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Ice Cream Bars

Published June 2011

How we tested

Americans have been eating ice cream bars for some 90 years (lucky us). Today dozens of brands, styles, and flavors compete in a crowded marketplace. Among the array, the classic milk-chocolate-coated vanilla ice cream bars are the most popular. Wondering what separates the champs from the flops, we bought six brands—both with sticks and without—and we asked 21 tasters from America’s Test Kitchen to eat and evaluate them. 


And people call this work? tasters joked. How bad could even the worst of these possibly be? As it turns out, ice cream bars are not pure chocolate and ice cream: Most brands use stabilizers, dyes, and artificial flavors in the ice cream portion, and every brand uses coconut oil in the coating. (The oil reduces chocolate bloom—that gray, chalkiness that otherwise develops when the coating is frozen). Most brands even list the oil as the first coating ingredient, which means the coating contains more of it than any other ingredient. Because of that, many of the bars we tasted had weak or muddled chocolate flavor. By contrast, our two favorite bars list milk chocolate as the first ingredient in the coating, and our top choice supplements it with semisweet chocolate. 


Interestingly, while prominent chocolate flavor was important to our tasters, vanilla flavor wasn’t. Neutral or scant vanilla flavor was fine as long as it was clean. Only a single bar contained vanilla extract in its ice cream; all the rest listed natural or artificial flavors only. 


The first bite of an ice cream bar is telling. Shards of too-thin chocolate can splinter off, leaving plain ice cream on a stick and throwing off the ice cream–chocolate ratio of subsequent bites. Or the sides might collapse as you bite down, squeezing the ice cream out of the middle (and depositing it on your napkin—or your shirt). The best chocolate shells snap readily without splintering, just like a properly tempered chocolate bar. 


The texture of the ice cream also needs to be just right. Thicker, denser ice cream stands up to a thicker shell, both of which we preferred, whether the bar had a stick or did not. Light, fluffy ice cream seemed thin and wan to many tasters, and it melted too quickly. We didn’t mind the use of some stabilizers as long as the ice cream was dense and creamy.


So what makes a great ice cream bar? Good ice cream and even better chocolate. Our second favorite bar in this tasting uses premium ice cream made from cream, skim milk, sugar, egg yolks, and vanilla extract—just like you might make at home, and the very same ingredients found in its vanilla ice cream. (The brand, not incidentally, took second place in our vanilla ice cream tasting in June 2010.) When we tallied the results, we found that the other winning brands were no strangers to the top of previous America’s Test Kitchen rankings either. Our winner, is the same brand that won our milk chocolate tasting in March.  

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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.)*
Done in 281 ms! 61.385 KiB - 7.5% = 56.776 KiB