When it’s so hot outside you feel like you’re melting, science tells us the counterintuitive tonic is hot food such as hot tea. Ice cream brings on brain freezes, rather than relief, yet many still crave the frozen treat this time of year. Cheapism assembled a panel of 14 very willing volunteers for a blind tasting to find out which national brand makes the most satisfying low-cost ice cream. Manufacturers report that vanilla reigns as the most popular flavor, so our tasters tried each brand’s version of that basic variety. Here’s how they ranked:
- Breyers Natural Vanilla has a palpable and pleasing vanilla flavor that’s not too sweet, according to our tasters. While no one could mistake its snow-white color or airy texture for that of a premium ice cream, its lightness and distinctive flecks appealed to some. (Where to buy)
- Edy's Rich & Creamy Grand Vanilla (still known as Dreyer’s on the West Coast) has a yellowish cast that led our panelists to expect it would be richer and creamier than it was. They judged it a typical, garden-variety vanilla ice cream with an extremely sweet flavor. (Where to buy)
- Turkey Hill Original Vanilla tasted rather bland to our panelists, who declared it run-of-the-mill and more milky than creamy. The brand’s Vanilla Bean Frozen Yogurt fared much worse, drawing criticism for apparently trying to compensate for its low fat content with loads of sugar. Tasters appreciated the creamy texture of the frozen yogurt but decried what they called a chemical aftertaste. (Where to buy)
All these ice creams generally cost between $3.50 and $4 for a 1.5-quart carton, depending on the market. Compare that with the super-premium segment, where the most that price will buy is a mere pint of Haagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry's. We included Ben & Jerry's Vanilla in our blind test to see how the cheaper brands would measure up and -- no surprise here -- it emerged a nearly unanimous favorite. More than anything else, what won over our tasters and set the brand apart was its rich texture, a trait explained in part by its generous fat content (Ben & Jerry’s Vanilla was the only ice cream in our tasting that included egg yolk).
Premium ice cream also has less aeration than cheaper brands, according to the International Dairy Foods Association. Aeration makes the ice cream lighter and softer, which may appeal to some, but it also adds volume -- a crucial consideration for value-conscious consumers. The ice cream in those expensive little pints is far fuller-bodied and less diluted with air (which may be a bad thing for those short on willpower). If you still can’t stomach the price of Ben & Jerry’s, there’s always the company’s famous Free Cone Day.
Ultimately the cheapest (though not the quickest) way to acquire high-quality ice cream is to churn it yourself. A homemade batch from an ice cream maker costs only as much as the cream, sugar, and flavoring you put into it. Then it’s just a matter of enjoying enough ice cream that the savings offset the cost of the machine.
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