Salt & Straw is the new Supreme. Forget the box logo hat, the true hypebeasts are all about that Buttermilk Pancake pint. Just ask anyone who’s seen the crowds lining the curb outside of a scoop shop in NYC, PDX, or LA, resigned to 30 minutes of small talk before they can finally cop a double cone. A Nike x BAPE collab has nothing on Häagen-Dazs’s Spirits series — with mashup flavors like “Stout, Chocolate, Pretzel Crunch.” You think there’s a Yeezy colorway as decadent as Tillamook’s Double Nutty Peanut Butter? Forget it, fam.
Okay, fine, that’s an exaggeration. But just barely. Though no creamery has actually emulated Supreme or BAPE’s scarcity model, they do release new flavors every season. And summer is the industry’s yearly high-water mark.
Like everything in the food world, the ice cream game has been forever changed by shrinking economies of scale and the rapidly developing American palate. 20 years ago, you could find three or four brands and 20 or so flavors in the ice cream aisle — most of the diversity coming from Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs. Rainbow sherbet was considered “out there.” These days, your local grocer probably highlights ten companies and at least 60 varieties, if not more. Savory-leaning flavors, once rare, are now ubiquitous.
To help you sort through your nearly-endless choices hitting stores summer, I spent two nights last week testing the 40 or so premier ice cream releases for Summer ’19. The pints I tested are either available nationally (Halo Top, McConnell’s) or they have an easy system for sending products around the country (Salt & Straw, Coolhaus). I didn’t mess with cheaper ice creams known to have a bad “mouthfeel” or texture thanks to preservatives or anything that I thought would be an unbalanced, sticky sweet sugar bomb. Sorry, Kroger brand — my ranking, my rules.
Those parameters left Ben & Jerry’s, Coolhaus, Häagen-Dazs, Halo Top, Magnum, McConnell’s, Salt & Straw, Talenti, and Tillamook battling for the title of “Best Flavor of Summer 2019.” Here are the standouts — presented with very legit awards invented by me amidst a dairy and sugar-induced haze.
THE “NOTHING SHOULD SOUND THIS AWFUL WHILE TASTING THIS GOOD” AWARD GOES TO… “MUSHROOM MUDDY BUDDIES” BY SALT & STRAW
I’ve been following Salt & Straw since their first food truck opened in my home city of Portland and here’s my theory: As the competition caught on to the fact that ice cream eating food obsessives liked experimentation, the growing brand had to push further into the frontier. Sometimes into the realms of all-out weird. On occasion they go too far — there’s a “Berries, Beans & BBQ Sauce” flavor this year that failed to strike a chord with me — but other times they hit it out of the park.
“Mushroom Muddy Buddies” falls into the latter bucket. The name sounds… extremely poo-adjacent to me. But you quickly forget all that when you taste this flavor. The “Muddy Buddies” that the name is referencing is basically Chex Mix with peanut butter and chocolate. The website notes that this is also called “puppy chow” and “monkey munch” both of which would have made for more appetizing names, but whatever. The mix is then heightened with honey, butter, and **checks notes** sherry candied mushrooms.
Sounds weird, right? Doesn’t matter, it tastes amazing. The flavor is sweet, actually sweeter than many Salt & Straw flavors, but earthen in a way I loved. There’s a ton of umami here — which plays well with the richness of the cream (my best guess is that S & S uses about 70% cream and 30% whole milk in their base, which is high on the comparative scale). Here’s the coolest part: you don’t get even one degree of “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS DOING IN AN ICE CREAM?” effect, which sometimes happens in the era of hipster flavors.
Everything plays nicely together. It’s balanced and makes sense, in a weird sort of way.
THE FINAL SCOOP: Describe it to someone and then bet them ten bucks that they’ll actually love it. You’ll win.
