...Ben & Jerry's Vanilla, the almost unanimous choice by a panel of 14 who participated in a blind tasting organized by Cheapism. But before anyone starts hollering that this is no cheap ice cream, the No. 2 pick was Breyer's Natural Vanilla, which probably deserves the title of best cheap ice cream. Indeed, it was the brand that kept the Vermont ice cream maker from earning a perfect score.
One warm afternoon we gathered together our panel of extremely willing volunteers with goal of identifying the best cheap ice cream. We included only national brands in the tasting and settled on vanilla because it's ubiquitous and, according to the International Dairy Foods Association (IFDA), the most popular ice cream flavor. The brands tested included Edy's Rich and Creamy Grand Vanilla (known as Dreyer's on the West Coast), Breyer's Natural Vanilla, and Turkey Hill Original Vanilla. Because frozen yogurt has been making a big splash lately, we also tested Turkey Hill Vanilla Bean Frozen Yogurt. We threw a ringer into the mix with Ben & Jerry's Vanilla, which commands a loyal following among ice cream fans.
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As many Americans will attest, sultry weather calls for a chilly treat, and that invariably means ice cream. Markets have been flooded recently with a wave of artisanal, small-batch ice cream, gelato, and sorbet that, not surprisingly, carry high-end artisanal price tags. Premium ice creams, such as Haagen Dazs and Ben & Jerry's, typically cost $5 to $7 a pint while supermarket brands cost less than half that - $4 to $6 for a 1.5-quart container where we shopped and cheaper still when it's on sale.
But some cheap ice cream brands have so much air in them that despite the cool price, you get stiffed on content. So to save you from major disappointment, we judged the supermarket brands on taste, appearance, and sensory experience with an eye to value for the money. (Frugalista tip: The absolute best cheap ice cream is homemade. A quart of vanilla is only as expensive as the milk, cream, and sugar that go into it. And if you eat lots of the stuff, the cost of a good cheap ice cream maker is recouped pretty quickly.
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A good vanilla flavor was the key factor in our testers' assessments. Both too little and too much proved to be a bad thing. Vanilla was the undoing of the two Turkey Hill selections: our panel deemed the ice cream "bland" and "close to tasteless" and declared the frozen yogurt marred by such a pronounced vanilla flavor that several testers described it as "chemical," "like alcohol," and artificial. A few panelists also used the "artificial" word for the vanilla flavor in Edy's. Breyer's, on the other hand, was said to have "more vanilla" with a distinct "vanilla bean" flavor while Ben & Jerry's had a "pronounced vanilla flavor" that was not "overly vanilla-y or sweet."Texture, consistency, mouth feel - these related attributes enhance the taste of ice cream. Here again, Ben & Jerry's scored. The texture was one of this brand's most appealing aspects; testers said it was "creamy" and had "more fat content" than the competition. Edy's was "not as smooth tasting as it looked" and several tasters commented that Breyer's was "fluffy" and "airy," qualities that some liked and others, not so much. Surprisingly, Turkey Hill Frozen Yogurt presented "great creaminess," whereas Turkey Hill Ice Cream was "very airy," "like it was whipped."
Visual appeal was yet another factor panelists considered. With the five ice creams lined up in a row, differences were stark: the color ranged from almost yellow to dead white. Breyer's Natural Vanilla is famous for its flecks of vanilla bean, and that was a strong draw; one person said it looked like chocolate chip, which bumped up the taste. The deep color of Edy's surprised one person who said it looked "custardy" but who was let down by the lack of flavor depth. The slightly yellowish color of Ben & Jerry's prompted one taster to say it looked "rich." Both Turkey Hill selections were very white, and no one mentioned whether this was a plus or a minus.
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Ben & Jerry's Vanilla. (starting at $5-7/pint in stores) This brand won hands down because it was "well-balanced" with "more body" and "no aftertaste." It tasted like vanilla without being overpowering and was "just sweet enough" without being cloying.
starting at $3.69 online, $4-7 in stores) Curiously, the number two pick garnered widely disparate comments. The modulated sweetness and vanilla flavor pulled in fans, although the vanilla flecks led testers to expect "more vanilla in it." Detractors said the flavor was so mild as to be bland.Breyer's Natural Vanilla. (
Edy's/Dreyer's Rich & Creamy Grand Vanilla. (starting at $3.48 online, $4-7 in stores)Testers thought this brand was "generic" and "standard." One said this is the ice cream parents would buy their kids and another said it reminded him of an elementary school cafeteria.
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starting at $3.79 online, $4-7 in stores) This is a middle-of-the-pack brand; it was just OK. The texture was off-putting to some who described the mouth feel as "more like milk than cream." In terms of flavor, one of our tasters suggested this brand would be much improved "if it had chocolate syrup all over it."Turkey Hill Original Vanilla Ice Cream. (
Turkey Hill Vanilla Bean Frozen Yogurt. (starting at $4-7 in stores) Panelists had mixed reactions to this brand. They liked the consistency, which they said was creamy, but the artificiality and "aftertaste" of the flavor was a real turn-off.
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