All the way home on the freeway, the sun beats through the windshield, and the only thing that keeps you smiling through the enervating August afternoon is the reward in your freezer: a pint of sweet, cold ice cream. But when you open the freezer door and take out the carton, the ice cream is so solidly frozen your biggest spoon barely makes a dent. There's got to be an easier way. But what is it?

There are dozens of ice cream scoops on the market, most for less than $20, and they not only come in an amusing array of colors and shapes, but they also employ very different strategies to tackle what seems to be a simple problem -- dishing out that hard-frozen ice cream with attractive results.

I tested seven popular and widely available ice cream scoops, including new-this-year models from KitchenArt and Calphalon, a few that have been on the market for several years, and one classic, the Zeroll, that dates from the 1930s. My priority was finding a tool that could really dig into super-hard ice cream without exerting a lot of force (I'm a weakling). The scoopers also were judged by how comfortable they were to use and by whether their design innovations translated into performance. Also considered was the appearance of the ice cream once it landed in the bowl -- were there handsome spheres or messy little slabs? The tools had to prove themselves without benefit of head starts such as running them under hot water or letting the ice cream sit out to soften.

Ice cream scoops, old-school and new, can be divided into two categories. They're either non-mechanical diggers that require some elbow grease or low- to high-tech ones that have a gadget or other short cut. Most diggers, which are basically little shovels, now have ergonomic handles for optimum comfort. The gadget-oriented scoops can have ingenious features: levers, warming devices and carefully engineered business ends.

The best overall scoop I tested was the simple but well-designed KitchenArt; it's a champion at skating through super-hard ice cream. Least impressive was Deni's plug-in ice cream scoop that warms a large upright spoon, with predictably gooey results. Calphalon's three-petal scoop is unique and tested well, allowing for a lovely presentation of ice cream but requiring some muscle. It came in behind Cuisinart's colorful and inexpensive but burly chrome-plated scoop that's perfect for the heavy-duty assembly scooping. Several other models performed well enough, but their quirky features didn't make enough of a difference to justify seeking them out.

Form and function

Some scoops are so cool-looking they could hold their own in an art gallery. In fact, one dipper, the Zeroll, is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Patented by Ohio businessman Sherman Kelly in 1935, the Zeroll has a hollow handle filled with antifreeze-like self-defrosting liquid. When you grasp the handle, the heat from your hand transfers internally to the scooper. The new incarnations of the Zeroll are available in high-grade aluminum or nonstick Teflon. I tried the aluminum one and found the thick handle a comfortable grasp. But it still was challenging for me to form round spheres of ice cream. The scoop's surface also immediately became marred by scratches and water spots.

I had no complaints about that new KitchenArt scoop, discovered when I spotted two little kids playing at a store display with the cheery green and blue gel-grip diggers. It's easy to see why the kids were intrigued -- this scoop looks like a cross between an action figure and a Barbie doll. The handle has a nice, squishy grasp, which made it wonderful for serious shoveling, and the end result was a bowl filled with inviting spheres of ice cream.

For pure entertainment value, the Deni Electric Ice Cream Scoop is a hoot: The severe silver-and-black design seems to be channeling Darth Vader. But evidently I didn't shovel fast enough, and the heat caused the ice cream to melt as I scooped. There were puddles in the bowl and soupy streaks left to refreeze in the carton. That's no fun -- and fun is the one thing scooping ice cream should be.

food@latimes.com