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Jun 23, 2002 02:08 PM

Who has the best ice cream? Lets set some standards.

  • c

You've heard the commentary:

"I just love Emac and Bolio's strawberry. It's the best around."
"You don't know what you're talking about. Kimball's fudge ripple is the best."
"Sealtest "Heavenly Hash" has them all beat".

If you ask these people what makes the ice cream special, they usually tap dance around an explanation. If you press them enough, they'll admit that they don't right know why they like this particular ice cream stand, but they've been going to this particular shop since they were kids, so it they assume that it has to be good.

How can you truly separate heavenly ice cream from the mediocre slop that is served at most places? Taste plays a role in this analysis, but there are some standards that can't be debated. Of course, if you think that Soft Serve is "gourmet fare", you might want to skip this article, and head out to the local Dairy Joy for a Sundae Supreme. Don't forget the glow-in-the-dark cherry.

Good ice cream blends the slightly sour taste of cream with a complex taste of whatever flavor has been added to the mix. Ice cream companies that are catering to the mass market want to produce a low cost product that is sweet, has a great shelf life, and is easy to produced by an un-skilled labor force. They care little about complex taste, flavor, texture or other details surrounding the concept of "mouth appeal". As a result, an ice cream purveyor that cares about ingredients and the manufacturing process will easily produce a superior product.

First, good ice cream makers don't use "Ice Cream base" which is a chemical-laiden mix that replaces the dairy ingredients in ice cream recipes. Commercial bases use corn syrup for sweetening, and already contains emulsifiers and stabilizers to create a creamy texture. It's also less expensive than things like fresh cream, milk and cane sugar. Wanna see what I mean? Visit your local grocery store, and compare the ingredient labels on a carton of Hoods Ice Cream, Ben and Jerry's, Breyers and Hagan Daz. Hoods and B&J contain fillers, stabilizers and gums to create an artificially creamy texture. Breyers and Hagen Daz do not.

Try the following test: Take a scoop of "quality ice cream" that lacks any ingredients like guar gum, agar, modified food starch, or mono / di-glycerides, and a scoop of generic, supermarket brand which is packed with these additives. Place them on a dish, and allow them to melt. The quality ice cream will melt into a liquid state that resembles cream and milk. The supermarket stuff melts, but seems to hold its shape instead of spreading out into a pool of liquid. This is the result of the stabilizers that are added to the cream mix.

Second, good ice cream purveyors don't use bottled flavor. Ever tasted a fresh strawberry that was grown in someone's back yard? That berry was grown from a cultivar that was bred for flavor. It wasn't bred for size, color, shipping or keeping quality. As a result, that berry has an intensely sweet, sour and tangy flavor that explodes in your mouth. Compare that to the strawberry flavor included in a bottle of Nestle's Strawberry Quik. Sure, the Quik sort-of tastes like strawberries, but it is sickeningly sweet, possesses all kinds of strange aftertastes, and leaves a disgusting residue on the palate.

The ice cream industry sells gallon jugs of "flavor" that are created to increase shelf life and profit (notice a trend here?) Filled with flavoring chemicals and colors created in a lab in New Jersey, they taste like a parody of the real thing. That's why if your black raspberry cone is bright, shocking purple, or your pistachio is electric green in color, you know that your purveyor is using bottled flavor. Good ice cream is usually white with a light tint of color, and is not bright pink, green, orange or purple.

Finally, good ice cream is churned slowly, to minimize the amount of air that is stirred into the finished product. Lift a pint of Hagen Daz and a half gallon of Breyers ice cream. Although Breyers uses "pure ingredients", it is filled with air. This is why you can buy a 1/2 gallon of Breyers for $4.50, and a half gallon of Hagen Daz is $12.00. More air in the mix means less cream and flavoring. Less cream and flavoring means a lower price, and greater profit to the manufacturer.

Finally, good purveyors ripen and store their ice cream properly. Ever remember a eating ice cream whose texture seemed more like a snow cone? That ice cream was improperly stored, or was allowed to sit around too long. A quality outfit will never sell "icy" ice cream.

All of this discussion brings us back to the original question: Which ice cream stands produce products using quality of ingredients and procedures? I can't say, because I've never witnessed any Boston ice cream purveyors making their product. The places that SEEM to offer ice cream that tastes like something are Herrills in Boston (the original Steve's), or Denise's in Somerville. I've heard good things about Toscanini's but I haven't tried them yet. The others are best left to your friends who eat store-bought cookies, frozen pizza and tv dinners.

The next time that one of the magazines or newspapers does an article on ice cream, perhaps they will look into these issues before they make their pronouncements. Perhaps then, their recommendations might mean something.

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  1. toscanini and bedford farms in bedford and concord have the best ice cream.

    9 Replies
    1. re: marushka

      Bart's, for me, is the best east of Cincinnati.

      1. re: Joe H.

        Have you been to Herrell's in Northampton? I think it's always better than Bart's.

        1. re: Dave M.P.

