I found myself facing the most fortunate of dilemmas last week…
I was on a family vacation in Maine and had just picked up a promising looking triple berry pie from the local bakery. My girls were home from college, the weather was warm enough for grilling outside at our cozy Airbnb, and golden hour was nigh! All I needed to make the night perfect was vanilla ice cream. But the big question was: which vanilla ice cream?
Vanilla is frequently an afterthought, a synonym for boring, the ice cream flavor that is notable for not being chocolate — but it in fact plays a crucial supporting role in so many quintessential summer desserts: milkshakes, sundaes, banana splits, ice cream sodas, root beer floats, and, of course, on top of a (preferably warm, preferably homemade) slice of pie. I thought that was as good an excuse as any to conduct an official Cup of Jo taste test. I headed to the local supermarket, a few actually, to pick up a half dozen popular brands. To make the tasting as apples-to-apples as possible, I looked for plain vanilla. Not French vanilla, not organic vanilla, not extra creamy vanilla. You get the picture.
As with previous taste tests, I was the master of ceremonies, directing my testers — my husband, Andy, and our daughters, Phoebe and Abby — to taste and compare. They were instructed to weigh in on various factors such as texture (is it creamy? dense? fluffy?); flavor (does it taste like natural vanilla?); and visuals (is the color appealing? how do you feel about vanilla bean flecks?). I numbered the bowls of ice cream, each served with three spoons, and only I knew which scoop was which brand. Needless to say, my crew accepted their challenge with the rigor and focus that the job required. Here’s what they said:
Ben & Jerry’s Vanilla
Cost: $8 for 1 pint
Cost per ounce: 50 cents/ounce
The Scoop: We started off strong: “Delicious!” said Phoebe. “Excellent consistency.” All appreciated the creamy, dense-in-a-good-way texture and the natural flavor. “Tastes like actual vanilla, not sweet cream…really, really good,” said Andy, going in for a second spoonful.
Häagen-Dazs Vanilla Bean
Cost: $7.50 for 14 ounces
Cost per ounce: 55 cents/ounce
The Scoop: “I like the fluffiness factor,” Phoebe said. “I appreciate how this is milkshake like.” Andy agreed: “There’s definitely some nostalgia going on.” Of course, one person’s nostalgia is a younger person’s “weird aftertaste” (Abby). Everyone agreed there was something satisfying about the consistency, which was light and airy, while retaining real substance. (Unlike some, which can teeter to the icy side.)
Edy’s Classic Vanilla
Cost: $7 for 1.5 quarts
Cost per ounce: 17 cents/ounce
The Scoop: Confession: I had accidentally picked up a carton of the “Slow Churned” vanilla, which is Edy’s 50% fat line. I guess then I shouldn’t have been surprised by the reviews: “Awful,” said Andy. “The only flavor I can taste is ‘sweet,’” said Abby. Phoebe: “This is just dumb.” But here’s what really surprised me. In order to right my wrong, I bought the correct carton the next day, and the whole crew came to nearly the exact same conclusion. Especially so when compared side-by-side with the previous day’s winner.
Breyer’s Natural Vanilla
Cost: $7 for 48 ounces
Cost per ounce: 13 cents/ounce
The Scoop: Everyone recoiled a little after tasting this one: “It’s just cream and sugar,” said Phoebe. “I agree,” said Andy. “Flavorless, nothing going on.” I was shocked by this result, having grown up on Breyer’s vanilla, I was positive it was going to be the victor. Turns outs sentimentality trumps peer pressure, though — I had a taste and was won over by its creamy texture and and (admittedly) not exactly natural flavor.
Turkey Hill Original Vanilla
Cost: $6 for 1.44 quarts
Cost per ounce: 13 cents/ounce
The Scoop: “When you can’t see any vanilla flecks, it’s always a sus proposition,” noted Andy. But Abby’s eyes went wide: “Tastes like the inside of a Good Humor vanilla bar!” Phoebe agreed: “It’s ice cream sandwich ice cream!” In other words, even in the absence of vanilla bean flecks (re: natural flavor), there was something appealing about this. Andy conceded, “Yeah, I get it. Artificial, but tasty.”
Friendly’s Rich and Creamy Vanilla Bean
Cost: $6 for 48 ounces
Cost per ounce: 12 cents/ounce
The Scoop: Friendly’s is mostly an East Coast thing — I grew up begging my parents to take us there for a burger and fries followed by their legendary sundaes and banana splits. So, I was pulling for this one, which I’d also place in the fluffy texture category. “Eh, mid,” Phoebe said. (Kids will break your heart.) Andy: “Definitely a decent vanilla taste — not A+ but decent.”
The Winner: Ben & Jerry’s Vanilla
“Ben & Jerry’s rules.” Usually, with these taste tests, it can be hard (haha! imagine calling this hard!) to figure out which brands make it to the finals, but this time, there was a clear stand-out. “This was not difficult at all,” said Abby. “Number 1 was SO much better than the others.” It was the most dense, most indulgent, of the lot, and also, at 50 cents an ounce, one of the most expensive. (Häagen-Dazs took that honor.) But with its subtle speckling and short ingredient list, it stood out for its pure, real vanilla flavor.
The Runner-Up (and Best Value): Turkey Hill
Coming in at only 13 cents an ounce, this would be our pick for feeding a lot of mouths. And I’d bet that sentimental summer boardwalk flavor would taste just right layered into an ice cream cake, whirled into a milkshake with chocolate syrup, or scooped-and-fizzied in a root beer float.
Special thanks to my tasting team! How great is summer?! And now for my favorite part: What did I miss?