You can have your sunny-day sorbets, ices, slushes and sherbets. Nine times out of 10, I’d rather have real ice cream. With that iconic foundation of fat, protein and sugar with a veritable smorgasbord of possible added flavors and textures, you could have a different kind of ice cream every day for a year — but that’s not always a good thing. Some flavors are better left on the trash heap of culinary history. When you’re standing in front of the cold case, it can be so hard to choose just one perfect scoop! Let’s talk about the most common varieties. There just happen to be thirty-one, like a certain famous ice cream shop, but it’s a complete coincidence.
31. Bubblegum / Cotton Candy
I know there is someone out there claiming these are two distinct flavors, and I regret to inform you that you are tragically deluded. These are precisely the same flavor — and it is bad. Too sweet, too flat and irretrievably boring. Whoever said, "Even bad ice cream is pretty good," has never had this flavor. You may as well eat the carton. And the all-too-common blue coloring? Insult to injury.
A mix of three flavors is purported to mean everyone is happy, but in practical terms, it means no one is. If strawberry is your favorite, you’re particularly unfortunate, because Neapolitan strawberry is objectively the worst strawberry. The city of Naples should sue for defamation.
29. Birthday Cake / Cake Batter
I like cake and I like ice cream, but somehow birthday cake flavor is the worst of both worlds — the often-sodden cake detracts from the ice cream, and the ice cream overwhelms the cake. To make matters worse, the flavors of the cake and ice cream are typically indistinguishable. Cake batter flavor, in which there is no bogged-down cake but there is fake cake flavor permeating the entire scoop, is similarly hamstrung by too much of a good thing.
Also, I hate sprinkles. There, I said it.
I have had a couple of artisan cherry ice creams that used a lot of real black cherry or tart cherry puree, but usually, cherry ice cream uses varieties that aren’t very interesting, as though they’re left over after the crop has been picked through for maraschino purposes. Or worse, they use the mortal sin of fake cherry flavor. When chilled, some of the woody, tannic flavors that make a cherry pie such a delight are so muted as to be undetectable. The only acceptable version is cherry chocolate chip, and even then, it’s objectively the worst chocolate chip.
27. Rum Raisin
I know, I know! You hate the very idea, but have you ever actually tried it? I don’t like raisins, yet I still kind of like this one, and a little controversy over trivial things is what makes life worth living. The raisins are soaked in literal rum, so they’re softer than you may be thinking they will be, and their potent raisin-y nip is curbed by the fat in the cream. Also, they’re the centerpiece of the best scene in 1991’s fifth top-grossing movie, "City Slickers." Having sautéed sea bass, potatoes au gratin and asparagus for dinner? Don’t forget a pint of this one.
26. Cookie Dough
Although I plead with you not to risk the food poisoning that’s possible with eating real raw cookie dough, I understand its delicious appeal. That’s not what’s in cookie dough ice cream, though. The alleged cookie dough bits are too hard, without the fudgy texture of the real deal, and the chocolate chips are all wrong for melting in a bite of ice cream. It’s a great concept, but in execution, it deserves the axe.
25. Key Lime
This is my favorite pie flavor, but I have yet to find a Key lime ice cream that I thought really worked. The best ones have graham cracker bits, but they never quite reach the summit that is the pie. The cream blunts the zippy freshness of the lime too much, condemning it to be just a shadow of its greatness in pie form, forever a disappointment. If you’re gonna go lime, go sherbet.
The warmth of real cinnamon is a nice foil for cold cream, as long as it’s real ground cinnamon. If it’s only cinnamon oil, it’s like eating frozen Red Hots and belongs near the bottom of the list. On the other hand, if it’s sweetened with maple syrup, it might rise a few notches.
Like the Key lime, lemon ice cream is best served with cookie bits. It’s much more successful than the lime, but if I’m going for citrus of any kind, I’ll usually skip the dairy and choose an ice or slush.
22. Matcha / Green Tea
This flavor is perfect for someone who favors complex and bitter over flat and sweet. Matcha is a green tea powder, quite strong and tannin-forward. Even if you don’t care for it alone, you might appreciate it when it’s mixed with sweet cream; the edges round out, but it retains a solid astringent finish. Some brands add a lot more matcha than others, and that can be too much of a good thing. If the green outweighs the cream, it’s kind of like being punched in the face by a bag of leaf mulch.
