The Best Store-Bought Vanilla Ice Creams, Tested by Food Network Kitchen
Grab a spoon and dig in!
Despite the unique and never-ending choices of ice cream flavors out there, vanilla will always be a top favorite. And why not? It’s creamy, sweet and partners well with just about anything you can think of. Since there are only a few ingredients in vanilla ice cream, it can be hard to find the best one out there, unless you know what to look for. I tasted 15 different varieties to see which ones really desire that spot on top of your next slice of pie. Here are my findings, from the sublime to the subpar.
A Quick Note About Vanilla:
Vanilla can be tricky to identify when it’s the star of a dish because there are several nuances to the flavor. While none of these are right or wrong, they present very differently. Vanilla can have a mild, floral quality; a sweet, almost-caramelized flavor that's reminiscent of marshmallows or toasted sugar, or a heady, almost-boozy quality similar to butterscotch. I tasted all three flavor profiles while sampling the ice creams for this taste test and it really made me pause and fully appreciate the intricacies of vanilla overall.
Ultimately what became the most important deciding factor as I weeded through all these options was the overall balance between the vanilla, the sugar and the cream. Texturally, I was looking for a smooth ice cream and quickly passed on any that left a fatty residue behind on my tongue.
I fully admit to being a longtime lover of Haagen-Dazs ice cream. Although this ended up being a tighter race than anticipated, Haagen-Dazs Vanilla still came out on top. Haagen-Dazs has a short ingredient list, which includes egg yolks but no gums for stabilizing, and the combination yields a dense, creamy and smooth ice cream consistency with just the right amount of sweetness. The ice cream has a pretty off-white color with a strong vanilla flavor that leans nicely towards the boozy butterscotch aspect of vanilla. That being said, the flavor doesn’t linger too long, leaving you room to taste anything else you’re enjoying the ice cream with. It’s sweet enough to enjoy solo, but it can also be drizzled with caramel or hot fudge sauce and not make you feel like you’re overindulging on the sugar. It’s honestly a winner no matter how you choose to enjoy it.
Ice cream needs to have the right density to fit properly in an ice cream cone. If the ice cream is too hard, one lick will send it to the ground. If it’s too airy, it’ll melt so quickly it’ll end up down your arm instead of in your tummy. Alden’s Organic Vanilla Bean ice cream is the top choice here. It’s easy to scoop right out of the freezer, but still has a firmness to it that’s perfect for licking from a cone. The slightly off-white color is pretty and the ice cream is speckled with bits of ground vanilla bean. Since it’s not made with eggs, the overall vanilla flavor is clean and straightforward.
Pie and ice cream are a delightful combination, and while some people may opt for an alternate flavor (I see you strawberry and dulce de leche fans!) vanilla compliments everything. Breyers Natural Vanilla is the one you want in this situation. Breyers offers a few different vanilla varieties, but this version was the clear winner. With a short ingredient list and no eggs, the ice cream has a bright white color with a few vanilla bean specks throughout. Though it’s a little crumbly when you try to eat it directly out of the freezer, the ice cream warms up fast and turns soft and silky in a matter of seconds. It’s not overly rich or heavy and the flavor is more milky than creamy, which is a smart choice when you’re pairing it with a rich, buttery pie crust. Breyers Natural Vanilla is also super balanced and tasty. I do wish vanilla was listed in the ingredients, (instead of being categorized as "natural flavors") but since the flavor does indeed taste natural, I'll give that a pass.
If you want big-time vanilla flavor, you're going to want to get a pint of Turkey Hill All Natural Homemade Vanilla. Made from just 4 ingredients, this ice cream truly gives off a homemade vibe. It’s not overly silky from stabilizers, but it’s creamy and has a good balance of dairy, sugar and vanilla — aka the four ingredients used to make it. Turkey Hill also sources their milk from local cows that are within 75 miles of their Pennsylvania dairy farm, and with such few ingredients, decisions like that make a big impact on the final product. The ice cream is a pretty white color and it's fluffy enough to enjoy straight out of the freezer; it also stays fluffy as it starts to melt. The biggest surprise is just how much vanilla flavor there is. At first, the vanilla has a slightly boozy undertone but then it transitions to a toasty flavor that's similar to caramelized sugar. This one-two punch is simply delightful!
Sometimes you just want to grab a spoon and a pint of ice cream and have at it. But it better be good if you are going to chow down on a few servings at once. Thankfully, Graeter’s Madagascar Vanilla Bean fits the bill. Graeter’s might not be familiar to all — though pints are sold in grocery stores nationwide and are also available for shipping via their website. The family-owned, Ohio-based company dates back to 1870 and continues to make their hand-packed pints in French Pots and 2 1/2 gallon batches. The company’s fascinating history aside, it’s excellent ice cream. Their vanilla features both extract and ground vanilla beans, so in addition to being visually pleasing, the flavor is rich and complex. You get both the floral hit of vanilla as well as the toasty sugar flavor. It’s a touch sweeter than some of the other brands on this list, but not so much that it would give you a head or tummy ache. I found myself going back for just one more taste many times, which is the fastest way to plow through a whole container at once!
How We Tested:
This taste test utilized the most basic vanilla flavors offered by each brand that was available to me. I tasted each variety several times across several days to avoid taste bud confusion and fatigue. I also let scoops of ice cream stand at room temperature for a few minutes to get the full texture and flavor experience.