THE “HOW HAS NO ONE THOUGHT OF THIS BEFORE?” AWARD GOES TO… “TAKE THE CANNOLI” BY COOLHAUS
I’m Italian. I love our desserts. I love ice cream. So God knows why I was biased against this flavor. I just didn’t expect a ton out of it. I think it was the color green on the package for some reason… who knows, I was eating a lot of ice cream and the minty flavors this year were bad.
Regardless, I was wrong. Way off. This flavor is a gem and I love the deep cut Clemenza reference in the name.
What you have here is a mascarpone base (easy word, right? Someone needs to ask the Food Network why every host has to say MAR-ska-pone. Is it written in their contracts?), with chocolate-covered cannoli shells inside. Cannoli shells are themselves basically deep fried ice cream cones, so this is all pretty straightforward. A no brainer that no one had ever thought of before.
What’s really so great about this is the base. Coolhaus leaves the sharper, cream cheese notes of mascarpone intact and doesn’t bury them under sweetness. This makes the cannoli shells dipped in chocolate the sweeter counterpoint, which your palate naturally seeks. It’s a reverse of what we’re used to — where the mix in is typically the savory element.
THE FINAL SCOOP: Learn how to make a good Caprese salad, then eat a bowl of light, basil-heavy summer pasta, and finally finish the night with this and a Godfather re-watch, projected onto your back fence. Perfect summer evening.
THE “THIS IS JUST BARELY A DESSERT BUT I LOVE IT” AWARD GOES TO… “OLIVE OIL AND SALTED ALMONDS” BY McCONNELL’S
This flavor is about as unsweet as a flavor can get and still make my list. Still, this fan favorite (released from the vault after first making an appearance in 2015), earned its spot with some really clean, bright notes.
Sweet cream, salted almonds, olive oil. That’s your ice cream, folks. And the olive oil is even a little grassy, rather than a nuttier variety. But it works because each of the three elements shines brightly and stands alone. The sweet cream base is the delicate dessert element, the cracked almonds are the umami/savory bit, and the olive oil adds a surprising flavor burst.
When ice creams with olive oil started hitting the market a few years ago, most recipes hid the olive oil under chocolate fudge or strawberry and balsamic. This flavor doesn’t do that at all, and it’s better off thanks to that choice.
THE FINAL SCOOP: Serve it after a sophisticated meal and instead of calling it a dessert, call it a digestif. Then all your friends will think you’re the fanciest person alive.
THE “OKAY, THIS IS LEGIT LOW CALORIE? YOU SURE? DOUBLE CHECK THAT SH*T!” AWARD GOES TO… “STRAWBERRY CHEESECAKE” BY HALO TOP
Over the years, I’ve made it very clear that I will not pander to low-cal ice creams. Frankly, nine times out of ten, I’d rather have a flavor that had double the fat and sugar and just eat less of it. I don’t need your brand to temper my gluttony, I’ll fail at that on my own, thank you.
Halo Top’s limited Strawberry Cheesecake release defies this philosophy. It’s 360 calories per pint, but the flavor makes that seem literally impossible. This tastes like strawberry cheesecake (a superb ice cream concept), full stop. It’s tart and bright-tasting like any good strawberry should be, but there’s also the richness of the cheesecake with a graham cracker crust swirl. That final note is incredibly light, which is a good thing in this age of ice creams jammed full of other random stuff.
I don’t have much else to say without doing some sort of scientific calorie examination like that one episode of Seinfeld. The flavor combo here is perfect, it would have made the list without being low-cal.
THE FINAL SCOOP: Just serve this. Don’t tell anyone about the calorie count until after. Trust me, I’m an expert at noticing this stuff and I wouldn’t have noticed.
THE “OF ALL THE BOOZY ICE CREAMS, I NEVER WOULD HAVE GUESSED THIS ONE WOULD BE MY FAVORITE” AWARD GOES TO… “AMARETTO, BLACK CHERRY, ALMOND TOFFEE” (NON-DAIRY) BY HÄAGEN-DAZS SPIRITS
I feel about “non-dairy” the same way I feel about “low-fat” — no points awarded for effort. Only for taste. This is ice cream, after all. I’m not here to get healthy.