          I've been to both many times, going back to the early '80's around the time when Steve Herrell first moved from Boston. I prefer Bart's. Some of Bart's flavors along with Graeter's in Cincinnati (chip flavors) and Kopp's 16% butterfat frozen custard in Milwaukee I believe are America's best. I also think Richardson's is the best ice cream in Boston. There's also another dairy south of Boston near Whitman (?) very close to the defunct Kings Castleland that was outstanding. (You could really smell the cows!) I just can't remember its name. But I'm surprised that neither of these have been mentioned on this board.

          1. re: Joe H.

            "But I'm surprised that neither of these have been mentioned on this board."

            Look again -- I've cited Richardson's several times.

            1. re: C. Fox

              Being a Northampton native, I can tell you that Bart's is indeed good....but Herrell's is a great place to check out. You also may want to try La Fiorentina. It's an Italian pastry store/cafe that has Gelati that's out of this world!!!!

        2. re: Joe H.

          Is there a Richardson's in Northampton? The only Richardson's I know of is the one in Middleton, and it rocks. They're making the good stuff the good way.

          Can't speak to Bart's as of yet...

          I do like Herrell's, but then, I'm a Steve's fan from way back.


          1. re: Joe H.

            When in Northampton, I choose Herrell's over Bart's 100% of the time.

          2. re: marushka

            Where is the Bedford Farms in Concord? Is it always as crowded as the one in Bedford?


            1. re: marushka

              the bedford farms in concord it right at the train station on thorough st. It's less busy but still has the same great ice cream. enjoy

            2. Wow. Lots of information I didn't know about ice-cream. Learn something new on this site every time I look at it. Crate and Barrel just ran a summer catalogue with a big name manufacturer (Cuisinart?) ice-cream maker on sale for $50. Am thinking of investing.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Coyote

                i have the krups machine, which is the same idea as the cuisinart. i love it. keep the bowl in the freezer and you're all set. a couple of hints: yes, the bowl really does need to stay in the freezer at least overnight or you wind up with soup; you also need to have the mixture very cold before you put it in the machine; and the finished product improves greatly with a couple of hours in the freezer before serving.

              2. Gotta disagree with some of your points. There are a lot of different styles of ice cream out there. What you are describing as "best" reflects your personal preference.

                I, too, feel that artificial flavors and unnatural colors don't belong in ice cream - that forest green green tea ice cream was a real turnoff. But I prefer the traditional Breyer's ice creams, as they are not too rich, and I can eat a whole serving. Super rich ice creams feel greasy and are colder in the mouth, due to the lack of air - more air give Breyer's a more mousse-like texture.

                It's also true that nowadays there are so many ice cream brands available that no non-obsessed person could reasonably sample and judge enough brands and flavors to make a determination as to the "best" available. A lot of people are overwhelmed rather than challenged by this, and would probably admit to you that this is one reason they decided to stick with the one they've been eating all along, rather than try a series of flavors and brands that are really expensive, may disappoint, and may no longer be available in a few months. Brands whose cost would prevent some people from eating ice cream as often as they'd like.

                Some people do still like what they grew up on. That's chowish, too.

                1. I can walk to DQ and usually a choc/van twist is in order. I can also walk to a Tasty Treat and they have soft serve Orange Sherbert.
                  Toscanini's does a wonderful job with the rich flavors such as Belgian Chocolate 1 and 2, and hazelnut( what a mix).
                  Ericsons has great fruit flavors and texture.
                  My all time favorite, based on mouthfeel, good composure in warm temps, creaminess, not too sweet, alyhough too large is Kimball farm. I first had their vanilla many years ago, and have not tried any other flavor there. Truly heaven.
                  Commercially Puritan and Broadway do a fine job.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: mike

                    Until recently I would have voted for Toscanini's (especially the Burnt Caramel and Cardamom-Pistachio), but now I wonder. We are lucky (?) enough to be able to buy this at Bread & Circus now, but my pleasure (mixed with horror at the altogether too easy access) was short-lived. The Burnt Caramel, anyway, is not the ethereal stuff that I remember, and the ingredients include corn syrup, carob bean gum, guar gum, lecithin, and carrageenan. Somehow I doubt that the original Toscanini's ice cream contained this stuff. My question is do the shops actually still have high standards, or has the quality declined there too? (BTW, I did email them about this at least a couple of weeks ago, and I have yet to receive a reply.)

                    My daughter has decided she likes mini-golfing at the Kimball's in Westford, so I have gotten the ice cream there a few times recently. The pistachio is awesome. No loathesome food coloring, and they could not possibly pack more pistachios in. My daughter's chocolate was disappointingly pallid and obviously made with cocoa. Whatever you get, remember to get the kid-sized cups or cones. The smalls are absolutely enormous.


                  2. coffee kahlua and raspberry crunch:Kimballs Carlyle and Westford
                    Ginger: Lizzie's Watertown-better than any I've had in Chinatown
                    Chocolate :31 Flavors (yes!) Cambridge, Burlington
                    Maple Walnut : Herrel's
                    See also at selections in Formaggio cambridge
                    and Zathmary Brookline, Needham
                    Happy Summer

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: M

                      Sorry, I forgot Lookout Farm , Natick, for sorbet and gelato

                      1. re: M

                        Sorry, I forgot Lookout Farm , Natick, for sorbet and gelato