Most strawberry ice cream is a serious drag, with a flavor most aptly described as unfortunate pink, and an artificial color to match. If it’s real strawberry, it’s good, but not as good as vanilla with strawberries on top. Like citrus, strawberry is better served in sorbet or in flavor blends that have some tartness to them, or it risks drowning in syrupy oblivion.
20. Peanut Butter Cup
If you choose this one at an ice cream shop where they take a full-sized Reese’s cup and chop it into your ice cream of choice, it will sing, but the grocery store variety usually uses mini cups with the wrong chocolate-to-peanut butter ratio, and they also freeze solid, making for an unpleasant bite-back experience. It’s better than cookie dough, though.
The best version has chunks of ripe peaches with a faint pink tinge where the stone inside used to be. Unfortunately, most peach ice cream uses peach juice concentrate, and it ends up tasting canned.
18. Chocolate Sundae Swirl
Don’t get me wrong — it’s delicious, and sometimes it’s exactly what I want. Most of the time, though, it’s too one-note. OK, too two-note. It needs some crunchy oomph, and the chocolate syrup isn’t as interesting as a thicker fudge or caramel swirl. It should be considered a good start at best.
Iced coconut milk is the closest dairy-free approximation of cow’s milk ice cream, and there’s a freshness to it that can’t be replicated with real dairy. Toasted coconut dairy ice cream is almost a different flavor than an iced coconut milk, with much more depth and complexity, and I prefer it, but it’s so distinct that I don’t crave it often. Every bite screams "COCONUT!" so you’d better be in the mood for that and only that.
16. Rocky Road
Let’s face it: The frigid marshmallows are weird. It was a childhood favorite of mine, but these days I can’t get past the gummy bits. Other flavors use its overall flavor profile to better effect.
15. Banana Nut
Don’t bother with plain banana; in a real banana puree ice cream, walnuts are the perfect textural accompaniment, with just the right oily, umami crunch and bitter opposition to put banana in its best light. Speaking of light, don’t choose light banana ice cream — this is one place where the impact of dairy fat on the natural aromatics of banana is more than worth the calories, although banana sorbet is one of the best-tasting homemade and ice cream-adjacent treats.
I disapprove of the ones with a lot of unnatural green coloring added, but the flavor itself is sublime. The best varieties have a mix of big pieces, chopped bits and fine pistachio dust running through.
13. Dulce de Leche
There is no better accompaniment to apple pie than a scoop of dulce de leche. Some brands are smooth, with it mixed into the cream base, and others have a swirl, or even little chunks. They all have their delicious role to play, but the swirl is my favorite. Of course it’s super sweet, but there’s an unfathomable complexity to it — a progression of toasty, browned flavors. The juxtaposition of cold cream with caramel made by milk and sugar on a long boil is captivating. If you’ve ever made no-fry fried ice cream, where you brown corn flakes in butter and cinnamon sugar before rolling it over a scoop, this flavor is tailor-made for use in that recipe.
12. Butter Pecan
In some ways, pistachio is a more interesting nutty flavor, but the crunchy bits give this one the edge over both it and dulce de leche. It has nostalgia going for it, too. In the South especially, you’ll also find pralines ‘n’ cream, in which the brittle is localized as a coating around the pecans, and there’s typically a caramel ripple. In either one, the layering of fresh cream and browned butter flavors makes dairy the star in a way that not every ice cream can.
Half of you think vanilla is too high on this list, and the other half think it’s too low. It’s one of the great ironies of the modern age that a flavoring made from the seed pod of an increasingly rare rainforest orchid is synonymous with plain and bland. Next time you try it, buy an expensive one, preferably with real vanilla bean specks. Close your eyes. See if you can catch the aroma first. Let a small bite melt in your mouth slowly. As it warms, so will the flavor. Vanilla actually has many layers, like the facets of a jewel. Still, it’s more fun to guild the orchid with mix-ins, and that keeps it at the bottom edge of the top 10.
10. Strawberry Cheesecake
The graham cracker bits and the tang of the cheesecake elevate the flavor of strawberries to their highest purpose. The kind with a strawberry swirl — as opposed to blended into the base — keeps the summery berry front-and-center instead of drowning it in too much cream and sugar.
