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Big-Name Vanilla Ice Creams Fail to Sweep Tasting

Our panel favors "fresh," "clean" taste over "overwhelmingly vanilla" flavors.

Vanilla ice cream may be plain, but in the ice cream world, it remains the force to be reckoned with, hoarding 29 percent of the industry's
$20 billion annual sales. Its closest rival, chocolate, lays claim to a paltry 8.9 percent. But when it comes to buying vanilla, there are two sides to the bean: Philadelphia-style, made from a milk or cream base,
and French-style (often sold under the name "custard-style" or "French vanilla" and sometimes just "vanilla"), made from a precooked custard base that includes egg yolks in the mix. This tasting focused exclusively on the more decadent French-style vanilla ice creams, the style preferred in a Cook's taste test conducted for the July/August 1994 issue.

We first tackled the question of what defines an ice cream as "all natural" and whether this would have any impact on the results of the tasting. The surprising answer is that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no regulations concerning "all natural" labeling of ice cream. Given the lack of guidance by the FDA, we
decided to investigate two areas-the use of stabilizers and the type of flavoring-to see if they would affect our results.


Adding Stability, Trapping Flavor

Many ice cream manufacturers add stabilizers-most often carrageenan gum or guar gum-to prevent "heat shock," an industry term for the degradation in texture caused by partial melting and refreezing. This happens when ice cream is subjected to extreme temperature changes during transit to the supermarket or when an ice cream case goes through its self-defrosting cycle. Gum additives stabilize ice cream by trapping water in the frozen mass and slowing down the growth of ice crystals during melting and refreezing.

We thought that the presence of stabilizers might affect our test results. To our surprise, this was not the case. Our top two brands, Edy's Dreamery and Double Rainbow, use stabilizers. Next we tackled the issue of vanilla flavoring.

Three types of vanilla are used to make vanilla ice cream: vanilla bean specks made from ground vanilla pods, natural vanilla extract, and artificial vanilla flavor. Using vanilla specks in ice cream is a popular technique manufacturers often use to convey to consumers the idea of naturalness or a home-style approach. However, while vanilla beans, which come from the inside of the vanilla pod, carry plenty of flavor, the little black flecks that come from grinding up vanilla pods contribute more to the ice cream's appearance than its flavor. So the presence of flecks of "vanilla" in a commercial ice cream is no indication of quality or taste. Vanilla extract and artificial vanilla flavor are what determine the flavor. (In fact, the top two brands in our tasting do not use ground vanilla pods.) Natural vanilla extract is made by steeping chopped vanilla beans in an alcohol and water solution. According to FDA guidelines, only ice creams made with natural vanilla extract or naturally derived vanilla flavor can be labeled "vanilla ice cream." The label "vanilla-flavored ice cream" indicates that the ice cream in question was made with a combination of natural vanilla extract or flavor and artificial vanilla flavor. Artificial vanilla flavor is made from vanillin, a product extracted from conifer wood pulp that has been chemically rinsed. Blue Bell was the only brand in the tasting that contained artificial vanilla flavor, and it rated smack-dab in the middle, thus negating any link between natural flavoring agents and superior flavor. While tasters described Blue Bell ice cream as "cloyingly sweet" and "fleeting on the tongue," its use of artificial vanilla did not automatically relegate it to the bottom of the heap.


In fact, tasters took greater issue with several "naturally flavored" brands-including Häagen-Dazs, Ben & Jerry's, and Edy's Grand-for tasting "artificial" and "boozy." To help explain this odd result we contacted Bruce Tharp, an independent ice cream consultant based in Wayne, Pa. He explained that perceived artificial and alcohol flavors are often caused by the quantity of vanilla extract added to the ice cream. That is, the more extract, the more likely one is to taste the alcohol. Although it's impossible to confirm this theory (manufacturers won't release their recipes to the public), it was clear that the absence of stabilizers and use of natural flavorings were not reliable indicators of a great-tasting ice cream.

Butterfat and Overrun

Next up was the issue of butterfat. A natural byproduct of milk, butterfat, sometimes also called milk fat, is a coveted addition to an ice cream's list of ingredients, contributing to smooth texture, rich flavor, and structure. By law, an ice cream can't be called an ice cream unless its prefrozen mix contains a minimum of 10 percent butterfat. Of the ice creams we tasted, butterfat content ranged from 10 to 16 percent and, ingeneral, the higher the butterfat content, the higher the ice cream rated. Our two top-rated ice creams had butterfat contents of 14.5 percent (Edy's Dreamery) and 15 percent (Double Rainbow). The two lowest rated brands had butterfat contents between 10 and 13 percent.

