Beyond Basic: Why Vanilla Is the Best Flavor To Order at an Ice Cream Shop

Vanilla ice cream in a cone

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vanilla ice cream on wooden surface
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In Praise of Vanilla

Whether you’re rolling up to a Baskin-Robbins or stopping by a storied ice cream parlor, you’re bound to be faced with a lengthy list of tempting flavors. Some, like rocky road or turtle tracks, are chock-full of multiple ingredients. Others have a seasonal spin: pumpkin pie, berry, or peppermint. But can I make a recommendation? Go for the vanilla — especially if it’s your first time visiting the store.

Vanilla ice cream might be considered the most ordinary flavor out there, but it's not as basic as you think. Here are five arguments for ordering vanilla ice cream during your next trip to the ice cream parlor. 

Plastic Tub of Vanilla Ice Cream and Cones Scattered
annick vanderschelden photography/Getty Images

1. Vanilla Is a Strong Indicator of the Shop's Overall Quality

Let’s say you’re visiting a new-to-you ice cream shop for the first time and you order a scoop of vanilla. You take one bite and come to the startling realization that they've done a massive disservice to this staple flavor. This is not a good sign. If a shop messes up America’s most popular ice cream order, it’s probably dropped the ball on some of the more complex flavors. Get out of there and go find an ice cream shop that can nail the basics.

Related: Best Soft Serve Ice Cream Shops in America

Japan. August. Hot weather. Vanilla ice cream with sour cherry red wine sauce
Alexander Pyatenko/istockphoto

2. Vanilla Is the Perfect Blank Canvas for Your Favorite Toppings

Just because you order vanilla doesn’t mean that you can’t dress it up a bit. While flavors like strawberry or mint chocolate chip might clash with most toppings, vanilla is the United Nations of ice cream, treating each topping equally and offering a safe space to come together. In short: You can pile hot fudge and Reese’s Pieces, caramel and roasted peaches, or whipped cream and sprinkles on top of vanilla scoops, and everything will work in harmony. Talk about a perfect sundae.

Trader Joe's French Vanilla Ice Cream

3. Vanilla Is Actually Pretty Complex

Not all vanilla flavors are created equal. There’s regular vanilla, which is commonly made with vanilla extract. Vanilla bean ice cream (a personal favorite) is made with vanilla bean seeds — hence the flecks of vanilla bean that can often be seen in each scoop. And French vanilla ice cream, which has a more yellow hue than other vanilla varieties, uses egg yolks in its base (vanilla and vanilla bean omit the egg yolks). Vanilla doesn’t seem so basic now, huh?

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The Ice Cream Bar, San Francisco
Kelly R./Yelp

4. Vanilla Pairs Well With Other Ice Cream Flavors, Too

Scoop prices at ice cream parlors are kind of outrageous these days, but many shops will thankfully still let you include two flavors in a “small” order. So here’s the move: Order a scoop of vanilla, and then a scoop of another flavor that catches your eye. Unlike coffee, chocolate, or fruit-based ice creams, it's practically impossible to clash with vanilla, and the flavor can serve as a refreshing reset from something a little more bold. I mean, have you ever tried pairing cherry ice cream with mint chocolate chip? Yeah, hard pass.

Related: Irresistible Ice Cream Flavors You Can Get at the Grocery Store

Tender vanilla flower and dry vanilla beans isolated on white background.

5. Vanilla Is a Truly Luxurious Flavor

Most people know that saffron is the world's most expensive spice, but vanilla comes in at a close second. Sure, not every ice cream shop is using raw vanilla bean as opposed to vanilla extract, but some do — and when you taste it, you know. On a hot summer day, a bite of well-made vanilla ice cream can feel incredibly luxurious.

Ice Cream Sandwich taste test

Our Favorite Vanilla Ice Cream Brands

Buying vanilla ice cream to enjoy at home? Smart move. Here are some of our favorite brands and iterations based on taste tests we've conducted:

Best Store-Bought Vanilla Ice Cream: Ben & Jerry’s Vanilla Ice Cream

Best Vanilla Bean Ice Cream: Häagen-Dazs Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

Best Vanilla Ice Cream Sandwich: Klondike Sandwiches Classic Vanilla and Blue Bunny Simply Vanilla Ice Cream Sandwiches

Best Entenmann's Ice Cream Sandwich Featuring Vanilla: Glazed Cookie Donut With Vanilla Ice Cream