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At Serious Eats, we try to develop our recipes with essential kitchen gear in mind, workhorse pieces you'll reach for again and again for a variety of techniques: the best food processor for grinding up freeze-dried fruit, developing gluten in homemade bagels, and quickly shredding vegetables; the best griddle for pancakes, blini, bacon, and eggs; the best enameled Dutch oven for jambalaya, pulled pork, or even applesauce.
But we're not above a good single-use tool, should they earn their keep. To our list of 28 unitaskers that belong in your kitchen, I'd like to nominate one more—a waffle cone–maker.
Well, maybe it doesn't belong in your kitchen, but it certainly belongs in mine. I mean, I'm a baker so obsessed with iconic American desserts that I make my own rainbow sprinkles, so of course I want homemade ice cream cones in my life.
If you've ever walked into a small town ice cream parlor, you know the smell—this sweet and nutty fragrance that has nothing to do with ice cream, and everything to do with those crisp and crunchy cones hand-rolled in the back. Waffle cones have been an American tradition for more than 100 years, so there's no arguing their place in the pantheon of ice cream classics.
Home bakers and pastry chefs have long improvised homemade ice cream cones from various delicate cookie batters, particularly tuilles, but there's no comparing those smooth and fragile wafers to the crisp but sturdy construction of a genuine ice cream cone embossed with that classic waffle pattern on either side.
For me, a waffle cone–maker is an investment that brings tremendous personal satisfaction and one that will more than pay itself off in a lifetime of freshly made ice cream cones, waffle bowls, and other treats—it's the gateway gear needed to make truly homemade Drumsticks and Chocotacos from scratch, not to mention waffle-adjacent desserts like homemade Kit Kats, Sugar Wafers, and stroopwaffles. Owning a waffle cone–maker will also open the door to no-fry cannoli shells and corn-chips as well (I'm sensing DIY Doritos in my near future).
It's a very specific recipe niche to be sure, but for experienced bakers it's also the final frontier. So on a site called Serious Eats, I'm not afraid to express my love for a well-crafted tool of the trade, especially when it does a job that can't be accomplished by any other means. If bringing that magic into your own kitchen appeals to you as much as it does to me, a commercial waffle cone–maker is a more-than-worthy piece of gear that delivers a potent blend of nostalgia and DIY mastery whenever it's in use.
The machine can take up some space in the kitchen to be sure, but save the box and you can shove it in some closet or corner of the garage during the off-season (if there is such a thing in your world; I'm kind of living a 24/7 ice cream fantasy right now).
Commercial machines come with heavy plates that hold remarkably even heat, and a temperature control dial for adjusting that heat precisely, down to the specific degree. Those heavy plates also ensure the waffle cone batter is pressed into an even layer, for cones that are thin and crisp, with no thick and doughy patches in sight.
When I first began recipe testing, I'd hoped to do a waffle cone–maker review, but after purchasing more than a dozen machines it became clear that consumer-oriented models are nothing but junk—novelties designed to appeal to our inner child, not our inner chef. The majority of the machines didn't feature any sort of temperature control at all, only an on/off switch, with plates so thin the heating coils leave a visible pattern on the cones, with wildly uneven color and crispness. Some brands make no effort to hide the limitations of their product, with box art that puts sad, ghostly white cones on full display (complete with burned edges, in some cases).
The only budget model we loved, the Chef's Choice 838, was sadly discontinued prior to publication, but after I had already developed the recipe and we'd photographed the process. This article was even delayed while we searched for an acceptable affordable alternative, but alas none could be found.
If you happen to spot one at a yard sale or on ebay, the Chef's Choice 838 is a terrific buy, and here's hoping it's put back into production one day soon. That said, it doesn't cook as evenly or as well as a commercial iron, the temperature control isn't nearly as precise, and the plates aren't as heavy, producing cones that aren't as as delicate or crisp as the ones that come out of the pro models. For all of these reasons, the Chef's Choice 838 takes a distant second place to my favorite machine, the Happybuy, which you can see in action here.
While you can make waffle cones in any number of ways, I've based this particular recipe off Keebler sugar cones, my favorite as a kid (and even now, when it comes to store-bought). They have a distinctive flavor of their own, deep and nutty and surprisingly complex. Peep the ingredients list, and you'll find the usual suspects, flour, oil, and salt, as well as a surprising mix of sugar, honey, and molasses.
Taking a page from this commercial classic, my recipe relies on these same ingredients as well (with molasses in the form of brown sugar). Not only do these three sugars promote a wonderful depth of flavor, but the honey and molasses help keep the wafers pliable and soft while warm, for easy shaping that won't interfering with crispness as they cool.
As with my go-to one-bowl buttermilk waffles, this recipe also makes use of un-whipped egg whites, as it's a common leftover in ice cream making that promotes a surprisingly crisp and light texture in waffles.
To further amp up the flavor in the cones, I also use roasted hazelnut oil, an ingredient I keep on hand for homemade Nutella, as well as savory applications like salad dressing, roasted vegetables, and fancy aioli (it's also great for garnishing dishes like Daniel's creamy roasted butternut squash soup).