All commercial ice cream makers also add air to the mix. Oddly enough, this helps to provide structure, as the air cells are distributed evenly throughout the frozen mass. The air that is thus incorporated into ice cream is called overrun-without it, the ice cream would look more like an ice cube. But if used to excess, added air can compromise the ice cream's texture, making it pillowy and light. In addition, an ice cream with a high overrun will melt faster than one with a low overrun (see photos on page 25). This is because there is less frozen mass to melt, and when there is less frozen mass, warm air can penetrate the ice cream more quickly.

Realizing that ice cream with more air has more volume and can be sold in a larger package for more money, the FDA has set a minimum weight of 41Ú2 pounds to the gallon for churned ice cream. This indirectly sets a limit on the amount of air that can be incorporated, since an ice cream that incorporates too much air during the churning process will weigh less than 41Ú2 pounds. Essentially, what all this means is that an ice cream's volume cannot be increased by more than 100 percent through the addition of air. To find out the estimated overrun in the ice creams we sampled, we used a simple calculation (see note in "Tasting Vanilla Ice Cream" on page 27) that takes into consideration the weight of the ice cream and the weight of the liquid ice cream mix before it is frozen. While the top two ice creams had low overruns of 21 and 26 percent, our third favorite had a whopping 93.5 percent overrun. Furthermore, the two last-place ice creams had very different overruns-26 percent and 100 percent (we tested many samples of Edy's Grand and the overrun always came in at 100 percent). Our conclusion? In general, low overrun is preferable, although butterfat content is a better measure of quality. (We also noted that some tasters like high-overrun ice creams-it is, to some degree, a matter of personal preference.)

The last component we researched was emulsifiers, such as mono- and diglycerides, used to control the behavior of fat in ice cream by preventing it from separating out from the ice cream mass. These emulsifiers give an ice cream rigidity and strength, so even if it doesn't have much butterfat or added gums, the ice cream will maintain its round, scooped shape for a prolonged period of time. The only ice cream in our tasting with emulsifiers was also the least favored sample: Edy's Grand. So, according to our taste test, it seems that emulsifiers are not desirable.

What to Buy?

The winner of our tasting, Edy's Dreamery, was described as "rich and velvety," with a "fresh" and "clean" finish. It uses natural flavors as well as stabilizers, has a butterfat content of 14.5 percent, and an estimated overrun of 21 percent. Tasters remarked that its texture was particularly smooth and that it was lighter and softer than other samples. Tasters also responded well to the "clean," "fresh" flavor of our second-place finisher, Double Rainbow. The statistics on this brand are almost identical to those on our winner-natural flavors, stabilizers, 15 percent butterfat, and 26 percent estimated overrun.
Tasters on our 1994 panel crowned Breyer's a winner among supermarket brands sold in half-gallons, so we were not surprised that it placed third in this tasting. Our panelists particularly liked the home-style, "eggy" taste of this product. It even outranked Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's! (Not bad for an ice cream that's almost 50 percent air-it has a 93.5 percent estimated overrun.)
The real news here is the fourth-place showing of Häagen-Dazs and the seventh-place showing of Ben & Jerry's, out of eight brands sampled. Both of these well-known brands advertise their quality ingredients, have low overruns, and have moderate to high butterfat contents. (Häagen-Dazs is a particularly perplexing case, with a high-end 16 percent butterfat content, natural flavors, a low overrun of 20 percent, and no stabilizers. Judging from the printing on the package, it looks like a winner.) Tasters found the flavor of the Häagen-Dazs and the Ben & Jerry's to be "artificial" and "chemical," with "alcohol" undertones. Is this a function of too much vanilla? Perhaps, but since this information is confidential, we can only hazard a guess. What we were able to learn after gorging on so much ice cream is that, at least for our tasters, balance is more important than bravado. Clean vanilla flavor and a high butterfat content made more of a difference to us than the presence of stabilizers.

