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June/July 2011

Ice Cream Bars

Is it the vanilla ice cream or the milk chocolate coating that matters most?

How We Tested

Americans have been eating ice cream bars for some 90 years (lucky us). Today dozens of brands, styles, and flavors compete in a crowded marketplace. Among the array, the classic milk-chocolate-coated vanilla ice cream bars are the most popular. Wondering what separates the champs from the flops, we bought six brands—both with sticks and without—and we asked 21 tasters from America’s Test Kitchen to eat and evaluate them. 


And people call this work? tasters joked. How bad could even the worst of these possibly be? As it turns out, ice cream bars are not pure chocolate and ice cream: Most brands use stabilizers, dyes, and artificial flavors in the ice cream portion, and every brand uses coconut oil in the coating. (The oil reduces chocolate bloom—that gray, chalkiness that otherwise develops when the coating is frozen). Most brands even list the oil as the first coating ingredient, which means the coating contains more of it than any other ingredient. Because of that, many of the bars we tasted had weak or muddled chocolate flavor. By contrast, our two favorite bars list milk chocolate as the first ingredient in the coating, and our top choice supplements it with semisweet chocolate. 


Interestingly, while prominent chocolate flavor was important to our tasters, vanilla flavor wasn’t. Neutral or scant vanilla flavor was fine as long as it was clean. Only a single bar contained vanilla extract in its ice cream; all the rest listed natural or artificial flavors only. 


The first bite of an ice cream bar is telling. Shards of too-thin chocolate can splinter off, leaving plain ice cream on a stick and throwing off the ice cream–chocolate ratio of subsequent bites. Or the sides might collapse as you bite down, squeezing the ice cream out of the middle (and depositing it on your napkin—or your shirt). The best chocolate shells snap readily without splintering, just like a properly tempered chocolate bar. 


The texture of the ice cream also needs to be just right. Thicker, denser ice cream stands up to a thicker shell, both of which we preferred, whether the bar had a stick or did not. Light, fluffy ice cream seemed thin and wan to many tasters, and it melted too quickly. We didn’t mind the use of some stabilizers as long as the ice cream was dense and creamy.


So what makes a great ice cream bar? Good ice cream and even better chocolate. Our second favorite bar in this tasting uses premium ice cream made from cream, skim milk, sugar, egg yolks, and vanilla extract—just like you might make at home, and the very same ingredients found in its vanilla ice cream. (The brand, not incidentally, took second place in our vanilla ice cream tasting in June 2010.) When we tallied the results, we found that the other winning brands were no strangers to the top of previous America’s Test Kitchen rankings either. Our winner, is the same brand that won our milk chocolate tasting in March.  

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.