Back when it was hot out, we undertook a very serious scientific mission: gorging ourselves on seven types of supermarket vanilla ice cream in order to study the effects of overrun - the ice cream industry's practice of pumping tons of air into commercial ice cream.
You can think of overrun as really just a fancy word for increasing profit margins, since the more air they pump in, the less actual ice cream they have to put in your container, and it's very crafty of them. But *just how different* are cheap ice creams from fancier ones? That's what we wanted to find out.
While we were at it, we also rated them by taste, calculated the price per gram, and highlighted some "best buys," so basically this is just like a Consumer Reports article.
To see which brands had the most overrun, we figured out the density, assuming:
Density = Mass/Volume
Onto the results:
Cheap Ice Creams
1. America's Choice Tub o' Vanilla
Price: $4.99 at Pathmark in Gowanus
Total volume: 3.78L (4 quarts)
Total weight: 2055 grams
Density: 543.65 gr/l (density ranking: 6/7)
Price per kilogram: $2.42 (cheapo ranking: 1/7)
Taste: 3.5 - this could be much, much worse, all things considered
2. America's Choice Premium "Vanilla Bean"
Price: $2.59 at Pathmark in Gowanus
Total volume: 1.42L (1.5 quarts)
Total weight: 791 grams
Density: 557.04 grams/liter (density ranking: 4/7)
Price per kilogram: $3.27 (cheapo ranking: 2/7)
Taste: 5.5 - super cheap, but totally edible and really kinda good
*good for the price*
3. Breyer's "Homemade Vanilla"
Price: $5.99 at Pathmark in Gowanus
Total volume: 1.41L (1.5 quarts)
Total weight: 784 grams
Density: 556.03 grams/liter (density ranking: 5/7)
Price per kilogram: $7.64 (cheapo ranking: 4/7)
Taste: 6.25 - pretty good, but make sure you get it on sale!
4. Turkey Hill "Vanilla Bean"
Price: $4.29 at Pathmark in Gowanus
Total volume: 1.42L (1.5 quarts)
Total weight: 764 grams
Density: 538.03 grams/liter (density ranking: 7/7)
Price per kilogram: $5.62 (cheapo ranking: 3/7)
Taste: 6.75 - I LOVE this one, even though it's the least dense.
Fancy Ice Creams
5. Haagen Dazs "All Natural Vanilla Ice Cream"
Price: $7.99 at Pathmark in Gowanus
Total volume: 828mL (28 ounces)
Total weight: 695 grams
Density: 839.37 grams/liter (density ranking: 2/7)
Price per kilogram: $11.50 (cheapo ranking: 5/7)
6. Stonyfield Farm "Gotta Have Vanilla"
Price: $4.99 at Gourmet Fresh in Carroll Gardens
Total volume: 473ml (1 pint)
Total weight: 397 grams
Density: 839.32 grams/liter (density ranking: 3/7)
Price per kilogram: $12.56 (cheapo ranking: 6/7)
7. Ronnybrook "Hudson Valley Vanilla"
Price: $5.99 at Gourmet Fresh in Carroll Gardens
Total volume: 473mL (1 pint)
Total weight: 425 grams
Density: 898.52 grams/liter (density ranking: 1/7)
Price per kilogram: $14.09 (cheapo ranking: 7/7)
So, what'd we learn?
Much as you'd expect, generally the cheaper the ice cream, the more air pumped in during the production process. The density numbers are pretty striking between the basic brands we bought at Pathmark and the premium brands - around 550 grams per liter for the cheapos vs. 850 grams per liter for the premiums.
Tastewise, we liked plenty of the cheaper ice creams fine, but I'll chalk that up to my personal preferences, including a lifetime of worshipping Hoodsie Cups and soft serve. It's good to remember though that just because an ice cream is cheaper and has more air packed in, it doesn't necessarily mean that it tastes terrible. (That's mostly a function of the quality of the ingredients.)
What's almost more astonishing though is the price differential--with the cheapest, the admittedly not-great American Choice tub of vanilla, coming in at $2.42 per kilo and Ronnybrook's actually quite good ice cream coming in at $14.09 per kilo. If you're feeding a crowd, it's worth taking into account.
If you're interested in learning more about overrun issues in your homemade ice cream, check out this excellent post from Serious Eats.