In this case, I actually didn’t know that the pint in question was non-dairy until I uploaded the photo. The flavor is truly that good. Häagen-Dazs sent a few different options for their booze-infused line and this wasn’t the one I expected to like most, but, in the end, it was — with ease — the second best flavor I tasted of them all. Just perfectly balanced and true to the flavor combo that it promised.
Most of the time, cherry flavoring tastes like maraschinos. You know — red, fake and syrupy. This tasted like Italian luxardo cherries. Still syrupy, but dark and rich and just the right amount of tart… almost like licking a sherry cask (Tillamook’s Chocolate Cherry Fudge had some similar flavors and just missed the top 11). Then you pair that with the marzipan flavor of the liqueur and some almond toffee for sweetness and crunch. Just writing about makes me want to race off to the freezer for another taste.
THE FINAL SCOOP: This is the best non-dairy flavor I’ve ever tasted. It’s not even too close.
THE “NOSTALGIA GETS AN UPGRADE” AWARD GOES TO… “BLOOD ORANGE CREAM” BY TILLAMOOK
This is just a smart flavor, right here. It’s not insanely complex but the concept is so strong that it doesn’t need to be. Imagine if some food science savant said to you “what if orange creamsicles came with other types of citrus?” You’d immediately get the idea, right? And the blood orange — the slightest bit sour, sweeter than navel oranges, and ever-so-slightly raspberry-ish — was the perfect way to bring this idea to life.
So how is the execution? Bang on. This is the sweet cream of the creamsicle and all the best aspects of blood oranges — combined in a swirl. No need to have different textural elements. Forget the add-ins. This flavor hits the nail on the head just the way it is, easy, straightforward and perfectly crafted.
THE FINAL SCOOP: This is perfect for the dog days. Sitting in the backyard or on the stoop, watching a movie with the curtains rustling, eating a bowl of ice cream and reminiscing on those creamsicle-filled summers gone by.
THE “THAT’S SUPER EXTRA BUT ALSO KINDA BRILLIANT” AWARD GOES TO… “PEANUT BUTTER VANILLA FUDGE” BY TALENTI
I like peanut butter. If you don’t, this isn’t your jam. But if your go-to flavor as a kid was “chocolate peanut butter” like they had at Baskin & Robbins, this flavor is going to be absolute heaven for you. I’m not quite sure how you’re supposed to eat it — layer by layer, by dredging up some from each layer with your spoon, or just mixing it in a big bowl — but once the first bite hits your palate it doesn’t really matter.
Every element here is over the top and beyond decadent. But they’re all also clean-tasting, not too sugary, and really nicely executed. You start with an extremely rich peanut butter gelato sitting on top of peanut butter cups and fudge. Dig deeper and you get vanilla gelato and peanut butter cookies. It makes for a really fun pint to explore — whether you get all the various flavors in a single spoonful or not.
Decadent? Yes. Maximalist? Absolutely. But with so much flavor and texture packed in a single pint, how could you go wrong?
THE FINAL SCOOP: This isn’t a great pint to just have one scoop of. Run a 10K and then just treat yourself to the whole thing with no regrets. It’s lush as hell and, in this case, that’s absolutely a good thing.
THE “I GET THAT IT’S GIMMICKY BUT IT’S ALSO FLAT OUT GOOD” AWARD GOES TO… “SEA SALT CARAMEL” BY MAGNUM
Okay, listen. There’s no real reason why a pint of ice cream has to be wrapped in a chocolate shell. Unless you’re going to eat the whole pint, it’s not really relevant. But it’s kind of Magnum’s thing and we all just have to get over it.
