Over the summer, we put the best grocery store vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice creams to the blind taste test in an effort to rank the very best. That’s a whole lot of scoops. Was it enough? Never. Ice cream is amazing and helping you navigate your online and in-store shopping for such a delectable treat is a job we relish.
Since our 2020 rankings were virtually obliterated by Covid, we’re re-upping by shouting out the best brand new flavors of 2021 before Labor Day hits (plus a few classics that are new to us). Of course, ice cream is good at any time of the year, but there’s something special about serving up a refreshing scoop or three on a hot day.
Check our picks below and seek your favorites out at scoop shops, grocers, or online!
Salt & Straw — Maple & Bacon Streusel (Dane Rivera)
The idea of bacon in ice cream is something that I initially scoffed at when I first came across this flavor from Salt & Straw’s Camp collection. I’m on board with the winning flavor combination that is salty meets sweet, but the smokey quality of bacon just isn’t something I want to experience in a sweet scoop of ice cream. Or so I thought. As soon as a spoonful of this ice cream hit my palate, my tastebuds were transported through a flavor journey led by brown sugar streusel and maple, with the occasional burst of savory bacon.
Salt & Straw’s Maple & Bacon Streusel doesn’t try to balance salty and sweet qualities. Instead, this ice cream’s major focus is on that brown sugar maple blend and it’s better for it. When the flavors all come together that combination of classic breakfast flavors answers the question, “What if breakfast was a dessert?” (Spoiler: It already sort of is –check the ingredients in pancakes.)
The Bottom Line:
The consistency is fantastic here, it’s dense and creamy and when the occasional bacon bit hits your tongue it’s like having unctuous and delectable. Start those hot summer mornings off with this over a traditional breakfast meal and your day will be off to a great start.
Van Leeuwen — Earl Grey Tea (Dane Rivera)
Cool and complex, Van Leeuwen’s Earl Grey Tea manages to capture the distinct flavor of the tea blend it shares its name with perfectly. It tastes exactly like what you’d get if you tossed a scoop of cold ice cream directly into a hot freshly brewed cup of Earl Grey. Only without melting all over the place.
Flavors of vanilla mingle with bergamot, producing a rich and complex flavor that is enhanced by Van Leeuwen’s always velvety smooth consistency. It’s hard to eat a scoop of this and not feel refreshed, so save this one for those early mornings or late nights that are a bit on the warmer side.
To get the flavor for this gem, Van Leeuwen harvests real organic Rishi tea from the Yunnan Province and infuses it with bergamot citrus oil, which is what makes it Earl Grey and not just regular old black tea. Then Van Leeuwen steeps a bag in whole milk before adding cream, sugar and eggs and turning it into ice cream. Like a cup of Earl Grey with some milk in it, the ice cream itself has a milky grey appearance to it.
The Bottom Line:
Complex and rich, a single scoop of Van Leeuwen’s Earl Grey Tea ice cream completely unaltered feels like a restaurant-quality dessert. Matcha ice cream doesn’t compare to this.
Talenti — Honey Graham Gelato (Dane Rivera)
This one feels a bit more fit for fall than the summer, so as the weather starts to change be sure to pick up Talenti’s new Honey Graham Gelato. Beginning with a vanilla gelato base, the Honey Graham has clusters of graham cracker cookies deep inside each scoop with ribbons of wildflower honey wrapped throughout the pint, offering the occasional burst of earthy goodness between licks of refreshing vanilla gelato.
It’s subtle and while we would’ve preferred bigger chunks of graham crackers, and more honey evenly spread throughout Talenti has landed on something truly great here. This flavor was apparently voted to be Talenti’s next flavor by the brand’s fans on Instagram and Twitter, so credit to Talenti fans for having some pretty good taste.
The Bottom Line:
Sweet without ever being overwhelming, Talenti’s Honey Graham is refreshing and offers a different flavor experience with each spoonful.
Häagen-Dazs — Rosé & Cream (Dane Rivera)
I don’t even like Rosé but put it in ice cream and I’m fully on board! Häagen-Dazs has some of the best ice cream consistency in the game, it’s smooth like butter, dense and creamy, melting in your mouth in the most decadent way. Consistency is an important part of what makes an ice cream good or bad, but it’s even more important when you’re mixing alcohol with ice cream.
Boozy ice cream is a great idea and one that Häagen-Dazs has been playing with a lot these past few years, but alcohol changes the consistency of ice cream in a way that often makes it more of a slushy granita than a cream. That’s not a problem here — this is just as buttery smooth as anything else you’d expect from Häagen Dazs. Probably because it doesn’t go too heavy on the alcohol, it leans heavily on its sweet cream base with the subtlest hint of tart rosé swirled throughout. If you’re looking for a boozy ice cream that is going to give you a head change, this isn’t that, the whole pint has less than 0.5% alcohol but that faint kiss of rosé adds a lot of depth and complexity.
The Bottom Line:
Pairs nicely with a glass of rosé at the end of a hot summer night. This is definitely a flavor geared for late nights as a closer for your home-cooked meal.
