A blind vanilla ice cream taste-test may sound to you like a snooze fest. How different could 11 store-bought brands be? Well, very. Especially if one minute you’re downing a schmancy helping of Häagen Dazs and the next you’re caught off guard by an is-this-ice-cream? spoonful of—sorry, the memory makes it difficult to type—store-bought Friendly’s.
As it turns out, there’s more vanilla variation on the shelves than you’d think. So that’s the good news here, people—vanilla ice cream isn’t a racket (at least not yet) like toothpaste or detergent, where all the brands you mistook for competitors are secretly the same product and surreptitiously trace back to one or two multi-billion dollar corporations.
The brands we tested were: Stonyfield Organic, Whole Foods 365, Trader Joe’s, Breyer’s, Whole Foods Organic, Häagen Dazs, Turkey Hill, Adirondack Creamery, Edy’s, Ben & Jerry’s, and Friendly’s. All vanilla. It’s the bedrock ice cream, we reasoned—the fundamental variety, and fairest game for comparison. Vanilla speaks to a brand’s character, its priorities, and dare we say its integrity. What are you if your vanilla isn’t good?
But how, exactly, does one compare?
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Senior Editor John Turiano unearthed from deep within the bowels of the Internet a five-point sheet that outlined the “musts” of ice cream-tasting procedure. It was printed and haphazardly taped to the plastic thermostat casing that cruelly denies us access to the controls that could save us from the near hypothermic conditions under which we write, edit, etc. The sheet decreed that ice cream be left to sit out for five to 10 minutes before tasting, so it can soften and deliver more flavor. This could have been a logistical nightmare, but Turiano set up a commendable scoop/soften/taste system: An intern feverishly scooped behind the scenes, surely honing the opening lines of a complaint to the Department of Labor, while staffers carefully sniffed spoonfuls and then shoveled them into mouths—ice cream-side down onto the tongue (this was procedure per the direction sheet, of course).
Eleven flavors and 12 editors strong, we set off into the white, melting abyss. No one knew which brands they were tasting, and each brand was rated on visual appeal, aroma, vanilla flavor, and texture & consistency on a scale of one to five, five being the highest, so a 20 would be a perfect score.
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9th Place: Friendly’s (6 Points)
Editors slammed Friendly’s’ vanilla with remarks like “nope,” “meh,” “terrible, ”and “very chemical.” Worst entrant, hands down.
8th Place: Adirondack Creamery (6.9 Points)
This is a lesser-known brand, so we thought we’d give it a shot. We took a bullet for you, readers, on this one. Associate Art Director Jess Brown’s cryptic message says it all: “Artificial flavor; burning tongue.”
7th Place Tie: Whole Foods Organic, Whole Foods 365, Edy’s (10)
These tied for a mediocre 7th place. They all received comments that eluded to “average” or “boring.” Too vanilla.
6th Place: Turkey Hill (10.5 Points)
Turkey Hill was decidedly mid-pack, and the comments reflect it. Digital Editor Nicholas Gallinelli called it “milky” and Articles Editor Marisa LaScala called it “average in every way,” saying it “didn’t taste like much.”
5th Place: Stonyfield Organic (10.9 Points)
Here’s a big whoops: John Turiano bought Stonyfield in a fit of confusion, thinking it was ice cream. Everyone tasted it and rated it as if it were ice cream. Not until afterwards when someone was sifting through the freezer did we realize that this was actually frozen yogurt. So a fifth place showing for frozen yogurt in an ice cream contest is actually a ringing endorsement, when you think about it.
4th Place: Häagen Dazs (11.1 Points)
Häagen Dazs received plenty of high scores in the “vanilla flavor” column, and some even identified it from the distinct vanilla punch. Marisa LaScala said it “tasted like vanilla extract,” which is true, but not necessarily in a bad way, if you like vanilla.
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3rd Place: Ben & Jerry’s (12.2 Points)
To start, the answer is yes, contrary to popular belief, Ben & Jerry’s makes a plain vanilla flavor. (Not that you should give up your evening scoop of Half Baked…) Like Häagen Dazs, but not quite as strong, there was a distinct vanilla taste here, with an after taste to boot, but most staffers enjoyed it. Editorial Director Robert Schork said it had “great vanilla flavor,” and I gave it high aroma points for simply having an aroma (turns out vanilla ice cream is not just low on taste, it smells bland too). Multimedia Producer Adam Nunez wrote that he was “pretty sure his mom would love this one,” which we’ll take as an endorsement, and Graphic Designer Jean Edmonds slapped it with a simple but fitting “good.”
2nd Place: Breyer’s (12.5 Points)
Have to hand it to you, Breyer’s. You were sweet and smooth, and you completely snuck up on us. Comments remarking on its sweetness dot the evaluation sheets. Michelle Tomassi, an intern who narrowly escaped scooping duty, loved the “creamy sweetness,” and John Turiano called it “above average.” Of note: Two staffers gave Breyer’s a rare “5” for texture and consistency, and everyone else except one one gave it a “4” in the same category.
1st Place: Trader Joe’s (13.9 Points)
Adam Nunez called this entrant “everything [he] ever dreamed of.” This vanilla was potent without a hint of artificiality, creamy and smooth without succumbing to milkiness (“thinner but in a good way,” according to Gallinelli), and sweet but not syrupy. Robert Schork raved about the “great vanilla flavor,” while Production Director Kathee Casey-Pennucci assigned it one of two “I like this one” comments. You wouldn’t even know it was store bought.