Sultry weather calls for a chilly treat, and that almost invariably means ice cream. One warm afternoon we gathered together a panel of 14 volunteers for a blind tasting, with the goal of identifying the best cheap ice cream. Markets have been flooded recently with a wave of artisanal, small-batch ice cream, gelato, and sorbet brands that, not surprisingly, carry high-end artisanal price tags. Premium ice creams, such as Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's, typically cost at least $4 for a pint. For that price, you can buy a 1.5-quart container of a supermarket brand.
Best Cheap Ice Cream
Published on By Elizabeth Sheer
These aren't your average chocolate and vanilla kind of ice cream parlors. Check out some kooky creations at these 50 Ice Cream Shops With Unique Treats Across the Country.
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You can make your own ice cream right at home with an ice cream maker, a food processor, or even just a blender. Check out: 13 Cheap and Easy Ice Cream Recipes
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Breyers Natural Vanilla Review
From $4 Best
This was actually our tasting panel's No. 2 pick, behind premium brand Ben & Jerry's. The modulated sweetness and vanilla flavor pulled in fans, although the vanilla flecks led testers to expect "more vanilla in it." Detractors said the flavor was so mild as to be bland.
The distinctive flecks of vanilla bean in Breyers Natural Vanilla (starting at $4) led some of our panelists in the blind tasting to identify it as Breyers, although they had not been told that this brand was one of the ice cream choices being tested. Breyers Natural Vanilla proved to be a real favorite because it wasn't overly sweet, and the vanilla taste was described as "mild" and not artificial. Panelists said it had a "light" texture that was admired by some, although others found it was too airy.
The color of Breyers Natural Vanilla is quite white, and there are no misleading clues to suggest that eating it is going to be a custard-like experience. Breyers Natural Vanilla is, by sight alone, not going to pass as a premium ice cream, which was quite OK with some of our tasters. It was interesting to watch this ice cream melt, and one of the panelists noted that it "just sort of fell apart."
The quick melting is likely due to the absence of artificial ingredients. The vanilla bean flecks seem to be deceptive - there is no vanilla bean mentioned in the ingredients list - but whatever is there makes for a very real ice cream. Breyers Natural Vanilla contains only milk, cream, sugar, tara gum, and natural flavorings.
Breyers started as a Philadelphia ice cream shop in the 1880's but the product quickly spread throughout the East Coast. While Breyers ice cream is now owned by Unilever, no one so far has messed with a good thing. Breyers Natural Vanilla proved to be our panel's favorite cheap ice cream.
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Edy's/Dreyer's Rich & Creamy Grand Vanilla Review
From $4 Good
Testers declared this brand "generic" and "standard." One said this is the ice cream parents would buy their kids and another said it reminded him of an elementary school cafeteria.
If you're looking for a "generic" vanilla ice cream that won't detract from the toppings you're going to pile on, Edy's Rich and Creamy Grand Vanilla (starting at $4) would be a good choice. In our blind tasting of five cheap ice creams, our panelists found Edy's Rich and Creamy to be "run-of-the-mill" and "standard." Still, some declared it extremely sweet with an off-putting artificial vanilla flavor.
Edy's Rich and Creamy Grand Vanilla boasts a yellowish-white color that looks as though there's egg yolk in it, as if you had made it yourself. Actually, the color comes from annatto, although one taster said it looked "custardy." The mouth feel was another story altogether. Although this cheap ice cream appears to be as rich and creamy as its name implies, it didn't possess the smoothness that our tasters expected.
Much about our panel's assessment of Edy's Rich and Creamy Grand Vanilla can be explained by the ingredients list. The excessive sweetness may stem from the presence of corn syrup and molasses in addition to sugar. It obviously contains cream, which, with the addition of whey, confers on the texture whatever degree of creaminess Edy's Rich and Creamy Grand Vanilla musters up. The ice cream also contains vanilla extract, which is included in the "natural flavors" grouping.
Edy's had its beginnings in California as Dreyer's (it still sells under that name on the West Coast), where it was a small producer whose claim to fame was the formulation of Rocky Road. Edy's/Dreyer's is now owned by Nestle.
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Turkey Hill Original Vanilla Ice Cream Review
From $4 Good
This is a middle-of-the-pack brand; it was just OK. The texture was off-putting to some who described the mouth feel as "more like milk than cream." In terms of flavor, one of our tasters suggested this brand would be much improved "if it had chocolate syrup all over it."
Several of the panelists in our blind ice cream tasting pronounced Turkey Hill Original Vanilla (starting at $4) to be kind of "blah" and one or two said it was slightly better than okay. The general consensus was that it's "run of the mill," even though one panel member said it "tastes like vanilla ice cream is supposed to taste."
Turkey Hill Original Vanilla didn't have the deep richness that's associated with the better vanilla ice creams; most of our tasters thought it was more milky than creamy. On the plus side, it wasn't overly sweet, and there was nothing artificial in the taste.
And there shouldn't be. Turkey Hill Original Vanilla doesn't contain any artificial ingredients -- only milk, cream, sugar, corn syrup, nonfat milk, and coloring appear on the list of ingredients. The coloring did nothing to elevate it in the eyes of our tasters, as its appearance was essentially unremarkable; that is to say, no one paid it any attention. Turkey Hill Original Vanilla does not have the yellowish color of a custardy type ice cream. To our tasters, it proved to be an OK, but not a standout, product.
Alone among the cheap ice cream brands we tested, Turkey Hill is not owned by a large conglomerate but was sold long ago to Dillons, a supermarket chain and subsidiary of Kroger. Its home base remains a dairy farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. You can visit what it calls the Turkey Hill Experience or encounter some cows out and about at local community events.
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Turkey Hill Vanilla Bean Frozen Yogurt Review
From $4 Think Twice
Panelists had mixed reactions to this brand. They liked the consistency, which they said was creamy, but the artificiality of the flavor and the aftertaste was a real turn-off.
There is actual vanilla bean in Turkey Hill Vanilla Bean Frozen Yogurt (starting at $4), and all of the tasters on our panel commented on the strong vanilla flavor. For some it was "very vanilla-y" and for others it was just too much. Turkey Hill Vanilla Bean Frozen Yogurt is very low in fat but seems to be loaded with sugar; a few tasters thought it was overly sweet.
The biggest plus about Turkey Hill Frozen Yogurt is the creamy texture. It does not have the unctuous mouth feel of a premium ice cream, but it wasn't icy or milky, either. One taster said the texture earned it her vote for "second favorite." What this ice cream substitute presented that the true ice creams in our blind tasting didn't, though, was not to its advantage. There was a distinctly chemical aftertaste that most tasters said was "strong" ; one said "it makes me want to drink a glass of water right away."
A look at the ingredients list clearly spotlighted the reason for the chemical taste: most of the contents are unpronounceable non-natural substances. The chemical make-up must be the source of the creaminess, because Turkey Hill Vanilla Bean Frozen Yogurt contains no cream -- just nonfat milk. Also present are sugar and corn syrup, and both vanilla and vanilla bean.
Turkey Hill says that it often runs taste tests to see whether people can tell the difference between its ice cream and frozen yogurt -- "most often," according to the company website, consumers can't. Our tasters were obviously in the camp that does notice a difference. Although they didn't know what brand they were eating or that one sample was frozen yogurt, their comments indicated they knew that something was off. Four products tasted like ice cream and one tasted artificial.