Vanilla is America's favorite ice cream flavor, but which product is the cream of the crop?
Published Mar. 28, 2019. Appears in Cook's Country TV Season 13: Pennsylvania Dutch Country
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.
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...
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