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Ice Cream Tasting Panel

We included only national brands in the tasting and settled on vanilla because it's ubiquitous and, according to the International Dairy Foods Association, the most popular ice cream flavor. Our extremely willing volunteers tested ice creams including Edy's Rich and Creamy Grand Vanilla (starting at $4) (known as Dreyer's on the West Coast), Breyers Natural Vanilla (starting at $4), and Turkey Hill Original Vanilla (starting at $4).

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Because frozen yogurt has been making a big splash lately, we also tested Turkey Hill Vanilla Bean Frozen Yogurt (starting at $4). We threw a ringer into the mix with Ben & Jerry's Vanilla (starting at $4), which commands a loyal following among ice cream fans.

The hands-down winner, by a nearly unanimous vote, was Ben & Jerry's Vanilla. But before anyone starts hollering that this is no cheap ice cream, the No. 2 pick was Breyers Natural Vanilla, which earns the title of best cheap ice cream. Breyers was the brand that kept the Vermont ice cream maker from earning a perfect score.

Some cheap ice cream brands have so much air in them that, despite the cool price, you get stiffed on content. So, to save you from disappointment, we judged the supermarket brands on taste, appearance, and sensory experience, with an eye to value for the money. (Frugalista tip: The absolute best cheap ice cream is homemade. A quart of vanilla is only as expensive as the milk, cream, and sugar that go into it. And if you eat lots of the stuff, the cost of a good cheap ice cream maker is recouped pretty quickly.)

Good vanilla flavor was the key factor in our testers' assessments. Both too little and too much proved to be a bad thing. Vanilla was the undoing of the two Turkey Hill selections: Our panel deemed the ice cream "bland" and "close to tasteless" and declared the frozen yogurt marred by such a pronounced vanilla flavor that several testers described it as "chemical," "like alcohol," and artificial. A few panelists also used the word "artificial" for the vanilla flavor in Edy's. Breyers, on the other hand, was said to have "more vanilla" with a distinct "vanilla bean" flavor, while Ben & Jerry's had a "pronounced vanilla flavor" that was not "overly vanilla-y or sweet."

Texture, consistency, mouth feel -- these related attributes enhance the taste of ice cream. Here again, Ben & Jerry's scored. The texture was one of this brand's most appealing aspects; testers said it was "creamy" and had "more fat content" than the competition. Edy's was "not as smooth tasting as it looked" and several tasters commented that Breyers was "fluffy" and "airy," qualities that some liked and others, not so much. Surprisingly, the Turkey Hill frozen yogurt presented "great creaminess," whereas the Turkey Hill ice cream was "very airy," "like it was whipped."

Visual appeal was yet another factor panelists considered. With the five ice creams lined up in a row, differences were stark: the color ranged from almost yellow to dead white. Breyers Natural Vanilla is famous for its flecks of vanilla bean, and that was a strong draw; one person said it looked like chocolate chip, which bumped up the taste. The deep color of Edy's surprised one person who said it looked "custardy" but who was let down by the lack of flavor depth. The slightly yellowish color of Ben & Jerry's prompted one taster to say it looked "rich." Both Turkey Hill selections were very white, and no one mentioned whether this was a plus or a minus.

Review continues below

by Elizabeth Sheer (Google+ Profile)

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