Tasting Vanilla Ice Cream

To gather the contestants for our French-style vanilla ice cream tasting, we consulted recent supermarket sales data and included the most widely available top-selling national brands as well as a few brands available through natural food stores. The ice cream had to include egg yolks in its list of ingredients to qualify for the tasting. Twenty Cook's staff members tasted the ice creams plain, rating them for overall flavor, texture, and density. Note: The overrun amounts listed in this chart were estimated by dividing the weight of each brand of ice cream by the weight of the liquid ice cream mix before churning and freezing. According to Bruce Tharp, an independent ice cream consultant, all commercial ice cream mixes weigh approximately 9 pounds per gallon. The weight of the finished product per gallon will vary depending on the amount of air introduced during the churning process. The FDA specifies that 1 gallon of ice cream must weigh at least 4 1Ú2 pounds, effectively limiting the amount of "overrun" (air) to no more than 100 percent.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

EDY'S DREAMERY Vanilla Ice Cream
One pint, $3.19

  • Natural flavors with stabilizers
  • Estimated overrun: 21%; Butterfat: 14.5%
  • Our only highly recommended ice cream was described as "rich and velvety," with a "fresh" and "clean" finish. Its texture was called "creamy" and "smooth," decidedly "lighter" and "softer" in body than the other samples.

    RECOMMENDED

    DOUBLE RAINBOW French Vanilla Ice Cream
    One quart, $2.99

  • Natural flavors with stabilizers
  • Estimated overrun: 26%; Butterfat: 15%

    Tasters defined this ice cream as "balanced" and "perfect." Like theDreamery brand, Double Rainbow was described as "fresh" and "clean" flavored, although some felt it was just a little too sweet. Its texture was deemed "creamy" and "smooth."

    BREYER'S All Natural French Vanilla Ice Cream
    Half-gallon, $3.99

  • Natural flavors, no stabilizers
  • Estimated overrun: 93.5%; Butterfat: 12 to 14%

    Breyer's was liked for its "eggy" and "milky" qualities, which some called "caramel-like." Others found it "too sweet." Its slightly grainy texture "suggests homemade," said one taster, while another said this gave it the appearance of having "separated."

    BLUE BELL Homemade Vanilla Flavored Ice Cream *tied with HÄAGEN-DAZS*
    Half-gallon, $5.29

  • Natural and artificial flavors with stabilizers
  • Estimated overrun: 47.5%; Butterfat: 12%

    While some tasters loved Blue Bell's eggy, toffee-like flavor, others found it "cloyingly sweet" and "too eggy." Its texture was described as light and smooth, although a bit "chewy;" other tasters thought it was "too light" and "watery."

    HÄÄAGEN-DAZS Vanilla Ice Cream *tied with BLUE BELL*
    One pint, $3.29

  • Natural flavors, no stabilizers
  • Estimated overrun: 20%; Butterfat: 16%

    "Eggy" and "artificial" was how Häagen-Dazs was characterized. One taster said it "reeked of extract," while others called it reminiscent of "alcohol." The texture was "fantastic"-dense, creamy, and smooth.

    365 EVERY DAY VALUE French Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
    Half-gallon, $4.49

  • Natural flavors with stabilizers
  • Estimated overrun: 93.5%; Butterfat: 14%

    "Very average and middle-of-the-road," is how one taster summed up the Whole Foods grocery store home label, while others called it "eggy," "milky," and "just too sweet." Its texture was perceived as somewhat "gluey" and "sticky."

    RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS

    BEN & JERRY'S World's Best Vanilla Ice Cream
    One pint, $3.29

  • Natural flavors with stabilizers
  • Estimated overrun: 26%; Butterfat: 13%

    Tasters agreed that Ben & Jerry's ice cream had an unmistakably "artificial" quality that was "stale" with a "bad aftertaste" that reminded some of "rubbing alcohol" and others of "cooked milk." Its texture, however, was creamy and smooth.

    EDY'S GRAND French Vanilla Ice Cream
    Half-gallon, $3.99

  • Natural flavors with stabilizers and emulsifiers
  • Estimated overrun: 100% (we tested five half- gallons of Edy's Grand and found each to have an overrun of 100%); Butterfat: 10 to 12%

    Edy's Grand was a far cry from its Dreamery brand; some tasters were taken aback by its "shocking fake taste." Many also marked the sample down for "artificial" flavors that were just too "strong" and "boozy."
    While the texture was "creamy," some complained that it was also "greasy."

    (Reprinted with permission from Cook's Illustrated, September/October
    2001. For a trial issue of Cook's Illustrated, in the U.S. call
    800-526-8442. Recipes, cookware ratings, a bookstore and more are available at www.cooksillustrated.com.)

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