If you don't have any on hand, roasted walnut, pecan, or pistachio oil will work equally well, as will (surprise!) sesame oil. With sesame oil, the batter will have an alarmingly savory odor, especially as it cooks, but its flavor will mellow to a generic nuttiness in the finished cone (especially after the aroma in the kitchen has dissipated; eating a cone while smelling a strong odor of sesame can somewhat taint one's perception).
Otherwise, any neutral cooking oil will work well from a technical stand point, although they won't contribute anything to the flavor of the cone.
There's also a splash of water (to thin the batter and facilitate gluten development) and rum (to amplify the aromas in the cone), but the latter can be replaced with bourbon, vanilla, or more water if booze isn't an option.
In a recipe like this, the machine does all the work, making the technique almost comically simple: Whisk everything but the flour together in a bowl, then whisk in the flour. That's it. Really.
That said, I can't overstate the importance of thorough whisking, first to homogenize the sugars and leavening, then to incorporate the flour (here I recommend bread flour, as it makes the most sturdy cone).
It can take at least a minute of steady whisking at each stage to ensure perfect homogenization, which is a lot longer than most bakers would naturally devote to the process, and certainly longer than newbies would guess. But rushing either of these steps will lead to an unevenly mixed batter, which can produce a wafer with a splotchy and uneven color, as well as a patchy texture, lacy and porous in some places while thick in others.
Under-mixing is a very common problem for homemade ice cream cone batter, and one that bakers often attribute to the waffle cone–maker itself. While cheaply constructed machines do heat unevenly and result in uneven browning, unevenly mixed streaks of sugar and baking soda can wreak havoc as well, producing ring-like areas of discoloration (this relates to how an unevenly mixed patch of batter will spread while being poured onto the machine, displaced in a fairly symmetrical way as new batter is poured into the center).
So whisk well, and more than you think is needed, then scrape and fold the batter with a flexible spatula at the end (an important finishing step for any batter).
The exact size of the wafer (and resulting cone or bowl) is highly customizable, but I like using about two tablespoons of batter per cone. A cookie scoop makes portioning the batter fast, easy, and consistent, ensuring each wafer will cook at a similar rate, so there's less guesswork from cone to cone.
The idea is to cook the batter long enough that its water content is driven out slowly, ensuring a crispy wafer and even browning. Cooking too low and slow can prevent the wafer from caramelizing and fully crisping as it cools. Meanwhile, cooking too hot and too fast will give the wafers a brittle, impossible-to-shape texture as well as burned or bitter flavors.
It can take a few tries to dial in the ideal time and temperature setting for wafers, as machines can vary as much as personal preference, so give yourself time to learn the ropes, and find the time and setting that work best to produce a pliable yet well-caramelized wafer. On the commercial machine I use at home, I've found 85 seconds at 300°F (150°C) to be ideal.
With practice, however, you'll find the right time and temperature for your waffle maker, so that each wafer is well caramelized, easy to roll, and crisp when cool.
Shaping the waffle cone is another step that requires a bit of practice, since there's only a short window of opportunity to shape the hot wafers before they cool. I found that it's helpful to place the tip of the waffle cone form (which should come with any machine) at least a quarter of an inch away from the edge of the wafer, rather than on the very edge.
This allows the wafer to curl more tightly at the tip, closing off the cone. It's also important to keep the wafer wrapped tight around the form, so be sure to keep it tucked tightly as you roll. After forming the cone, hold it in place, seam-side-down, until cool enough that it won't uncurl when you releases the form.
When the waffle cone form is placed right on the edge of the wafer, or when it's rolled loosely around the cone, the final shape will be that of a bullhorn, a cone with an opening at one end.
It's a difficult process to explain in words and images alone, but seeing it done can help.
As with any physical process, it can take a few tries to get the hang of rolling a waffle cone, so again: give yourself time to practice and learn. Make a test batch or two, using an inexpensive cooking oil in place of hazelnut oil while you find your footing. Scrap pieces and rejects will still be tasty.
Try grinding them up into crumbs to use like graham crackers in your favorite cookie crumb crusts. Or dip the broken wafers in the chocolate coating of a homemade Klondike bar. Once the coating has set, stir the chocolate coated waffle pieces into your next batch of ice cream.
It's a lot to learn! Don't hesitate to start out with an easier shape while you get the hang of cooking the wafers. For example, try cutting each with a pizza wheel to make dainty wedges for garnishing scoops of ice cream.
Or place a warm wafer over a ramekin, then gently mold it into shape by nesting a second ramekin on top.
The wafer will naturally flare out in a wavy pattern, but if you want a more sculpted look, use your fingers to shape the edges while warm.
Whatever the shape, the waffle wafers are quite vulnerable to humidity, so do stash them in an airtight container the moment they cool down to room temperature. I don't like to put all my eggs in one basket, so I'll usually divvy them up between a few zipper-lock sandwich bags rather than one large container.
In a humid kitchen, the cooled wafers can begin to soften in as little as 15 minutes, so don't delay in finding them a home. By that same token, don't rush the cooling process—warm wafers will steam themselves soft in an airtight container.
While it can take some practice to learn how to use any new piece of equipment, homemade waffle cones are ultimately quite easy and a lot of fun. After a few test batches to learn the ropes, you'll be slinging out waffle cones with the ease of a part-timer at Scoops Ahoy.