You know what makes getting over it easy? The fact that they make good ice cream and that their sea salt and caramel is every bit as decadent as their beloved ice cream bars. This isn’t the extreme salt overload you’d get with something by Salt & Straw or even McConnell’s (both of whose riffs on this flavor I personally adore), but it’s salty enough to really take note of and the chocolate is a nice add. Oddly, what really pushes this flavor over the top is that Magnum’s vanilla base is so incredibly rich, and goes heavy on the Madagascar vanilla beans.
This is the pint for someone who is just easing into the salty-sweet side of ice cream. By buying this, you’re offering up a nicely balanced entry point with enough chocolate in and around the pint to make it feel deeply indulgent.
THE FINAL SCOOP: A true dessert ice cream if ever there was one and a pint that almost demands to be eaten right from the package.
THE “PERFECTLY DESCRIPTIVE LABEL” AWARD GOES TO… “BUTTERMILK PANCAKES, BACON, & EGG” BY SALT & STRAW
This tastes like what the label reads. Seriously. Like verbatim. You get the buttermilk pancakes of the base. The smokiness of thick-cut, sugared bacon. Then the eggy taste of a yolk-based caramel ribbon.
Do you like those elements? I love them. This flavor is incredibly well balanced, tastes like the best parts of breakfast without all the sluggishness after, and is complex enough to make you think. It was definitely in the running for the top spot of the summer.
I’m sure someone on the internet — where loving bacon with sociopathic fervor is a weird sport of sorts — is going to rave about what Salt & Straw calls “pralined bacon bites,” but I was far more excited by just how eggy the yolk-based caramel tasted. So inventive, so rich, so flavorful.
THE FINAL SCOOP: Forget breakfast for dinner, this is breakfast for dessert. If that idea excites you, odds are you’ll like this.
THE “THIS IS MIGHT BE TOO SWEET… I’LL TELL YOU AFTER I DOWN THE WHOLE PINT” AWARD GOES TO… “HEY, CUPCAKE!” BY COOLHAUS
Call this “cupcake flavor” if you must but I know what it really is: Cap’n Crunch. Though that’s not what the label says or the ingredients read, the flavor is like Cap’n Crunch cereal milk with softened Cap’n Crunch bites. All things that created a massive sense memory response in me and made me keep going back to this flavor throughout the tasting.
I try to emphasize balance and complexity in these rankings and this one was neither of those things. It was sweet on top of sweet. But I’ll tell you what: It was the closest pint to being completely empty when all was said and done.
There are so many cake batter/ cupcake batter/ baked cake/ baked cupcake flavors that one had to rise above the rest, eventually. This is the one for me. Maybe because in chasing cupcakes it hit my favorite childhood cereal and carried me back to the one vacation every year I got to eat Cap’n Crunch.
THE FINAL SCOOP: It’s gonna be sweet and that sugar rush is sure to hit hard, but if it finds the same nostalgia receptors in you that it did in me, you’ll adore it.
ORDER A PINT HERE
THE “BEST ICE CREAM FLAVOR OF SUMMER 2019” AWARD GOES TO… “HONEY AND CORNBREAD COOKIES” BY McCONNELL’S
I’m pretty sure this flavor is flawless. Corn is such a great idea for use in ice cream and the cornbread “cookies” here taste just like sweet corn madeleines. There’s plenty of flavor in each crumble and even a nice bit of chew — rather than just hard-cookie crunch.
The honey base seems to really only be sweetened with honey (no extra sugar, unless I’m mistaken) and yet there must be salt in either the cookies or the base because it’s there somewhere — keeping this from ever getting too sweet.
More than the other McConnell’s entries, this flavor allows their ultra-luxe base to shine. The cookie ratio is generous enough to appreciate but not overpowering — perfectly balanced and still somehow decadent. Also, cornbread and honey is a match made in heaven and any fool knows that. Why had no one thought of this before?
THE FINAL SCOOP: The flavor of the year; perfect after any Southern meal. Or Northern. Western. Midwestern. All of it. Point being: this is just perfect.