Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez
I don’t have to get into why exactly good vanilla ice cream is crucial, do I? Do you need me to walk you through the merits of a mid-summer a la mode moment? The pleasures of a singular snowy scoop when everything else feels beyond your control? The visceral joy that—no. No, you don’t! Vanilla ice cream is universally beloved and widely understood to be crucial to our shared experience as a species.
So why did we have such a hard time finding one we all enjoyed at the supermarket?
In classic SE fashion, this team pulled together 10 brands of vanilla ice cream you’re likely to find in your local supermarket and methodically, empirically, scientifically! tasted its way through them all in a quest to identify the very best. We went in thinking we all loved vanilla ice cream. We all left reeling, having eaten our way through 1) chunks of ice, 2) kids-birthday-party-cake-ish bites (the good kind, mostly), and 3) so much vanilla bean we felt gritty. This one was hard, y’all. There were very clear winners and very clear…not winners.
Let’s get into it.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez
Ben & Jerry’s Vanilla Friendly’s VanillaEdy’s VanillaHeritage Kulfi Vanilla BeanTurkey Hill Original VanillaBreyers Natural VanillaAvenue A Vanilla Ice CreamAmple Hills Just Vanilla, PleaseHaagen-Dazs Vanilla Ice CreamVan Leeuwen Vanilla Bean French Ice Cream
As previously mentioned, vanilla ice cream is a gorgeous, simple pleasure and should be judged as such. We! want! simplicity!: a smooth, thick, lightly chewy, very creamy, minimally aerated base that scoops easily, a Real Vanilla taste (how that taste gets there is less important, but, sure, yeah, vanilla bean specks are nice), and no grease on the finish. A nearly finished bowl of truly good vanilla ice cream, if you ask us, should eat like a thin, chilled soup: You should be able to scrape every last bit off the bottom without feeling like you’re drinking it. Oh! And please, god, no ice.
To measure all the above, we all ate from 10 scoops of ice cream—first plain, and then with sprinkles. The solo scoops allowed for the best gauge of color and standalone sweetness; the addition of sprinkles helped us contrast textures.
Ben & Jerry’s: 3.56/5
Unanimously “oh, this eats correctly” from the group from bite one. It was thick, it was sweet, held its own to sprinkles, it could’ve beautifully gone atop anything else we’d had floating around that kitchen. It also was the only one that smelled exactly the right amount—the warm, happy vanilla aroma hit your nose just before the cold, happy vanilla ice cream hit your mouth. Vibes, but make it ice cream.
This staff’s emotional connection to Häagen-Dazs should be clear by now: We are stans, we eat it regularly in our personal lives, we expect nothing but the best when we open a pint. We got pretty much that here. Everyone enjoyed the body of the ice cream: it didn’t melt nearly as quickly as most others, and there was a distinct creaminess to it that we found nowhere else. Jake just tanked this one because he didn’t think it smelled as heavily and pleasantly of vanilla as others in the tasting did.
Van Leeuwen: 2.92/5
Interestingly, both Yasmine and Genevieve noted that Van Leeuwen’s take tasted to them “how vanilla ice cream is supposed to taste,” but they both phrased it as a question (“how vanilla ice cream is…supposed to taste?”). This scoop had a great, gentle chew and was very calming to look at and less aromatics to the face than the top two contenders. I’d paint nursery walls with this stuff and raise a very serene baby from that room, I’m sure.
I, a lifelong Fribble stan, would recuse myself from this one, but there’s no need. Three out of five testers immediately felt transported to eating ice cream cake at a camp friend’s birthday party. The other two passingly enjoyed a vaguely vanilla, urgently melty dairy experience.
From here on out, these selections will fall into one or both of the following categories: “air” and/or “ice.” Breyer’s began us on an airy journey, one that went so quickly you barely realized you’d dipped a spoon into anything! Listen, the stuff is so fun to eat—it just doesn’t feel like you’re eating too much of anything. Sprinkle mountain highly recommended here. Who wouldn’t like a pile of vanilla-slicked-and-scented sprinkles at the tail-end of a meal? Oh, and wait!! It looks like Cookies & Cream? Not a con, but unnerving in this context all the same.
Avenue A: 2.18/5
More air! “Light” and “fluffy” appeared a few times across our collective notes. But the aeration felt more significant than Breyers’ and the smell skewed more artificial. My immediate reaction was to compare it to Cool Whip. I actually don’t know that I’d be able to tell the two apart.
Heritage Kulfi: 2.12/5
Et voila: the ice! Chewing was audible, flavor was mild. The combination of those two things detracted from a pretty-as-a-picture scoop we all felt optimistic at first glance. Of course, this ice cream didn’t melt nearly as quickly—it held its own 10+ minutes past nine other pints’ transformation into puddles. Kulfi for the hottest summer days, perhaps!
Turkey Hill: 2.1/5
Turkey Hill’s ice cream smelled so nice. We all wanted it to be a perfect-accompaniment-to-pie-type scoop, but it melted so quickly that it never stood a chance. Genevieve also noted a distinct greasiness to the bite, despite enjoying the aroma so much. Even so, it didn’t taste bad!
Ample Hills: 2.08/5
OK, Ample Hills was neither airy nor icy, but it also…did not taste like vanilla ice cream? To any of us? I wrote: “Almond??” Jake wrote: “Malt??” Yasmine wrote “Amaretto?” Daniel wrote: “No. What is this??”
Big extract energy. That’s all!
Our Tasting Methodology
All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.