Published May 1, 2010. From Cook's Illustrated.
Twenty-one Cook’s Illustrated staff members sampled eight national and regional brands of vanilla ice cream plain in a blind tasting, rating each on vanilla flavor, texture, and overall appeal.
You think vanilla is plain? Take a good look at the freezer section of your supermarket—the sheer number of choices in vanilla ice cream could make your head spin. With nearly 40 brands on the market nationwide and each one offering a slew of different styles (vanilla bean, natural vanilla, French vanilla, homemade vanilla, extra-creamy vanilla, to name but a few), who knows which to pick?
For help winnowing down the options, we asked manufacturers of the eight top-selling brands which of their many styles of vanilla ice cream was the most popular and put these selections before our tasting panel.
A quick scan of the samples showed they looked nothing alike: Some were practically yellow, others were pure white, a few looked grayish, and many were flecked with tiny black bits of vanilla bean. After digging in, we found their textures were just as varied, ranging from thin and milky to creamy and rich. Despite being frozen at the same temperature and served under identical conditions, some had the softness of Marshmallow Fluff, while others were as hard and dense as snowballs. When it came down to the final results, however, texture and consistency took a back seat. What mattered most to our tasters boiled down to one thing: vanilla taste.
Like everything else, vanilla flavoring was all over the map in these ice creams, ranging from barely detectable in some to overpowering in others. We looked on the back of the cartons and noticed that each brand seemed to list vanilla in a different way, from the wordy and virtuous “fair-traded certified vanilla extract” to “natural vanilla flavor” to simply “vanilla.” Dairy expert Scott Rankin, a professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explained that the different wordings on the labels amount to an industry shorthand for specific kinds of natural or artificial flavorings. As he helped us break the code, we looked at our favorite (and not-so-favorite) ice creams according to the type of vanilla.
First, a little background: The flavor in vanilla beans is predominantly due to the presence of a compound known as vanillin. Vanillin is produced three ways: from vanilla beans, from wood, and from resins. The first two types are considered natural, while the vanillin from resins is synthetic. Not surprisingly, our top three top-ranked brands all contained the real deal—“vanilla extract”—natural vanillin extracted from vanilla beans, just like the real vanilla extract in your pantry. Less favored brands were made with vanillin extracted from wood (“natural vanilla flavor”), which is chemically identical to the synthetic vanillin found in artificial vanilla extract. Simple “vanilla” turned out to be code for a combination of synthetic and natural vanillin, while “natural flavors” (with no mention of vanilla at all) indicates just a trace of natural vanillan (there’s no required level) and other flavorings such as nutmeg that merely trigger an association. Our tasters strongly preferred brands containing real vanilla extract.
Half our lineup (including our winner) listed vanilla beans or seeds in their ingredient lists, but our tasters found no correlation between vanilla flecks and good vanilla flavor. Skip Rosskam, an expert in vanilla and ice cream and president of flavor manufacturer David Michael & Co. in Philadelphia, Pa., confirmed our suspicion that the use of ground beans is all for show: It does little to boost vanilla taste, since such beans are leftovers from the extraction process and have already had their vanillin removed.
As ice cream travels from factory to store to your freezer, thawing and refreezing can wreak havoc on texture. Melting separates fat from liquid, while refreezing creates ice crystals that destroy creaminess. Enter stabilizers such as carob gum, guar gum, tara gum, and carrageenan. Since the 1950s, when ice cream switched from being a treat enjoyed primarily at the soda fountain to a commodity served at home, manufacturers have used these additives to keep ice cream viscous and creamy as it is inevitably subjected to thawing and refreezing. Our tasters found an excess of such additives can turn an ice cream gummy and pasty—more akin to “Play-Doh” than dessert. They can also make ice cream overly resilient. One brand in our lineup was so chockablock with stabilizers, it barely melted even after sitting out for 20 minutes. But here’s the surprising news about stabilizers: a small amount isn’t a bad thing: Our winning brand contains both guar gum and carrageenan and trumped the three brands in the lineup without these additives.
While stabilizers might be fine in ice cream, other additives were not. Another texture trick manufacturers have used for decades is to incorporate mono and diglycerides into ice cream, emulsifiers that keep the milk fat from separating and lead to a creamier, smoother product. These cheap, extremely shelf-stable chemicals mimic the role once played exclusively by egg yolks in ice cream. But our tasters found these additives couldn’t mimic egg yolks’ complex, fatty flavor. Our three top-ranked ice creams not only boast egg yolks as a main ingredient, but also have the highest fat content of the brands in the lineup.
Though it’s not listed on the label, another important component of modern-day ice cream is air. Manufacturers aerate their ice creams to produce a lighter texture—but also, more important from a cost perspective, to increase the overall volume. “Overrun” refers to the percentage increase in volume from aeration, which by law can go as high as 100 percent. Our top two brands have the lowest overrun of the lineup, while the brand with the highest (a whopping 97 percent) came in dead last. But if the markedly more airy texture of a high overrun product doesn’t put you off, paying for all that air should: When we weighed an equal volume of the ice cream with the lowest and the highest overrun, respectively, the super-pumped-up brand weighed a full pound less.
How did our brands rank in sweetness? Per half-cup serving, they contain anywhere from 11 to 21 grams of sugar. But what mattered to our tasters wasn’t the amount of sugar—it was the type. Brands that use corn syrup sank to the bottom of the list, deemed by our tasters “unnaturally sweet” regardless of their sugar levels. Our preferred brands use the ordinary sugar found in old-fashioned homemade ice cream. Our winner contains liquid sugar, which is granulated white sugar dissolved in water.
Ice cream containing much beyond the old-fashioned starting points of cream, milk, sugar, eggs, and vanilla extract fell to the bottom of the pack. We preferred ice creams with real vanilla extract that isn’t hidden behind artificial or other natural flavors, and creamy texture achieved without a raft of high-tech emulsifiers and stabilizers. Our favorite vanilla ice cream was buttery-tasting and rich, full of “indulgent” vanilla flavor, sweetened with real sugar, and enriched with egg yolks. While it does contain two gums, it wasn’t overloaded, so the texture was as ultra-creamy and silky as that of its closest competitor, the only ice cream in the pack without such additives. In the end, our winner’s complex yet balanced vanilla flavor was what gave it an edge over the runner-up, which, despite its dense creaminess and unadulterated flavor, featured a “raw” vanilla taste that some found too strong. In our book, if an ice cream is going to call itself vanilla, that flavoring better be perfect.