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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.

Restaurant Equipment

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
Restaurant Equipment

Hard Ice Cream

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

Fat Percentages in Ice Cream

Butterfat plays a crucial role in the overall quality and flavor of ice cream. This key component is what gives ice cream its rich and creamy texture and flavor. The higher the butterfat content, the more luxurious and indulgent the ice cream will taste. Butterfat in ice cream typically ranges from 0.5% to 20%, with the former being non-fat ice cream and the latter being premium ice cream.

When selecting an ice cream machine for your business, consider the butterfat content you desire in your final product. Machines that allow for customization of butterfat levels can help you achieve the perfect consistency and flavor profile for your customers' preferences.

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.

Restaurant Equipment

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
Restaurant Equipment

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
Restaurant Equipment

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
Restaurant Equipment

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.

Restaurant Equipment

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.

Restaurant Equipment
  • Produces about 9.5 quarts to 53 quarts per hour
  • Easy to operate and maintain, used for low- to medium-volume service
  • Perfect for front-of-house operation
Restaurant Equipment
  • Produces about 30 quarts to 150 quarts per hour
  • Offers more features and options 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.

Restaurant Equipment
  • Most popular option, great for high and low volume establishments
  • Continuously produce frozen product and feed it into hoppers
  • Dispense large amounts of soft serve with periodic mix refills
Restaurant Equipment
  • Need to be refilled between each batch
  • Require approximately 45-60 minutes of freezing time
  • Great option for smaller operations with a tight budget
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  • Designed to meet the high demand of larger establishments
  • Able to accommodate various batch sizes

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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.

Restaurant Equipment

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
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Related Resources

Types of Ice Cream Cones

The cool, creamy sweetness of ice cream combined with the crispy crunch of an ice cream cone makes for the perfect summer treat . Cones enhance the taste and texture of your ice cream, so they are just as essential as the ice cream itself. Whether you operate an ice cream parlor or an ice cream truck , having different ice cream cone types at your establishment increases your profits and reveals new ways to serve your most popular ice cream flavors. Shop All Ice Cream Cones Use the following links to learn more about the different types of ice cream cones: Waffle Cone Sugar Cone Cake Cone Different Ice Cream Cones Ice Cream Cone Accessories Ice Cream Cone Size Chart

Ice Cream Storage Guide

Whether you run a busy ice cream parlor, ice cream truck, or retail store, it is vital to store your ice cream correctly to keep it fresh and cold. Investing in the right ice cream freezer ensures your inventory remains unspoiled and ready to serve. Use this ice cream storage guide to learn the best temperatures to keep ice cream fresh and the types of freezers available. Check out our commercial ice cream freezer reviews for more details on your chosen freezer. Shop All Ice Cream Freezers Use the following links to learn more about ice cream storage options: Does Ice Cream Expire? How Long Does Ice Cream Last in the Freezer? Freezer Temperature for Ice Cream Types of Ice Cream Freezers Ice Cream Freezer Accessories Frozen Dessert Storage C

Ice Cream Shop Supplies

Whether you're starting an ice cream shop or looking to mobilize your brand for catered events, finding the right equipment is crucial to ensure a smooth operation. From ice cream machines to display cases and everything in between, we will provide you with a comprehensive list of ingredients, equipment, and supplies you'll need to start serving your delicious treats to the masses. Shop All Ice Cream Shop Supplies

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