9. Cookies ‘n’ Cream
Crunchy cookies stand up to the moisture in ice cream without dissolving like cake, but also without freezing into rocky, tooth-busting clods. Whether largely ground into dust or left in large chunks, this flavor is good enough to partially make up for substandard vanilla flavor. If you’re tossing a more economical brand half-gallon in the grocery cart, this is a good bet.
I love chocolate ice cream, but I also think it’s overrated. Like sundae swirl, I use it as a base for a wide assortment of toppings rather than enjoy it alone. The best ones have a tinge of malt or lots of dark chocolate. Ironically, the best chocolate ice cream I’ve ever had isn’t ice cream at all — it’s a chocolate sorbet from David Lebovitz. Every chocolate ice cream I’ve had since making that one for the first time is something of a disappointment.
7. Coffee / Mocha
There are several challenges to making a good coffee ice cream. You can’t just add brewed coffee to cream and call it a day; you’ll get a watery flavor and unpleasantly large crystals. And, if it isn’t top-notch arabica-only beans brewed for just the right amount of time, you can get a sour or burned flavor that’s heightened by chilling. Done correctly, though, a scoop of coffee is transcendent, and the chip iteration makes a fantastic milkshake. Although the mocha version that adds some chocolate has flavor synergy, lifting both the coffee and cocoa flavors, plain coffee is a real treat in its own right.
6. Chocolate Chip
Far superior to the chocolate sundae swirl even though it hits the same base flavors, the best version of chocolate chip uses the textural advantage of crisp, thin shavings of dark chocolate rather than mini chips, and folds them in with good-quality vanilla. Chocolate chocolate chip always sounds tempting to me, the biggest chocoholic in the world, but I find there’s not enough contrast between the flavors in this particular case.
5. Black Raspberry
This is the best fruit-based ice cream. Raspberries are so much more robust than other berry flavors that they can hold their own with heavy cream, so whether it’s blended or swirled, the balance of tart and sweet is just right as long as there are enough berries added. You can practically taste the long afternoon sun. The color is great too — a natural pinky-purple like violets or lavender. If you feel like blowing your mind, pair a scoop of this with one of the best peach ice creams. Heaven.
4. Moose Tracks
This flavor sometimes has those mini peanut butter cups that are so problematic, but the best ones use bigger pieces, and the addition of the other elements — fudgy swirl and vanilla ice cream — pulls this one higher in the top 10. The only thing it lacks for my palate is a little more textural contrast. Toss some chopped peanuts on top, and I think it’s a contender for the No. 1 spot.
3. Toasted Almond Fudge
Chocolate ice cream is brought to its highest purpose by this flavor, but some versions use vanilla with a fudge ripple with some success. The pinch of bitterness from the cocoa meets the Maillard browning and hint of salt in the toasted almond for a complex textural landscape and just the right harmony of flavors to keep it interesting without muddying the waters or, uh, creams. As important as what’s there is what isn’t: marshmallows a la rocky road. There is a mocha version of this one that is a personal favorite.
2. Mint Chip
Is it cheating to put mint chip in a separate category from regular chip? I don’t care. Cool, crisp mint lightens heavy cream in a way that’s totally distinct from any other flavor on this list. Some brands are heavy-handed with the green food coloring, but on a hot day when refreshment seems as important as indulgence, there’s no other cream-based frozen treat for me. A mint chip milkshake with a couple of Oreos thrown in is a common occurrence at my house.
1. Turtle / Caramel Pecan
This ice cream combines some of the other best flavors into a winning combination. When it’s made with a top-notch vanilla, equal amounts of chocolate and caramel swirls and the crunchy pecans are toasted just right, it’s the pinnacle of creamy treat achievement. Nothing against almonds and peanut butter featured so prominently elsewhere in the top 10, but pecans in particular echo and amplify the buttery notes and oily texture of real milk like a dairy choir in an icy Grand Canyon. And the audience goes wild!
In the end, there’s no accounting for taste, so maybe the favorite flavor on my list is dead last for you. Quality matters, too — I might choose a really superb, microcrystalline cake batter ice cream over a thin and icy mint chip.
If you’re picking bubble gum, though — let’s just say you can have mine. I couldn’t eat another bite.