4 Characteristics Every Great Vanilla Ice Cream Should Have

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When it comes to ice cream, everyone has a favorite flavor. But if you want to become a true ice cream flavor connoisseur, one expert suggests starting with a simple classic – vanilla — and building your tasting skills from there.

Scott Rankin, a professor and the chair of the Food Science Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tells Consumerist that it’s a great idea to become an expert on what a good vanilla ice cream tastes like by buying a pint or so of different products whenever you go to the grocery store.

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Here are a few things to look for when you’re tasting ice cream at home.

1. Clean Flavor

“In general, most good ice creams, including vanilla, have a very ‘clean’ flavor,” he explains. In other words: If you take good quality milk and dairy ingredients, they should have “virtually no aroma” after they’ve been pasteurized. Along with a robust vanilla flavor, the ice cream should have a a “little cooked flavor to it,” but that’s about it.

If there’s anything extra to it — or it resembles the flavor of say, a sheet cake from a mix — it usually doesn’t reflect what Rankin considers a premium ice cream.

Use the standard of good dairy ingredients, Rankin suggests, meaning it should taste nothing more like cooked, sweet milk. “That should be your golden standard.”

2. Complexity

Like “fine wine or a sophisticated beer” that tells a story, a good vanilla should have a rich bouquet — for example, fruity, raisin-like, or smoky — instead of monochromatic.

“If it tastes like more wedding cake, like the sheet cake you get at a wedding” or somewhat like a can of frosting, that’s indicative of lesser quality products, Rankin notes.

3. Weight

Ice creams can vary “terrifically” by their weight, Rankin notes, so it’s a good idea to pick up that pint before you buy it: If it feels heavy, and then you grab another pint and it feels light, that means one likely has more air in it.

In general, heavier pints will be reflective of higher quality.

“If you put air into it, it makes it very light and fluffy,” he points out, which is not bad, per se, but “for that pint of ice cream, you’re buying a lot of air instead of ice cream.”

4. Color

Vanilla ice cream mix is very, very white, Rankin explains, with the exception of ice creams that use a high level of vanilla extract , which can make the resulting product a bit more brown. Haagen Daz, for example, is a bit off-white because of the amount of vanill ain it.

Even if you’re buying a custard that uses egg yolks or egg solids, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will make it yellow.

In general, vanilla ice creams should be pretty white — the color of milk, essentially, and not yellow or butter-colored.