The Homemade Ice Cream Maker—How to Make Ice Cream in a Coffee Can

Grab some friends and some empty coffee cans and start rolling. Here's how to make fresh ice cream with a homemade ice cream maker.

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Kids, you don’t realize how good we have it now, what with our fancy freezers that just magically solidify all the cool, dreamy desserts we put inside. Back in your great-grandparents’ day, turning liquid into something frozen took some creative brainpower and, sometimes, a bit of manual labor. They didn’t have ice cream makers to rely on. My family found out when we decided to see how to make ice cream in a coffee can using only ice and rock salt. Think of it like a homemade ice cream maker.

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Let’s start with the basics. Should you desire to give Ben & Jerry’s the day off and transport yourself back to a time when you had to roll up your sleeves for your dessert, then this activity is for you. Recruit other friends or family members—your arms may get tired.

How to Make Ice Cream in a Coffee Can, Step by Step


  • 2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Pinch of salt
  • Rock salt or ice cream salt
  • Ice cubes
  • Two empty coffee cans—one big and one small
  • Duct tape


Step 1: Rinse the coffee cans

Empty the coffee cans of their coffee and then wash the small one at least 18 times if you don’t want your ice cream to have a coffee scent. Though parents are likely to disagree, most kids, including mine, believe that coffee smells like feet.

Step 2: Make the ice cream base

Next, combine in a bowl the heavy whipping cream, vanilla, sugar and salt. This is for your run-of-the-mill vanilla ice cream. If you want to get fancy, you can add some pureed strawberries, mint extract, chocolate chips or whatever flavoring you’d like. (Want to get really fancy? Try this Cheesecake Strawberry Ice Cream.)

Step 3: Pour into the coffee can

Pour this mixture into the small coffee can. I secured the lid with duct tape because I didn’t trust the thin plastic top to really hold on for 15-20 minutes of vigorous rolling.

Step 4: Add rock salt and ice

Place the small coffee can inside the big one and surround it with layers of ice and scoops of rock salt or ice cream salt. These big chunks of salt lower the freezing temperature of your ice and help solidify the ice cream mixture more quickly … in theory. You’re probably going to want to duct tape the lid on the big coffee can as well, for obvious reasons.

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Step 5: Roll the coffee can

Next, find a comfy spot on the ground—outside might be best in case of spillage, or inside and not on a favorite or expensive rug. Begin rolling the can back and forth between you and other hungry members of your family or neighborhood kids with nothing to do. All the instructions online will make you believe this liquid will turn to soft-serve in 15-20 minutes. But kids, sometimes the internet lies.

My children got bored rolling the can after about four minutes, but I kept at it for a good 30 because I’m not a quitter. At one point, I opened the big can and poured out some of the now-melted ice and added more ice and salt, beginning the rolling again.

Coffee Can Ice Cream Results

After about 30, I opened the big can and the small can and found that there was some semblance of solidified ice cream around the top edges, which we eagerly taste-tested. To say it was delicious is a massive understatement. It was magnificent. How could only four ingredients produce some of the yummiest ice cream I’ve ever tried? My 4-year-old dipped her entire hand inside the can. Rules went out the window. It was that good. You’ll want to try this 4-ingredient homemade ice cream, too.

We decided to put the can in the freezer while we had dinner and, wouldn’t you know it, the freezer did a far better job of freezing than rolling around on the floor did. I highly recommend this for the impatient crowd. While you wait, maybe you want to try and tackle one of these other 75+ fun recipes for summer vacation?

Overall, though, this was a great way to eat up part of a summer afternoon and the payoff was well worth it. The next family experiment will be learning how to make ice cream in a bag.

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Amanda Kippert
Amanda Kippert has been an award-winning freelance journalist for nearly two decades. She is based in Tucson, Arizona and specializes in food, health, fitness, parenting and humor, as well as social issues. She is the content editor of the domestic violence nonprofit