, vertical, and multi-functional. Which unit will work best in your kitchen will mostly depend on what type of products you're looking to make.

Horizontal batch freezers: Best for high volume use. Allows the operator to scoop out the batch into a pan to be transferred to a freezer.

Vertical batch freezers: Dispense frozen product vertically and allows the operator to add any mix-ins during production.

Multi-functional batch freezers: Heats, mixes, cools, and freezes in a single versatile unit to make other foods in addition frozen desserts, such as mousses, pastry creams, and jellies.

Ice Cream Maker Purchasing Considerations

When purchasing an ice cream maker, there are many factors to consider beyond what type of ice cream you'd like to serve, including machine output and style.

Two ice cream cones filled with vanilla soft serve

Ice Cream Machine Output

Getting a unit that can handle the volume output that your establishment demands is the most important factor to consider in the buying process. Typically, volume capacities of machines will be measured in either quarts per hour, servings per hour, or servings per minute (for a more precise assessment). For a low volume machine, each hopper can produce up to 50 servings per hour, and for a high volume machine, each hopper can produce over 100 servings per hour.

Installation Type

Ice cream machines come in either countertop or free-standing units, which are also known as floor units. As their names indicate, countertop machines are meant to sit neatly on a countertop, while floor models are larger and designed to stand on floors.

Spaceman 6210-C countertop soft serve ice cream machine with 1 hopper

Countertop Ice Cream Machine

  • Produces about 9.5 quarts to 53 quarts per hour
  • More compact with a smaller profile
  • Perfect for front-of-house operation
  • Generally simpler to operate and maintain
  • Typically used for low- to medium-volume service

Spaceman 6250A-C soft serve ice cream machine

Free-Standing Ice Cream Machine

  • Produces about 30 quarts to 150 quarts per hour
  • Usually offer more features and options
  • Typically used for medium- to high-volume service
  • Perfect for back-of-house or front-of-house use

Production Style

The production style is essentially how your machine freezes and dispenses the ice cream. The production style is a determining factor in the total volume capacity of the machine, so you will need to figure out how much finished product you aim to serve before choosing your unit's production style.

Spaceman 6235-C soft serve countertop ice cream machine

Continuous Production

  • Most popular option and are great for high and low volume establishments
  • Continuously produce frozen product and feed it into hoppers
  • Eliminates wait time and allows you to dispense large amounts of soft serve with periodic mix refills

Cattabriga EFFE 6B 9 quart vertical batch freezer

Low Volume Batch Production

  • Need to be refilled between each batch
  • Require approximately 45-60 minutes of freezing time
  • Typically more simple to operate
  • Great option for smaller operations with a tight budget

Cattabriga F120 G 3 pan / 37 quart horizontal gelato batch freezer

High Volume Batch Production

  • Designed to meet the high demand of larger establishments
  • Able to accommodate various batch sizes

Person dispensing chocolate and vanilla swirled soft serve ice cream into cake cone

Number of Hoppers

Soft serve machines come with either one hopper, which limits you to make only one flavor at a time, or two hoppers, which allows you to make two flavors at a time. The number of hoppers usually correlates to the number of dispensers a unit has, but some machines include a flavor twist feature that combines the two flavors by twisting them together as they are dispensed.

Condenser Type

Ice cream machines have two possible condensing unit types: air-cooled and water-cooled. Your machine will produce plenty of heat under heavy operation, so make sure you understand how your machine keeps itself cool.

Air-Cooled Ice Cream Machines

Air-cooled units draw in air to cool the condensing unit in order to cool down the ice cream machine so it can produce frozen desserts.

  • Require just a power connection
  • Plug-and-play setup provides more flexibility to place the machine where you want in your space
  • More affordable option
  • Require ample wall clearance (approximately 6") around the machine for exhaust ventilation
  • Need cool, air-conditioned environments to perform efficiently
Water-Cooled Ice Cream Machine

Water-cooled units cool the refrigeration components with water instead of air. They require a water line connection in order to operate.

  • Operate quietly
  • Operate efficiently in both warm and cool environments
  • Do not require clearance space around the exterior
  • Water line limits placement options in your space
  • Installation requirements will impose higher upfront costs

Ice Cream Machine Special Features

Many machines come equipped with a variety of additional features to improve the quality of your hard and soft serve ice cream and make the production process even easier.

Hopper Agitator

Available as an option on some high-end models, a hopper agitator slowly stirs the product in the hopper to improve product consistency and prevent product separation. The product must still be mixed prior to pouring into the hopper, but the agitator eliminates the need to manually stir the product over the course of the day.


A pasteurizer within a batch freezer is important to have for making house-made ice cream to ensure the mix reaches a temperature that kills any harmful bacteria and is safe to eat. Many batch freezers feature a 2-in-1, where the mix is heated and pasteurized in one cylinder and then frozen in another.

Air Pump

An air pump injects air into the ice cream during dispensing to increase overrun. In addition to creating a lighter, creamier product, the air pump allows you to use less ice cream mix while serving more cones to save on costs.

Pistachio soft serve ice cream in a cup

What is Overrun in Ice Cream?

Overrun is the percentage of air that is introduced to the ice cream during the freezing process, which will then cause the ice cream to expand. For example, if 1 gallon of ice cream has a 50% overrun, it means that the ice cream expanded 50% and you will yield 1.5 gallons of finished product.

Ice Cream Profit Margin

Americans consume 1.6 billion gallons of ice cream each year, with the average American eating approximately 23 gallons per year. Ice cream machines can generate a large profit margin thanks to their relatively low cost of operation. Enter your estimates in each field of our Ice Cream Profit Calculator and see how much money you can make over the course of one year.

Ice Cream Profit Calculator

Unit Cost
Retail Price
Servings Per Day
Profit Per Day
Profit Per Month
Profit Per Year

Join Our Mailing List

Receive coupon codes and more right to your inbox.

Make money with our recipes
Recipe converter
WebstaurantStore blog
Videos of demonstrations, how-tos and more