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Hard & Soft Serve Ice Cream Machine Guide

Hard & Soft Serve Ice Cream Machine Guide

Few things are able to draw a crowd quite like delicious ice cream, but choosing the right machine for your business can be a daunting task. Whether you run an ice cream parlor, local diner, or concession stand, our vast selection of commercial ice cream machines ensures there's a perfect fit for your unique business.

What is Soft Serve, Frozen Yogurt, Gelato, and Hard Ice Cream?

Creating delicious soft serve, frozen yogurt, and hard ice cream is a simpler process than most might believe! These products are considered to have high overrun and are essentially just ice cream or milk mixed with air. The "overrun," or amount of air added to the cream, is typically kept within 35% - 45% to maintain the taste and consistency while also creating a light and creamy texture. The less overrun there is, the firmer the final product will be. Higher overrun may cause a lack in taste and a consistency that won't hold its shape. In the case of hard ice cream, while air is incorporated into the mixture, it is churned at a faster and colder rate, which separates it from its softer counterpart.

On the other hand, gelato is considered to be a low overrun dessert. Gelato is slow-churned in a batch freezer for a silkier texture and served at a slightly warmer temperature to preserve its flavor and composition. It has about 25%-30% overrun, making it more dense than soft serve.
Vanilla and chocolate soft serve ice cream in cups with various toppings

How to Make Hard and Soft Service Ice Cream


Traditional soft serve starts with just two ingredients: cold water and soft serve ice cream mix, while hard ice cream can be made with cream, mix, and flavoring, such as vanilla extract. For both soft serve and hard ice cream, air is either mixed with the liquid mix through constant stirring in a machine just before it’s frozen or it’s controllably forced into the liquid with a pressurized air pump. For soft serve, once the liquid mix freezes, the result is a lighter, smoother-textured form of ice cream that has been a favorite treat for decades.

Ice Cream Machine Output

Arguably the most essential factor to consider in the soft serve or batch freezer shopping process, the application of your machine and the appropriate volume capacity dictates what options are available for the size, style, number of hoppers, and special features. Typically, volume capacities of machines will be measured in either gallons per hour, servings per hour, or servings per minute (for a more precise assessment). Based on the scale of your operation and how many customers you expect to serve, certain machines may be more suitable for your output needs than others.

Ice Cream Machine Installation Type

Ice cream machines are often classified into one of two variations: countertop and 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.

Countertop units are more compact with a smaller profile. They're perfect for front-of-house operation and are generally simpler to operate and maintain. Floor model units on the other hand only require floor space and do not need a countertop. They are ideal for back-of-house use and usually offer more features and options. Floor model machines can handle medium- to high-volume service while countertop machines are better for low- to medium-volume.

Ice Cream Machine Production Style

Another method of classifying commercial ice cream machines, 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 your choice here should be synonymous with how much product you expect to produce.
Cattabriga StarGel 4 4 kg Countertop Batch Freezer - 230V, 1 Phase

  • Batch Production (Low Volume) - Machines with this style need to be refilled between each batch, and require approximately 45-60 minutes of freezing time. Because of this extra time needed to produce a new batch, these machines have a limited production capacity and are less popular in commercial applications. However, they are typically simpler to operate and are a great option for smaller operations with a tight budget.

SaniServ B-5 AIR 5 Qt. Countertop Air Cooled Ice Cream / Gelato Batch Freezer

  • Batch Production (High Volume) - Designed to meet the high demand of larger establishments, these machines are able to accomodate various batch sizes. Whether its starting small to try a new recipe or producing large batches of classic flavors, these high volume units provide flexibility without breaking the budget.

Spaceman 6235AH soft serve ice cream machine with air pump and 2 hoppers

  • Continuous Production (Any Volume) - The preferred option for most establishments, these machines continuously produce frozen product and feed it into hoppers, eliminating wait time and allowing you to dispense large amounts of soft serve with periodic mix refills. Machines with this function are top performers and can be used in any size shop or restaurant.

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

Number of Hoppers on Your Soft Serve Machine or Batch Freezer

Are you looking to provide your guests with a variety of flavor options? If so, consider selecting a machine with multiple hoppers. Many machines only include one hopper, which limits your offerings to just one flavor. Choosing a machine with multiple hoppers allows you to dispense multiple flavors from a single machine. Additionally, some machines include a flavor twist feature that combines two flavors by twisting them together as they are dispensed, opening up opportunities for unique and delicious flavor combinations.

Machines with multiple hoppers also provide increased output capabilities and a larger production capacity since you’re able to store more ice cream mix and dispense more total product without refilling. Since the number of hoppers directly correlates with your overall production capacity, any large operation would benefit from opting for a machine with 2-3 hoppers, even if multiple flavors aren’t being offered.

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. Understanding the function of each feature will help you decide which ones are best to include in your ideal machine.

Hopper Agitator

HP170501097 hopper agitator part

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.

