Vanilla Ice Cream
Vanilla is America's favorite ice cream flavor, but which product is the cream of the crop?
How We Tested
Whether accompanying a slice of pie, sandwiched between two cookies, or simply eaten straight from the container, vanilla ice cream is a quintessential dessert. Since we last reviewed vanilla ice cream, the market has undergone an upheaval with the introduction of new “light” ice cream brands. While companies have made low-calorie ice cream for years, newcomers such as Halo Top have found a buzzworthy way to market light ice cream—by featuring the calories for an entire pint (usually 200 to 400 calories) prominently on the package and touting the food as “high protein.” The appeal: permission to eat an entire pint of ice cream without guilt. The marketing around these brands is working; sales of Halo Top have risen 500 percent in the last two years; it's now the fifth most popular ice cream brand in the country.
That doesn't mean traditional ice cream is dead—far from it. In fact, Americans are buying more ice cream than ever: Sales of traditional brands such as Ben & Jerry's and Blue Bell went up 12 percent from 2017 to 2018. But with new brands creating such a stir, we wondered if our own ice cream preferences had changed or if the classic brands still reign supreme.
Why Are There So Many Types of Vanilla Ice Cream?
We selected eight top-selling nationally available ice cream brands to try (including Blue Bell, which is sold in stores in only about 20 states but can be ordered by phone). However, most of these brands make multiple varieties of vanilla ice cream—we saw as many as four vanilla flavors from one brand alone. What's the difference among “vanilla bean,” “original vanilla,” “homemade vanilla,” “French vanilla,” and just plain “vanilla”? To figure it out, we held a series of tastings of 17 different products to find each brand's best vanilla option to feature in our final taste test.
In almost every case, tasters preferred products that were labeled “French” or “homemade” vanilla to those labeled “vanilla bean.” While the specks of ground vanilla beans in “vanilla bean” ice creams were visually appealing, we found that these products weren't very vanilla-y. Experts told us that the ground beans stirred into ice cream are usually left over from vanilla extract production and have already lost much of their flavor. A lot of “vanilla bean” ice creams have natural or artificial flavors added to amp up the vanilla taste, but for our tasters, that boost wasn't enough—these products lacked the pronounced vanilla flavor we expect from vanilla ice cream.
As for the difference among “French,” “homemade,” or just plain “vanilla” ice creams, we didn't see any clear trends. While it's often thought that “French” denotes ice cream that contains eggs, this wasn't always the case for the products in our lineup; many “French vanilla” ice creams we tried didn't contain eggs, and some that did weren't called “French.”
We did see one common thread among products that made it to the second round: They all had slightly less sugar. Every product in our final lineup had 20 grams of sugar or less per ½-cup serving, while the eliminated products ranged from 21 to 24 grams of sugar in the same serving size. Tasters thought that products with more sugar were too sweet and that the vanilla flavor was more pronounced in products with slightly less sugar.
The Difference Between Types of Vanilla
With our eight products selected, we held a final blind tasting. Though we included two top-selling “light” ice creams, we didn't let any tasters in on the secret; they simply thought they were tasting regular vanilla ice cream.
Most of the products—including one of the light ice creams—earned high enough marks that we can fully recommend seven of the eight products we tried. And while we noticed that some products in our final lineup had prominent vanilla notes, some also had a slightly “boozy” aftertaste.
The ice creams contained both imitation and real vanilla. We didn't have a preference for one style of flavoring over the other, which isn't surprising since vanillin—the key compound responsible for vanilla's characteristic flavor—is molecularly identical whether it is derived from an orchid vine plant or produced in a lab. However, according to the United States Food and Drug Administration, pure vanilla extract must contain at least 35 percent alcohol, so the ice creams made with the real stuff were a bit too boozy for some tasters.
Our Ideal Ice Cream Texture
Texture was also important. Here we looked at the amount of air in each product (called “overrun” in the ice cream industry). There are various reasons why manufacturers add air to ice cream. First, some people prefer the lighter, almost whipped texture of ice cream with a lot of air incorporated. Second, it makes the ice cream more profitable because a product with a lot of overrun has less dairy (dairy can be pretty pricey) and more air (which is free) in each container. A product with 100 percent overrun will be half air. Finally, it's a common tactic used to produce lower-calorie ice cream. With more air incorporated, there are fewer solids (and therefore fewer calories and less fat) in each scoop. We sent the ice creams in our final lineup to a lab to have their overrun percentages measured, and the products ranged from 21 percent to 117 percent overrun, a huge difference.
