Poor vanilla. Somewhere along the way, this incredibly exotic, wildly expensive, difficult-to-cultivate plant became America’s analogy for boring. Which is strange, because historically vanilla has been revered as exceedingly rare and highly covetable. Did you know that vanilla blossoms can only be pollinated for a few hours a season? (In most places, they’re now hand-pollinated.) And that real, true vanilla—not the derivative called vanillin—costs $115 a pound? (It’s the second most expensive spice in the world, behind saffron.) The stuff is unusual and beautiful and delicate—the inverse of boring.
In the spirit of the most un-basic flavor and ice cream season, we selected a smattering of vanilla ice creams—15 to be exact—ranging from fancy to store-brand, single-origin to generic. Then we lined them up next to one another, covered up their labels, and tasted our way through (in individually randomized order, to keep palate fatigue at bay.
We based our blind tasting on three major criteria on a scale of 1 to 7: flavor (natural or faux, intense or weak); texture (creamy or icy, rich or thin); and melt (clean or gummy, silky or sticky). And while we saw some general trends from the scores, we also quickly realized just how personal our vanilla preferences are. One person’s beloved vanilla is another’s last favorite. And, in some cases, ardent fans were surprised to learn how their supposed picks ranked against the competition when tasting blind.
The widest range in ratings was in the flavor category; people know what they like and don’t like on the spectrum of vanilla. Conversely, texture and melt ratings were much more consistent. In tasting through the very beige rainbow of vanilla, we discovered a lot about ourselves (e.g. one should not be ashamed to love Häagen-Dazs) and even more about vanilla (intensity is good, too much sugar is not). Find the full ranking below.
- Van Leeuwen Vanilla Bean: By a small margin, Van Leeuwen came in first. Most people were surprised by an unexpected hint of marshmallow. Tasting notes: “Toasty marshmallow.”; “Eerily reminiscent of Lucky Charms.”
- Jeni’s Ndali Estate Vanilla: In second place, Jeni’s vanilla was liked for its pleasantly dense texture and clean taste. Tasting notes: “A+ texture.”; “Sweet and clean.”
- Tie High Road Vanilla Fleur de Sel and Smitten Classic Vanilla: Testers enjoyed High Road’s density (“You could cut this ice cream with a knife”) and Smitten’s “pure orchid taste” and “dreamy texture.”
- Tie Talenti Tahitian Vanilla Bean and McConnell’s Vanilla Bean: Most tasters recognized Talenti as a gelato noting its “smooth texture” over any distinct flavor. McConnell’s level of vanilla was described as “fake,” but also “delicious”; we generally appreciate its rich, dense texture.
- Häagen-Dazs Vanilla Bean: Overall, tasters liked the standard classic. Tasting notes: “Warm flavor, lovely texture.”; “Perfect thickness that softens to a gentle milk.”
- Tie Ice & Vice Basic B and Graeter’s Madagascar Vanilla Bean: Split between lovers and haters, Ice & Vice was called “delish” but also “sticky.” Testers found Graeter’s to be icy, bland, and “fake, in a good way.”
- Tie Breyer’s Vanilla Bean and Capannari Madagascar Vanilla: Breyer’s is, well, Breyer’s. Most people noted its fluffiness, but said little about its flavor. Almost across the board, Capannari was noted to taste “fake,” “neutral,” and like “plastic.”
- Herrell’s Vanilla: An underdog, we had tasters rooting for Herrell’s, but it didn’t perform as expected. Tasting notes: “Scoops nicely, but loses texture.”; “Tastes like DQ.”
- Ben & Jerry’s Vanilla: A bodega classic, Ben & Jerry’s may be good when in a pinch, but most testers noted it to be “fake” and “icy.”
- Tillamook Old-Fashioned Vanilla: Though some testers liked this ice cream’s texture, many thought it was too sweet. Tasting notes: “Too sweet, not enough vanilla.”
- Molly Moon’s Vanilla Bean: With the exception of one lover, Molly Moon’s was not well liked, owing to blandness and an odd, fluffy texture. Tasting notes: “Stiff and dry like whipped cream.”