Gravity vs. Pressure Fed for Hard and Soft Serve Ice Cream

These functions denote how the liquid mix is fed from the hopper into the freezing cylinder of your machine. As their names indicate, gravity fed machines simply rely on the natural pull of gravity to transfer mix to the cylinder, while pressure fed machines utilize a pump to resupply the cylinder with more mix. While gravity-fed machines are easier on the wallet and simpler to clean and maintain, pressure-fed machines allow you to add a higher, controlled percentage of air for a higher-quality product, and also help maintain constant pressure in the freezing cylinder for consistency.


A pasteurizer works within a batch freezer to heat the liquid dairy mix before making hard ice cream. By pasteurizing the mix, it reaches a temperature that not only removes any harmful bacteria, but makes it 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. This eliminates the need for two separate machines and allows for faster production of hard ice cream.

Air Pump for Soft Serve and Frozen Yogurt

Soft serve ice cream machine air pump part

An air pump is essential to producing light, creamy soft serve treats. The air pump adds air to the ice cream mix prior to freezing, resulting in the smoother, lighter soft serve product that we all know and love. These pumps are typically adjustable, allowing you to alter the amount of overrun in the end product and resultantly, how light or dense you want it to be. This feature also carries the benefit of requiring less mix per serving, effectively reducing the cost per serving. These pumps aren't necessary, of course, if you're serving frozen yogurt or if you'd simply prefer offering a richer, denser product. Keep in mind machines with pumps will also require a little extra time to properly assemble, clean, and maintain.

Water Cooled vs. Air Cooled

Your machine will produce plenty of heat under heavy operation, so make sure you understand how your machine keeps itself cool. Air-cooled machines are the cheaper, simpler option, requiring just a power connection and ample wall clearance (approximately 6") around the machine for exhaust ventilation. While this opens up the flexibility to place the machine just about anywhere you want, air-cooled units perform best in cool, air conditioned environments and tend to be less effective than their water-cooled counterparts.

As the name implies, water-cooled machines cool the refrigeration components with water instead of air. Water-cooled machines operate quietly, are more effective in removing heat, operate efficiently in both warm and cool environments, and do not require clearance space around the exterior. However, they do require a water line connection in order to operate, limiting placement options to wherever this is available. Additionally, these machines and their installation requirements will impose higher upfront costs, but may save you a bit of money if your water utility costs are less than your electricity costs.

Bottle of Urnex 15-SANI12-20 20 oz. Sani-Pure Coffee Equipment Sanitizer Powder

Cleaning and Maintaining Your Commercial Ice Cream Machine


As with any piece of equipment in the foodservice industry, it is imperative that your soft serve machine or batch freezer receives regular maintenance and thorough cleaning to prevent contamination. Customer safety is a priority, and the best way to ensure your customers can enjoy delicious and safe frozen treats is by completely sanitizing your machine on a daily basis.

Your unit will come complete with a specific cleaning procedure, including how to fully drain existing mix, disassemble key components of your machine, properly wash and reassemble the parts, and finally perform a sanitizing flush of the machine. Most manufacturers recommend using dissolvable cleaning solutions that are specially formulated for sanitizing commercial ice cream machines. These packets offer an easy cleaning process, as they can be quickly mixed with a bucket of water to produce all the solution you'll need. Simply follow the instructions provided to maintain a clean, safe machine and to produce the highest quality ice cream product possible!

Estimating Soft Serve Costs

Commercial ice cream machines can be a huge factor in driving sales and generating large amounts of profit. Not only are they a great way to draw crowds on hot days, these machines are capable of producing fantastic profit margins thanks to their relatively low cost of operation. The easiest way to keep your costs low and margins high is by using Carnival King soft serve mixes and Choice brand cups, spoons, and napkins. These brands provide the lowest price point for nearly indistinguishable quality differences from name brands! Calculating your upfront soft serve costs is fairly simple, as each cup or cone contains just a few components. Check out the following examples for an idea of what some typical servings would cost to produce!
Choice 12 oz. yellow paper frozen yogurt cup filled with soft serve ice cream and chocolate chips

For a large 12 oz. serving in a cup:

Bag of Carnival King chocolate soft serve ice cream mix with cups filled with chocolate soft serve

What Types of Soft Serve, Gelato, and Frozen Yogurt Mixes are Available?


Soft serve, gelato, and frozen yogurt mix is generally sold in powder form and can be produced in many of the same machines. Soft serve only needs to be dissolved in water, while gelato mix, hard ice cream, and some frozen yogurt mixes require milk, sugar, and cream. Flavor options typically include classic vanilla, chocolate, and a variety of fruit flavors. Other unique tastes can be achieved with flavoring syrups and neutral-flavored mixes.

Thankfully, you can also provide delicious ice cream to your health-conscious and vegan customers with non-dairy and sugar free mixes. These mixes sacrifice little flavor while also catering to specific dietary restrictions, ensuring you can please all your guests! For delicious yet economical flavor options, check out our selection of ice cream and sorbet mixes.

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