After my recent foray into sparkling water ranking, I was drunk on the power of my new status as amateur food and beverage critic. What other edible substance was begging for the razor-sharp appraisal of one H. Harling Ross? I asked myself this very question whilst meandering the aisles of Whole Foods a couple weeks ago.
That’s when I felt a chill. Literally, I mean, because I had just stepped into the freezer section to locate the last item on my grocery list: a pint of salted caramel ice cream. As I surveyed the plethora of salted caramel frozen dessert options, I found myself paralyzed by choice. How is it that EVERY ice cream brand — even the cheaper ones — suddenly carried a salted caramel flavor option? Who does salted caramel think it is? Vanilla??
I pulled out my phone and Googled “best salted caramel ice cream.” At first I was disappointed that a proper salted caramel ice cream ranking didn’t seem to exist, but then I was inspired. I would provide the people with the salted caramel ice cream ranking they needed and deserved. It was fate.
I had two goals for the ranking:
1. Provide a comprehensive taste recap for the salted caramel contenders of ice cream brands you can find in a grocery store.
2. Answer the following question: when it comes to a flavor like salted caramel (i.e. kinda douche-y to begin with), does expensive really mean “better”? (Disclaimer: I know prices vary based on retailer and location, but the ones listed below are sourced from what I found available for purchase online).
So, I tried them all. Someone had to do it.
I started with Ben & Jerry’s Salted Caramel Core, a wild card take on salted caramel featuring a sweet cream ice cream base, blondie bites and — you guessed it — a “core” of pure, gooey salted caramel running through the middle. It was creamy and VERY sweet, almost disgustingly so. I would say it’s the kind of salted caramel profile tailor-made for post-midnight feasting after a long night out, when the slightly artificial taste of OMG SO MUCH SUGAR is actually really appealing.
Taste rating: 2/5
While Dulce de Leche isn’t technically salted caramel, I felt compelled to include this Haagen-Daz classic as a point of comparison. A combination of caramel and sweet cream ice cream swirled with ribbons of actual caramel, I would recommend it to any caramel purist who is “meh” on the salty-sweet aspect of a true salted caramel. Haagen-Daz Dulce de Leche is sweet but not in an overwhelming way like the Ben & Jerry’s, and I could definitely detect that telltale “burnt sugar” flavor signature to caramel.
Taste rating: 3/5
For my third pint, I ventured into new territory with a brand I had never heard of before: Steve’s. It caught my eye at the grocery store because it advertised itself as gluten free, egg free, soy free, GMO free and rBGH free. (I had to look up that last one. Apparently it’s a genetically-engineered artificial hormone injected into dairy cows to make them produce more milk — ugh). I’m happy to report that I really, really liked the taste of this one. I would describe it as kind of mellow, almost buttery. One of the ingredients is “Jacobsen sea salt,” which, unlike regular sea salt, is hand-harvested from the cold and pristine waters of Netarts Bay on the Oregon Coast — and I’m not yanking your chain when I say I think I could tell the difference.
Taste rating: 4/5
For my fourth pint, I tucked into Victory Garden’s salted caramel gelato made with — wait for it — GOAT MILK. Betcha didn’t see that coming unless you did because it’s right above this paragraph.
This one was interesting. It was less creamy than the others — icier but not in an unpleasant way, kind of like sorbet. Very refreshing, especially if you’re in the mood for a lighter salted caramel treat.
Taste rating: 3/5
Talenti’s Sea Salt Caramel was my fifth contender. If you haven’t been exposed to the Talenti gelato hype, I’m guessing you’ve been living on Mars for the past couple years. This brand is everywhere — Whole Foods, Stop & Shop, bodegas — you name it, and people are obsessed. I was excited when I turned the pint around and noticed that “caramel” was the first ingredient. Neat! (Usually “milk” is.) When I took a scoop with my spoon, I discovered another surprise: small chunks of chocolate-covered caramel mixed throughout. I’m a sucker for good ice cream mix-ins, so this was a real treat, and the flavor of the ice cream was delicious to boot.
Taste rating: 5/5
For my penultimate rankee, I cracked open a container of Whole Foods Caramel and Sea Salt Italian Gelato. Apparently it’s made in small batches and quickly frozen before being imported from Italy, which is cool, but…
I hate to do this. I’m not in the business of bashing desserts, but as a budding food critic with a heart of gold, I have to be real with you guys: I did not like this one at all. It was WAY too sweet in a way that tasted fake, and the consistency was super airy — almost whipped, to the extent that it felt like I was eating ice cream that had been left out in the sun too long.
Taste rating: 1/5
I saved the Van Leeuwen pint for last because its East and West Village outposts are my favorite ice cream shops in NYC (so I knew I’d be ending on a high note). Van Leeuwen’s non-dairy flavors are what I would confidently call “vegan done right” — delicious and not at all compromising in flavor or creaminess just because they don’t contain eggs or real milk — and the salted caramel is no exception. The ingredients are coconut cream, cashews, coconut oil, cocoa butter, organic cane sugar, vanilla bean, maldon sea salt and organic carob butter. No preservatives or additives. It’s definitely pretty coconutty-tasting, but as a big coconut fan, I think this is actually a bonus.
Taste rating: 4/5
Talenti Sea Salt Caramel was the winner with a solid 5/5 rating — a satisfying answer to my initial question about taste-to-price correlation, given that Talenti was one of the cheaper pints.
If you’re not a fan of mix-ins and you prefer an ice cream with a smooth, subtle taste, I would still heartily recommend a pint of Steve’s, and if you’re lactose-intolerant or vegan, you truly can’t go wrong with Van Leeuwen’s, although it’s pricey AF.
Any suggestions for my next food and/or beverage ranking? Drop them in the comments below. I’m pretty sure I’m destined to be this generation’s Pete Wells.
Photography: Louisiana Mei Gelpi
Creation Direction: Emily Zirimis