Several reputable sources have published ice cream reviews since we last updated our report in 2008, including Cook's Illustrated, Everyday With Rachel Ray and The Boston Globe. Two healthy-living websites, Health.com and LifeScript.com, look at light ice creams, as does ConsumerReports.org. The always-lively foodie site Chow.com has a couple discussion threads going, one specifically about vanilla ice cream and the other about favorite brands of ice cream. We used these sources to supplement the ones we used in our report in order to determine the best vanilla ice cream.
Cook's Illustrated's review of vanilla ice cream is the most thorough. Editors not only conduct rigorous taste tests with detailed results, they also publish nutritional information and ingredients for each of the eight brands they review. You need a subscription to read their report, but if you're an ice-cream devotee, it's worth signing up for a free trial. Among the eight brands taste-tested are Ben & Jerry's and Haagen-Dazs, which in the latest reviews turn out to be the two big contenders.
The Boston Globe also compares Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's, along with four other brands of vanilla ice cream, in their review. Unlike Cook's Illustrated, however, Boston Globe tasters don't draw a sharp distinction between ice creams; "most brands received compliments," says reporter Debra Samuels. Although the seven tasters couldn't settle on one best ice cream -- both Ben & Jerry's and Haagen-Dazs get a couple nods, with the former receiving a slightly more enthusiastic write-up -- a majority did say Whole Foods 365 Organic Vanilla Ice Cream was their least favorite.
Everyday With Rachel Ray magazine editors cast a wider net, recommending six different ice creams, including but not limited to vanilla. Unlike the aforementioned sources, editors at this publication don't list the ice creams that didn't make the cut, saying only that they sampled "dozens" of brands. They select Haagen-Dazs Vanilla as their favorite, saying, "The creamy texture convinced all of us that plain old vanilla can be anything but."
Foodies at Chowhound.com love a good debate, and their ice cream threads are no exception. In older thread on the best vanilla ice cream, Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's emerge as favorites, with a slight edge in preference for Haagen-Dazs. Trader Joe's, Breyer's, Turkey Hill and Bluebell all have their advocates as well.
A word about light vanilla ice cream
We only found a few sources that discussed light or "diet" ice creams, and none of these sources focused solely on choosing the best light vanilla ice cream. ConsumerReports.org, the most rigorous of the sources we consulted, includes the fat-free version of Breyers Double Churn vanilla ice cream (rather than the light version that made our Best Reviewed selection) in its comparison of four brands. They also tried out Haagen-Dazs Extra Rich Light in Vanilla Bean. As with Cook's Illustrated, you need to be a subscriber to read the results of the test.
Another Breyers Double Churn variety, No Sugar Added Vanilla, earns a grade of B from LifeScript.com, but it's the only light vanilla ice cream they discuss. Health.com doesn't review any light vanilla ice creams, although they do give a grade of A to Breyers Double Churned Cookies & Cream Light Ice Cream (which uses vanilla ice cream).
Taste differences aside, it's worth nothing that light ice creams vary widely in fat and calorie content. For example, Haagen-Dazs Extra Rich Light in Vanilla Bean ice cream has 200 calories and 7 grams of fat in a single serving, while the Breyers sugar-free ice cream has just 80 calories and 4 grams of fat per serving.
Choosing the best vanilla ice cream: our take
It's clear from these newer reviews that Haagen-Dazs Vanilla ice cream remains a favorite among reviewers, but Ben & Jerry's Vanilla poses a strong challenge. We're going to call this one a draw.
Ice cream facts and fun
ConsumerReports.org compares regular and light versions of four ice cream flavors in this free online video and article.
Know the difference between vanilla and vanilla-flavored ice cream? How about French vanilla and double vanilla? Real Simple magazine explains how to differentiate between types of vanilla ice cream.
According to the International Ice Cream Association, a trade group, vanilla is by far the most popular flavor, preferred by 29 percent of people. Chocolate is a distant second, with about 9 percent preference. In third place is butter pecan, with about 6 percent. Curious to see how other flavors stack up? The Food Channel posts these stats and more on their website.
Want to make your own vanilla ice cream? You'll need an ice cream maker and a recipe. Food Network celebrity chef Alton Brown's vanilla ice cream recipe is one popular option, while foodies with an affinity for history might want to try making ice cream the way Thomas Jefferson did.