Scholars of ice cream trace its origin to 16th century England, where “Cream Ice” was a regular treat at the table of Charles I. It was a delicacy obtainable only by elites, from Catherine de Medici to George Washington, until the advent of the insulated ice house in 1800 and technological innovations such as steam and electric power, followed by mechanical refrigeration and motorized delivery vehicles.
In the United States, ice cream became an industry, and a product, for the people.
From the 1940s through the late 1960s, ice cream was consumed primarily at soda fountains and ice cream parlors. Then sales shifted to supermarkets. Soda fountain brands like Breyers (founded in 1844) and Edy’s (founded in 1928), began to package ice cream to be sold this way.
During this period, premium ice cream emerged as a category. Häagen-Dazs owners Reuben and Rose Mattus were premium ice cream pioneers, selling a product with no stabilizers or artificial additives beginning in 1961. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s took the concept further in 1978, offering imaginative flavors before anyone else. Both brands were wildly successful and eventually went mainstream. But every day, it seems, there’s a new ice cream manufacturer looking to fill the artisanal niche. According to the International Dairy Foods Association, annual U.S. production of frozen dairy products is more than 1.6 billion gallons, most of which is sold at supermarkets.
There is an embarrassment of riches in the freezer section these days. How do you pick just one? Narrowing our taste test to classic dairy ice cream (low-calorie and non-dairy desserts, as well as frozen yogurt, will get their turn another time), we methodically sampled many pints of ice cream to determine our favorites.
There was pleasure to be found in every brand, but some flavors stood out. Here is a highly subjective roundup of Newsday’s Top 10 Supermarket Ice Creams.
10. Breyers: Raspberry Cheesecake Gelato
Breyers entered the gelato market in 2014 with a budget product that gets you more Italian-style frozen dessert for your money. A 28.5-ounce container, a little larger than a pint, costs about $4, compared to an average of $5.50 for 14 ounces of a premium brand like Talenti or Ciao Bella. Believing that consumers eat with their eyes, the company has come up with some fancy packaging, extruding the ice cream so it forms rosettes on top of the see-through tub, and sprinkling those rosettes with brownie bits, graham cracker crumbles and chopped peanut butter cups. The gelato itself is swirled together with a complementary sauce. Scooping some of this stuff into a bowl is like making a sundae without any of the work. The Raspberry Cheesecake flavor, with tangy cheesecake ice cream and tart raspberry sauce, avoids this sugar trap, making it the most enjoyable of the bunch.
9. Ciao Bella Gelato: Strawberry Chip
Founded in 1983 in New York’s Little Italy by chef Danilo Zecchin, Ciao Bella capitalized on the craze for all things Italian and made its name with unusual (for the time) flavors of Italian-style ice cream, slow churned to not pump too much air into the mixture. Ciao Bella does best when it sticks close to its original mission of making powerful and clean-flavored ice cream. The Strawberry Chip is successful, instantly telegraphing to the brain the idea of fresh strawberries and dark chocolate. Ciao Bella is available at supermarkets across Long Island for about $6 a pint.
8. Magnum: Milk Chocolate Hazelnut
You may never have tasted it, but Magnum is the world’s largest-selling ice cream brand. Well known in Europe for its Belgian chocolate-covered ice cream bars, it has recently moved into the U.S. market in a big way with pints based on that signature product. Each pint container is lined with a thick layer of chocolate, filled with ice cream, then topped with a layer of chocolate. You’re supposed to let the ice cream sit on the countertop for a few minutes to let the chocolate soften up before lightly squeezing the container to crack the chocolate on the sides and top into chunky pieces. Not only is this fun, but it gives each scoop a generous serving of thick chocolate shards. The Milk Chocolate Hazelnut flavor is particularly satisfying. Its chocolate lining and topping contain generous bits of hazelnut, and the ice cream itself has a powerful chocolate hazelnut flavor, reminiscent of gianduja, a favorite flavor in Italian gelaterias. Retails for about $6 at supermarkets across Long Island.
7. Talenti: Double Dark Chocolate
This brand began as the brainchild of Dallas native Josh Hochschuler, who apprenticed at a Buenos Aires heladeria before opening his own gelato shop in his hometown in 2003. He packed his gelato in clear containers, so customers could get a look before buying. After an explosive period of growth, the company was bought by Unilever in 2008, with the idea of taking Talenti global. What is so special about this relative newcomer is the dense texture, due to less air churned into the mixture, which is more characteristic of gelato than ice cream. The Double Dark Chocolate is complex, rich with egg yolks and studded with semisweet chocolate chips. Note: Unlike so many vanilla ice creams on the market that taste like sugar and cream, the Talenti Madagascan Vanilla Bean actually has an instantly detectable vanilla fragrance and flavor. Retails for about $5.50 a pint at supermarkets across Long Island.