Ice creams with low overrun percentages are typically dense, creamy, and silky and associated with premium brands. However, tasters were split over whether they preferred high- or low-overrun ice cream. Our winner had a relatively high overrun (97 percent) but was still praised for its creamy, smooth texture. While texture is a matter of personal preference, our winning ice cream compensates for its high overrun percentage by using corn syrup (instead of sugar) as its main sweetener. Since corn syrup is thicker than sugar, it gives this ice cream a smooth, rich texture. Many products, including our winner, have added stabilizers and gelling agents in the form of cellulose products and thickeners such as carrageenan, which can help keep the texture thick and creamy despite a high overrun percentage.
Is Halo Top Any Good?
Ice creams rely on fat and sugar for creamy texture; both substances prevent ice crystals from forming, and without enough of either, the ice cream becomes icy and hard. We found this to be the case with Halo Top, which was rock-hard straight from the freezer. After about 15 minutes of thawing on the counter, we were able to get an ice cream scoop into it, but its texture was “mushy,” not creamy, and still “notably icy.”
The amounts of fat and sugar in an ice cream play a role in its perceived richness and sweetness, and they varied widely in the other ice creams we tried (3 to 16 grams of fat per serving and 12 to 20 grams of sugar per serving). Halo Top was the only product that tasters found to be neither rich nor sweet, and its fat and sugar numbers confirmed that: It had just 2 grams of fat and 6 grams of sugar. In place of sugar, Halo Top contains stevia leaf extract, a plant-derived sugar substitute that is often noted for its bitter aftertaste, which explains why our tasters were picking up on bitter, unpleasant notes in this ice cream. By contrast, our top-rated ice cream had 7 grams of fat and 12 grams of sugar, striking the right balance for our tasters, with no off-flavors.
A Better Light Ice Cream
We were more concerned with an ice cream's flavor than with its calorie content, but it's worth noting that we really loved one light ice cream, which has been around for decades: Edy's Slow Churned Classic Vanilla (also sold as Dreyer's in the western United States and Texas). Marketed as a lower-calorie ice cream, it was indistinguishable from full-fat ice creams and earned third place in our tasting with its silky, creamy texture and bright vanilla flavor. A fair amount of sugar (14 grams per serving) and a high overrun percentage (117 percent) ensured this product had a “creamy,” “airy” texture that tasters loved. And while it had more calories than Halo Top (400 per pint versus 280 per pint), it still has significantly less fat than our winning full-fat ice cream, 3 grams per serving versus 7 grams.
The Best Vanilla Ice Cream: Turkey Hill Original Vanilla Premium Ice Cream
In the end, we named Turkey Hill Original Vanilla Premium Ice Cream our favorite vanilla ice cream. Turkey Hill also makes our favorite chocolate ice cream. Its relatively high overrun percentage and use of corn syrup combined to create a perfectly smooth, scoopable, and creamy texture that we loved in both tastings. It also had balanced sweetness and a prominent, rich vanilla flavor.
Twenty-one America's Test Kitchen staffers tasted 17 nationally available vanilla ice creams (Breyers Natural Vanilla, Breyers French Vanilla, Edy's Vanilla, Edy's Vanilla Bean, Blue Bell Natural Vanilla Bean, Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla, Häagen-Dazs Vanilla, Häagen-Dazs Vanilla Bean, Turkey Hill Original Vanilla, Turkey Hill Vanilla Bean, Turkey Hill Homemade Vanilla, Turkey Hill French Vanilla, Edy's Slow Churned French Vanilla, Edy's Slow Churned Classic Vanilla, Edy's Slow Churned Vanilla Bean, Ben & Jerry's Vanilla, Halo Top Vanilla) to determine a final lineup of eight, which were priced from about $1 to about $5 per pint. We sampled each product in our final lineup plain in a blind, randomized tasting. We averaged the scores and listed the products in order of preference. We purchased all the ice creams in Boston-area supermarkets except for Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla, which we ordered by phone. Prices listed are what we paid. Overrun percentages were calculated by an independent laboratory. All ingredient and nutritional information was taken from product labels, and nutritional information is based on a ½-cup serving size.