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Chocolate Ice Cream

Published August 2017

How we tested

There’s little more satisfying than a scoop (or two) of chocolate ice cream—but which one should you buy? Since our former winner from Ben & Jerry’s is no longer being sold in supermarkets, and because in 2016 Nestlé reformulated two of the ice creams included in that tasting—Edy’s Chocolate Ice Cream and Edy’s Slow Churned Chocolate, we decided it was time to retest. To find the best chocolate ice cream, we gathered seven nationally available products and asked 21 tasters to sample them plain and in mini ice cream cones.

As we were tabulating our results, it became clear that texture was as important as flavor to our tasting panel, so we reached out to industry experts to better understand what influences an ice cream’s texture. The first factor we looked at was air, which is churned into ice cream to increase volume (the churning itself helps reduce ice crystals—and the manufacturer’s bottom line).

The amount of air added is called “overrun,” and it’s expressed as a percentage: 100 percent overrun means there are equal volumes of liquid/solid ingredients and air (or, to put it another way, that the original ingredients are “inflated” with air to double their original volume). Federal regulations don’t address overrun percentages for products to be labeled ice creams, but they do stipulate that 1 gallon of ice cream must weigh 4½ pounds. With everything else being equal, high overrun translates into light, airy, mass market–style ice cream, and low overrun makes dense, premium-style ice cream. But clearly everything else is not equal, as our winner had the second-highest overrun in our lineup, at 103 percent, yet was perceived as “creamy” and “silky” in texture. What’s going on inside ice cream factories?

It turns out that manufacturers employ certain methods to offset the fluffy, light texture that is naturally the result of high overrun. Our winning ice cream, for example, uses corn syrup (instead of sugar) as its primary sweetener. Corn syrup, our experts explained, is thicker and less sweet than sugar; its viscosity contributes a smooth, creamy texture and great body, all without making the ice cream taste too sweet. Our winner wasn’t as dense as low-overrun premium ice cream, but it had a great “velvety” texture that wasn’t overly airy. Another high-overrun ice cream uses buttermilk, tapioca starch, and pectin to help mask the airiness of its whopping 112-percent overrun. Dr. H. Douglas Goff, a professor in the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph in Ontario, explained, “These ingredients would all add viscosity and body to the ice cream, also referred to as ‘mouthfeel’ or ‘chew resistance.’ They would all make it seem less airy or fluffy or marshmallow-y.” This ice cream was also the only “slow-churned” product in our lineup, and it had by far the fewest calories and least fat. Our ice cream experts confirmed that “slow-churned” is an industry euphemism for “light” ice cream— so it makes sense that such a product would have a high proportion of air (and thus fewer calories by volume).

Chocolate flavor was important, too. Even though all the ice creams we tasted used cocoa powder as their sole source of chocolate flavor, our lineup ran the gamut from mellow milk-chocolate taste to intense bittersweet-chocolate taste. What accounted for the differences? Cocoa is naturally acidic, so it is often alkalized, or “Dutched,” to neutralize astringent notes and round out the chocolate flavor. Dr. Goff explained that the degree to which a cocoa powder has been Dutched would strongly affect the intensity of the ice cream’s chocolate flavor. Manufacturers wouldn’t disclose details about their cocoa powders, including the degrees of alkalization, but we found that we liked products with a range of chocolate intensities—from mild to dark and rich—as long as they were balanced and not too bitter.

While tasters enjoyed most of the ice creams in our lineup, our winning ice cream, Turkey Hill Premium Dutch Chocolate Ice Cream, had a broadly appealing milk-chocolate flavor and smooth-as-silk texture, which tasters described as “really creamy” and “velvety.” It was also the least expensive product in our lineup ($2.99 for 1.5 quarts), making it even more enticing.

Methodology

Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staffers sampled seven nationally available chocolate ice creams, tasting each one plain and in a mini ice cream cone. We averaged the scores and listed the products in order of preference. We purchased six of the ice creams in Boston-area supermarkets, and we ordered Blue Bell Dutch Chocolate Ice Cream online. Overrun percentages were calculated by an independent labatory. Ingredient lists were taken from product labels as were volume measurements (some of which we had to convert from quarts to fluid ounces). All nutritional information was taken from product labels and is per 1/2-cup serving size. We calculated cost per fluid ounce.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*