Ice cream is a go-to treat any time of year. It's rich, creamy, and satisfyingly chill. Supermarket aisles have been inundated recently with a wave of small-batch brands that, not surprisingly, carry artisanal price tags. But for the price (or less) of one pint of the high-end stuff, it's possible to indulge in a 1.5-quart container of a mass-market ice cream -- or churn up a batch at home with an inexpensive ice cream maker.
To identify the best cheap ice cream, Cheapism.com took a cue from the International Dairy Foods Association and focused on vanilla, which beats out other perennial favorites such as cookies and cream, mint chocolate chip, and rocky road. A vast majority of ice cream sold in the United States is marketed regionally or under private labels, which complicated our search for widely available, inexpensive vanilla ice cream. Although reviews are sparse, we drew on the results of about half a dozen taste tests put on by food editors, as well as a blind taste test we conducted in 2012, in addition to consumer feedback posted online. Here's the skinny on eight budget-priced vanilla ice creams.
Related: 13 Cheap and Easy Ice Cream Recipes for Summer
Serious Eats reviewed six vanilla ice cream brands and ranked Edy's (known as Dreyer's on the West Coast) at the bottom, behind stalwarts such as Häagen-Dazs, Ben & Jerry's, and Breyers. The expert tasters concluded that more air is not merrier; there isn't much here in terms of texture or flavor. Our tasting panel described Edy's Rich and Creamy Grand Vanilla ($4 for 1.5 quarts) as blah and overly sweet, neither as rich nor as creamy as its name suggests. The custardy color hints of egg yolks, but the hue comes from annatto, a food coloring.
Walmart's house-brand vanilla ($3 for 1.5 quarts) contains milk, cream, skim milk, and egg yolks along with corn syrup for sweetening and annatto for color. A panel of tasters organized by the Houston Chronicle yearned for a truer, more noticeable vanilla flavor and noted something of a strange malty taste. Consumer reviews posted on the company's website, however, rave about the ice cream's old-time qualities -- creamy, rich, and just like homemade.
Turkey Hill is one of the smaller national brands, and our testers deemed its Original Vanilla ($5 for 1.5 quarts) a middle-of-the-road option. They said the ice cream was bland, lacking a pronounced vanilla taste, and the light, airy texture wasn't particularly creamy. The panel concluded that this vanilla frozen treat is a prime example of commercial ice creams that contain a large percentage of air, stabilizers to improve the texture, and nothing particularly noteworthy aside from a budget price.
In New England, Hood's ($4 for 1.5 quarts) is the standard for budget-conscious ice cream lovers. It's relatively airy and melts quickly, reviews say, but fans posting on Influenster warm to the good vanilla flavor, which complements embellishments such as chocolate syrup. There's no cream in this vanilla, leaving additives to account for what reviewers say is a creamy smoothness. The recipe, which uses corn syrup as well as sugar, keeps the price down, but at the expense of taste and texture.
Private label ice creams such as Costco's Kirkland Signature Super Premium Vanilla ($11 for two half-gallons) outsell all other brands. One of our tasters declared Costco's in-house brand "almost as good as premium gelato." In a face-off against Häagen-Dazs Five Vanilla Bean, Chowhound testers deemed it richer, creamier, and equally sweet. The premium product had a more pronounced vanilla flavor, they said, but lagged Kirkland Signature on price.
Creamy and rich, Trader Joe's French Vanilla ($6 for a half-gallon) is a winner. Egg yolks in the base mix impart a custardy texture and compensate for a lack of cream. A blind taste test of 11 national brands by editors at Westchester Magazine rated Trader Joe's French Vanilla ahead of Ben & Jerry's and Häagen-Dazs. The testers lauded the strong, true vanilla flavor and the absence of cloying sweetness. Expert tasters at The Daily Meal liked the smooth, creamy texture and balanced flavor. Consumer reviewers at Fooducate agree that it's just plain delicious.
This cheap but iconic brand tops the others in almost every way, including distribution. Breyers Natural Vanilla ($4.50 for 1.5 quarts) is light and airy, with a milky, rather than custardy, appearance. A taste test by Epicurious ranks it right behind pricier Whole Foods' vanilla entry for the right amount of creamy sweetness and vanilla essence. Our own testers described a pleasantly mild vanilla taste that wasn't overwhelmed by sweetening.
The main ingredient in this vegan "ice cream" is coconut milk. The base mix also contains dried cane syrup, stabilizers, and vanilla. Consumer posts at Fooducate say it tastes pretty darn good and remark on its creaminess -- creamier, that is, than one might expect from a vegan option. At $6.50 for 1 quart, So Delicious may not count as cheap, but for consumers on a dairy-free diet who crave the sweet chill of a frozen dessert, this is about as good as it gets.