Monday, September 17, 2007

Ice Cream Tasting: Vanilla

Saturday Mark and I had some friends over. Mark administered a blind taste test to the rest of us (seven of us), and we tried nine different vanilla ice creams. Nine different flavors that we might perhaps try at some point or another, or feed to our children, or hoard for ourselves. So, which flavors would we hide, which would we throw away, and which would we share? Well, that took a lot of taste buds to figure out. Let me start by saying what we tasted.

We tasted the nine flavors in this order (though we didn't know it at the time): Tillamook French Vanilla, Breyers All Natural, Dreyer's (Edy's) Slow-Churned Half-the-Fat Vanilla, Ben & Jerry's Fair Trade Vanilla, Dreyer's Grand Vanilla Bean, Mountain Dairy (this was the cheapest option), Green & Black Organic Vanilla, Haagen Dazs Vanilla, and Julie's Organic Vanilla. I think the order probably makes a little differences here and there, but we tried to be objective.

The funny thing about tasting lots of vanilla ice cream is that you don't just grab a bit of one and go, "Wow! That's yummy! I love ice cream!" It kind of makes you cynical. You taste the subtle differences between each, and you're generally only pulling out the things that are wrong with each variety. The crazy thing about that is that I would never grab a bowl of ice cream and say, "Wow! That's awful. Inedible. Yuck." In the taste test, though, there were a couple of ice creams scoops I didn't finish, and not because I was getting full. Still, it's important information. Let's say I want to relax, sit back, watch an old Cary Grant movie, and have a small dish of ice cream after the kids have gone to bed, as I might do this evening. I should know what kind of ice cream will make me the happiest, so I don't waste calories on something that's going to make me think, "Hmmm...that was okay." Why should I have to run an extra two miles for that? Of course, the Cary Grant movie is calorie-free and always good, as is relaxing after kids have gone to bed, so it's not an all-bad deal.

I'm rambling, and I should get back to the test. It was a blast, and I highly recommend you hold your own with a bunch of friends. You'll be surprised what they like, and you may be surprised what you like. I'll list the consensus results in order of preference, with my ranking in parentheses. I'll also include some of our panelists' comments.

First place: Ben and Jerry's Fair Trade Vanilla
There was one thing that made this ice cream different from all the others I tasted: the sugar. The ingredients list "liquid sugar", which I would guess from the tasting is liquid cane sugar, as it has a touch of the depth you find in brown sugar, though it is neither too sweet nor overpowered with molasses tones. Ben and Jerry's also tasted a bit roasty, like the vanilla beans were maybe toasted, but this could be an effect of the sugar. It had an edge over the rest of the ice creams I tasted because it definitely possessed a greater depth of flavor and didn't have an alcohol-like extract aftertaste. It was dense and delicious. Other commenters said it had a good vanilla flavor, was creamy, and full-flavored. (1)

Second place: Julie's Organic Vanilla
When I bought this ice cream and tasted it, nothing in particular struck me, so I was surprised it did so well in the tasting. I think that was one of its winning qualities: there was nothing bizarre or unpleasant about it; it's just a good vanilla and was the winner for three of the tasters. But while some enjoyed its very unassuming qualities, calling it "good all around", others thought it was "artificial", "blah", and had a "plain taste". (5)

Third place: Dreyer's Grand Vanilla Bean
This was a popular choice because it had "good vanilla" and "natural" flavors. I think it made it to this place in the polls because, like the Julie's Organic, it has an all-around pleasant taste with little to complain about. On the down side, some did think it was too sweet and icy (compared to the previous ice cream, Ben and Jerry's), and one of our friends said he'd "save it for favorite company". (4)

Fourth place (tie): Häagen-Dazs Vanilla
The Häagen-Dazs ice cream had the strongest custard flavor, which is probably why it was also the smoothest, creamiest, and highest in fat. It does, however, have a bit of an "extract" aftertaste, though not nearly as strong as some of the other brands. While I like the cleaner flavors of an ice cream with fewer egg yolks, the perfect creaminess of Häagen-Dazs is hard to resist, and is my second choice because it is perfect for topping peach pie, blueberry cobbler, or any other dessert. Other commenters said it was nice looking, melts well in your mouth, was not the best, and was eggy. (2)

Fourth place (tie): Tillamook French Vanilla
Tillamook's line of ice creams all seem to be good - at least we think so. I especially recommend the mint chocolate chip, with large chunks of dark chocolate. But we're talking about their French Vanilla, which is also nice. Though very sweet, it had a smooth texture and a nice vanilla taste. One taster said it reminded him of French toast. (6)

Sixth place: Green and Black's Organic Vanilla
Green and Black's is known for their organic chocolate bars (so we'll have to taste their chocolate ice cream sometime), but released their ice cream line in the U.S. earlier this year (it has been available in the U.K. for a few years). Their vanilla ice cream is smooth and dense, and the vanilla flavor and sweetness levels are very good. Some, however, found it a bit icy, but the biggest drawback is their chunks of vanilla beans. I don't mean little tiny seeds, I mean 1/2-inch lengths of bean. Have you tried vanilla beans? They're not very tasty straight up. Like eating wood, really. Very unappealing, though the ice cream would be very good if you could find a carton with no (or fewer) bean pieces. Unless you like that kind of thing. (3)

Seventh place: Mountain Dairy
For one of the options, we had our friends pick up the cheapest option available at the store. This is often not the store brand, since they don't want to attach their name to it. It tasted, in my opinion, like a cross between fluffy grocery store frosting and Cool Whip, and left a funny coating in my mouth. It was quite sweet. And some people really enjoyed all those aspects. It does kind of remind me of cheap ice cream I had as a kid at parties or something, so there's the whole nostalgia thing that might explain some of it. I don't know. (9)

Eighth place: Dreyer's Slow-Churned Vanilla Bean
This ice cream tasted more milky than creamy, and was completely unappealing to most everyone because of the weak flavors and the aftertaste of extract and cardboard carton. (8)

Ninth place: Breyers Natural Vanilla
As much as the previous flavor tasted like extract and cardboard, this one was even worse. A couple of funny things about this ice cream. First, years ago, this used to be my vanilla of choice. For some reason I really liked it, though I show it no preference today. And one couple on our panel who regularly buys this ice cream ranked it as their sixth and seventh favorite amongst the brands. Even though they both objectively rated it rather poorly, they took home the leftovers and indicated they would probably continue to buy it. (7)

It just goes to show that we tend to be quite critical in a taste test situation, but when we just open a carton and eat the ice cream, it's all good. Well, except the Mountain Dairy (although the kids didn't mind that one at all). One last thing, if you're going to do an ice cream tasting, make sure you eat a good meal (more on this soon) beforehand, so you don't get sick.


Heidi said...

I haven't tried the Ben and Jerry's vanilla. I am going to now. Usually, we eat vanilla ice cream as more of a topping than just to eat. Do you know what I mean?

It sounds like you had a great time tasting. What a great party idea!

Seth and Sarah said...

I think the reason you might not have had the same experience with Breyers Natural Vanilla as you remember having is that they changed their recipe about a year ago. While still "natural" Tara Gum is the culprit for the change in texture/flavor. It was added to increase stability during transport after Unilever acquired the Breyer's brand It's much sweeter now as well. There's no longer the lightness that it used to have, which seems to have given way to sliminess.
All that said, it's still generally the brand that we buy. We find it for a good price (our rule is that we buy it for $3.00, available at Target, Wal-mart, and often the local grocery stores at this price) and it's generally a decent enough product that we haven't found anything that we like better in our price range.