Hardscoop — Madagascar Vanilla (Dane Rivera)
If our previous entry sparked a craving for boozy ice cream but left you wanting more this is one that actually delivers on the alcohol front. It’s still not strong enough to give you a buzz, but it does contain 8% alcohol per pint, which is considerably more than what Häagen Dazs offers. Because of the higher alcohol content, the consistency does suffer as a result — it’s a little airier and slushier than I’d like it to be, but the flavors are rich and the vanilla and alcohol really pair nicely.
The Bottom Line
From the second you scoop a spoonful from the pint, you’ll be able to smell the booze, which should inspire some ideas on how to take it to that next level. The best ice cream from the experimentally minded.
EDITOR’S PICK: Creamalicious — Grandma Gigi Sweet Potato Pie (Steve Bramucci)
There’s so much to like about Creamalicious. It’s the only nationally distributed ice cream brand currently owned by a Black woman, for starters. It’s also delicious — if you’re into that sort of thing.
I’ve said this before, but this is not a brand that leans away from the sweet. In most of Chef Liz Rogers’ recipes, that’s a good thing. The brand — which combines baked goods with ice cream (via decadent mix-ins) — features complex enough flavors to not make the sweetness one note. But this flavor shines above the others because of its earthiness. Even the renegades over at Salt & Straw haven’t added potatoes to ice cream. By doing so, Creamalicious honors its own Southern heritage while finding a flavor that can balance out Rogers’ heavy hand with the sugar scoop.
The mouthfeel and texture here is just below the Jeni’s and Salt & Straw level — you do taste some stabilizers, more like traditional freezer brands — but the flavor itself is at once exciting, nuanced, and rich. Plus running into a big ol’ chunk of pie crust makes the whole treat even more decadent.
The Bottom Line
A new brand with a truly exciting flavor and perhaps the first grocery store ice cream to feature potatoes!
THROWBACK FLAVOR: Van Leeuwen — Royal Wedding Cake (Dane Rivera)
Eating this ice cream makes me feel so damn fancy. That’s not because it’s called Royal Wedding Cake, it’s because I ate this after experiencing Van Leeuwen’s Kraft Macaroni & Cheese ice cream, which made me feel downright trashy. The Royal Wedding Cake has a thick and creamy consistency (which adds to the luxuriousness) and combines a sugar, vanilla, and lemon base with real chunks of airy, chewy lemon spongecake and swirls of elderflower frosting.
There isn’t a single scoop of ice cream that I’ve found all year that is more refreshing than this. Right now it’s a limited edition pint from Van Leeuwen so I’d stock up on as much of this as possible before it’s all gone. I have absolutely no interest in the business of the royal family, but if Harry and Meghan can inspire ice cream this good, I say God Save The Queen!
The Bottom Line
A luxurious consistency with a refreshing flavor. It tastes like springtime in a bowl.
THORWBACK FLAVOR: McConnell’s — Honey & Cornbread Cookies (Dane Rivera)
Apparently this year I’ve been obsessed with ice creams that capture the experience of eating foods that aren’t ice cream. Salt & Straw gave me breakfast in a bowl, Van Leeuwen turned tea into ice cream, and now here we are with Honey & Cornbread Cookies. This flavor from Santa Barbara-based ice cream parlor McConnell’s brings together chunks of sweet and salty cornbread cookies with a honey ice cream base made from real California honey, and it’s f*cking fantastic.
Yes, it’s so good that it deserves a “f*cking.” [This was actually named our #1 best ice cream of 2019, but I’ll allow Dane to give it extra love, because it really is that good. -editor]
The best feature of this flavor is those cornbread cookies. Using real cornbread would’ve only made this ice cream mushy, instead, the cookies used in this thing have a better consistency that soaks up ice cream perfectly but still provides a great mouthfeel and texture. The subtle inclusion of salt acts as a nice counterbalance to that strong honey flavor but doesn’t get in the way or distract from the overall sweet quality of this ice cream.
The Bottom Line
You won’t find a better experience than scooping up and eating that final piece of cornbread cookie that has been soaking up all the ice cream at the bottom of your bowl.
EDITOR’S THROWBACK FLAVOR: Jeni’s — Savannah Buttermint (Steve Bramucci)
This is a true nostalgia bomb of a flavor. Rather than more prototypical mint flavors — which have been recently hipsterfied (elevated in chef parlance) by using real mint, making them ever more herbaceous — this is “buttermint.” Do you remember them? Those pillow-shaped pastel mints that sat out in candy dishes at the dry cleaners or barbershop, back when sharing food with bare-handed strangers didn’t seem insane?
I always loved those mints. Rather than being crunchy and toothpaste-y, they were soft and the flavor was bright… but light. Literally perfect for an ice cream — especially when combined with white chocolate. It’s creamy on creamy on creamy, with a hint of mint. And boy does that combo work.
The Bottom Line
As always, Jeni’s nails the mouthfeel, but it’s just the perfect mastering of an almost bygone candy that makes this one sing.