6. Ben & Jerry's: Cherry Garcia
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield grew up together in Merrick and considered opening a bagel shop before decamping to Vermont and becoming ice cream kings. From the beginning, the duo focused on novelty flavors that included pretzels, brownie bits, peanut butter cups — nearly everything but the kitchen sink. Many of their wilder creations (Sweet Potato Pie, Holy Cannoli) have been retired to the ice cream graveyard. But the classics persist. Ben & Jerry’s excels at chunky mixes, and doesn’t disappoint. A blast from the past, Cherry Garcia, is much beloved and very appealing. The cherry pieces in the Cherry Garcia taste like actual, juicy fruit. Retails for about $5.50 a pint at supermarkets everywhere.
5. Humboldt Creamery Organic: Strawberry
Humboldt Creamery, founded by a cooperative of dairy farmers in 1929 and now owned by dairy giant Crystal Creamery, sells organic dairy products made with milk from pasture-based cows in Humboldt County, California. In addition to milk, sour cream and butter, it offers six flavors of ice cream in a lighter, fluffier style made without eggs. Strawberry, made with organic, non-gmo strawberries, is a crowd-pleaser, the sweet-tart berries in nice balance with the dairy-fresh milk. Second best is Coffee Chip, with strong coffee flavor that will please grown-up fans of artisanal java but might be too strong for kids. At $4.50 a pint at most markets, this is premium ice cream at a reasonable price.
4. Häagen-Dazs: Honey Salted Caramel Almond
Häagen-Dazs stands up well to newcomers in terms of fresh flavor and creamy texture. That’s probably because its list of ingredients is short and sweet, with no gums, stabilizers or preservatives. Häagen-Dazs made its name in 1961 with an original lineup of vanilla, chocolate and coffee. But it has continued to innovate, deliciously. In the past 10 years, it’s donated $1 million to honey bee research. Its Honey Salted Caramel Almond flavor, part of the aptly named Decadent Collection, is one result of that effort, made with almonds grown at a farm with a permanent hedgerow that serves as a pollinator habitat for bees. It also happens to be sensationally gooey and satisfying, with blobs of salty caramel and large nut pieces generously distributed throughout honey-flavored ice cream with Häagen-Dazs' characteristically dense texture. Retails for about $5.50 a pint at most supermarkets.
3. Blue Marble Organic: Midnight Mint Cookie
Another Brooklyn-based independent ice creamery, Blue Marble is distinguished by its commitment to organic ingredients. Our favorite flavor is Midnight Mint Cookie. The chocolate-mint ice cream is chock-full of organic crushed chocolate sandwich cookies. The result is a perfect ice cream version of a Girl Scout Thin Mint. Blue Marble is available at Whole Foods and select natural foods stores for about $7.50 a pint.
2. Jeni's: Salty Caramel
Founded in 2002 in Columbus, Ohio, by pastry chef Jeni Britton Bauer, Jeni’s ice creams don’t contain eggs, whose richness can overpower delicate ingredients like lavender, strawberry and peach. There are no stabilizers that give cheaper ice cream a gummy, almost stretchy texture. The Salty Caramel sets the standard. Somehow, it is smooth and creamy but still conveys the dark, complex, almost burnt flavor of perfectly cooked caramel. It is salty, which is absolutely necessary to cut the richness of the cream and sweetness of the sugar. The price for this pleasure is high: $9 at Whole Foods and Fairway.
1. Van Leeuwen Ice Creams: Earl Grey Tea
This boutique ice cream company, started by a few Brooklyn friends and originally sold from a single pale-yellow ice cream truck, can now be purchased at places like Whole Foods. Although the business has grown, the ice cream still tastes as fresh and homemade as if it were hand-churned by a dairy farmer. To make their Earl Grey Tea flavor, the Van Leeuwen ice cream makers steep hand-harvested Rishi Tea from the forests of Yunnan, China, in whole milk, infuse the mixture with oil from bergamot citrus, then add eggs, cream and sugar. A second choice is the Sicilian Pistachio, which gets its flavor from pistachios grown on the slopes of Mount Etna, and ground into a paste. A pint of Van Leeuwen ice cream will set you back about $8.