Blind Taste Test: Which Ice Cream Is Best?

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Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's go up against the likes of Dreyer's and the Costco Kirkland brand.

Did you know that ice cream has been around since at least the 18th century? It has.

And although the first ice cream parlor in the United States opened in New York City way back in 1776, commercial mass production of the tasty treat didn’t get started until 1926, after the invention of the continuous-process freezer.

Today, the ice cream industry is as big as ever. In fact, 1.53 billion gallons of ice cream and other frozen desserts were produced in 2011 in the U.S. alone — and the biggest market segment belongs to take-home ice cream sales, which generated a cool $6.8 billion during 2010.

By the way, according to the International Dairy Foods Association, the three most popular ice cream flavors are, in order: vanilla, mint chocolate chip, and cookies and cream.

Take that, chocolate fans.

Häagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s?

The ongoing battle between vanilla and chocolate lovers isn’t the only war being fought on the ice cream front. Another rivalry exists between Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s.

Both Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs are premium ice cream brands that offer the choicest ingredients and, perhaps most importantly, high butterfat content, which provides that smooth creamy texture we all love. It’s also why, on a unit-cost basis, they’re typically as much as four times more expensive than other ice cream brands sitting in your supermarket freezer.

With that in mind, forget the debate on whether Häagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s is the better ice cream. The real scoop is whether or not one of those less sexy, non-premium brands sitting in my grocer’s freezer can beat either of those two giants in a blind taste test.

How the test was conducted

As with most of my other taste tests, I recruited a bunch of eager family members. As usual, my dog Major took part in the test too. And making his taste test panel debut was my puppy, Jack; he thought he had died and gone to heaven.

With the panel in place, I prepared individual ice cream samples in four separate bowls marked “A” through “‘D.”

This time I asked the experts to rank each ice cream for taste and texture on a “10-point must system,” where the top performer gets 10 points, and the remaining candidates a value between one and nine points. Panelists could then note any accompanying comments they had regarding each sample.

Introducing the ice cream competitors

For this taste test challenge, I bought four brands of plain old vanilla ice cream: Ben & Jerry’s, Dreyer’s, Häagen-Dazs, and Costco’s Kirkland brand.

Here now, in reverse order, is a summary of the ice cream taste test results, based upon the inputs of my expert panel:

4. Dreyer’s (Edy’s) vanilla ice cream

Price per ounce: 6 cents (the least expensive brand tested).
Panel scoring: 54 points.
Average score (10-point scale): 6.0.
Human judges who deemed it the best: two.

The Dreyer’s brand, which is known as Edy’s in the Eastern and Midwestern U.S., earned top marks from two of the panelists. Matthew liked its creamy texture, while Rose preferred Dreyer’s vanilla flavor over the other competitors. However, they were in the minority, as the remainder of the human panelists were less enthusiastic. My dad claimed the Dreyer’s was so bland that he could barely discern any vanilla flavor at all. Don’t tell that to my dogs: Both Major and Jack were begging for seconds.

3. Ben & Jerry’s vanilla ice cream

Price per ounce: 22 cents.
Panel scoring: 56 points.
Average score (10-point scale): 6.2.
Human judges who deemed it the best: one.

Until recently, I never knew Ben & Jerry’s made plain old vanilla ice cream, but they do. The Honeybee liked Ben & Jerry’s creaminess, while Tony said it had the best vanilla flavor of the bunch. Surprisingly, despite the premium label, Tony was the only judge to give the Ben & Jerry’s a blue ribbon. In fact, the pride of Vermont scored only slightly higher than the Dreyer’s brand, despite a price tag that was three times more expensive. Ashley thought Ben & Jerry’s vanilla flavor was overpowering. My daughter agreed, calling it “gross.” Who knows. Perhaps Ben & Jerry’s should stick to their unique and elaborate concoctions like Phish Food, Cherry Garcia and, my favorite, Chunky Monkey.

2. Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream

Price per ounce: 25 cents (the most expensive brand tested).
Panel scoring: 65 points.
Average score (10-point scale): 7.2.
Human judges who deemed it the best: two.

Although it wasn’t the classic coffee or rum raisin flavors Häagen-Dazs is famous for, the brand’s vanilla offering still got top marks from my parents. Dad said it tasted the most like real vanilla ice cream, while Mom gave it props for its smooth and creamy texture. She wasn’t the only one; all but one of the panelists gave the Häagen-Dazs high marks for its creaminess. The lone contrarian in the group, Rose, thought the Häagen-Dazs had “very little flavor.” Oh, and for what it’s worth, Häagen-Dazs continues to fall victim to shrinking package sizes; it’s now 2 ounces short of a full pint. I know.

1. Kirkland vanilla ice cream

Price per ounce: 7 cents.
Panel scoring: 74 points.
Average score (10-point scale): 8.2.
Human judges who deemed it the best: four.

Despite its bargain-basement price, the Kirkland brand won this challenge in convincing fashion. It garnered four blue ribbons from the panelists — more than Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs combined — and secured first- or second-place rankings from all but two of the experts. Most of the panelists gave Kirkland ice cream high marks for both its vanilla flavor and creaminess.

I know what you’re thinking

I’m sure a lot of Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs fans are shaking their heads and saying, “Yeah, right.” After all, the conventional wisdom says there is no way a low-priced ice cream could be better than either of those premium brands.

However, the results of my blind ice cream taste test prove — yet again — that it’s not always necessary to pay a premium in order to get good quality products at the supermarket.

That being said, I don’t think Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s need to worry.

Well, at least until Kirkland decides to come out with its own version of rum raisin or Chunky Monkey.

Stacy Johnson

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