Full disclosure before we proceed on this taste test journey together: I am not vegan. I start my day with a bowl of cereal and end it with milk and cookies (maybe not every night, but it is not uncommon).
That said, I have run headfirst into situations where I needed to sub something vegan into my usual baking and eating adventures, whether for a vegan or lactose-intolerant friend, or because I needed to make a dessert pareve.
With some pretty high price tags on dairy-free ice cream, I decided to do an all out taste test to determine which substitutes—cashew, almond, soy, rice or coconut—to buy during future creamless ice cream shopping sprees.
Unfortunately, this unscientific experiment has one large limitation: I couldn’t get all the different types in a single flavor. For the sake of crowning a winner though, I was able to find a sample of each type to compare (thanks for the help, Kroger).
The Control: Standard Ice Cream
Before venturing into the great unknown of vegan ice creams, I decided to set a baseline and take a scoop of regular ‘ole creamy happiness.
…or I just wanted a back up in case this whole experiment sent my tastebuds into disarray.
Either way, I started with a pint of no-frills, store-brand, mix-in éclair ice cream which Kroger Private Selection blessed me with for a mere $0.40. This safely satisfied my sweet tooth, and is a great ice cream to use if you want to get fancy and make something like baked Alaska.
So, what makes regular ice cream so good? I think it is that texture that draws you to a melting cone or coats the back of a spoon with creamy happiness. It’s sweet but doesn’t sit in your stomach, and it is smooth and time sensitive. Real ice cream melts fast.
Price: $2.99 (between a coupon and a sale though, I walked away with my pint for $0.40)
Calories per 1/2 Cup: 210 (100 calories from fat)
First Ingredient: Milk (the kind from a cow, ya’ll)
Taste Grade: A+
5. The Disaster: Rice-Based
Is this like eating a bowl of rice? No.
Is it like eating a bowl of ice cream? Hell no.
I have to give the Rice Dream company credit: they are honest. Like many of the other substitute products, they don’t call their pint of ice-cream-look-alike “ice cream” and instead refer to it as “non-dairy frozen dessert.”
Unfortunately, I think they still got the dessert part wrong. This product, while healthier than a regular scoop of ice cream, is downright disappointing. The color is an unappealing off-white, and it only goes downhill from there.
It is smooth and easy to scoop out of the container, but it lacks the airiness of good ice cream and has a sweet flavor that would do better in a fruit pastry than in a sundae. If you like rice milk, you may be a fan as they have similarly odd flavors. This may also be your only choice if you are nut, soy and lactose-intolerant (I am so sorry). If that’s you, at least experiment with Rice Dream’s other flavors such as cocoa marble fudge, which might mask the rice.
Otherwise, steer clear of this so-called “dream” product. It’s unfortunately a cream lover’s nightmare.
Calories per 1/2 cup: 160 (50 calories from fat)
First Ingredient: Filtered water
Taste Grade: F-
4. The Safe Bet: Almond-Based
Not bad, not great, but certainly not worth the price, Almond Dream’s vanilla ice cream substitute leaves a good bit to be desired. While it looks better than its rice counterpart, with a more palatable off-white color and vanilla specks, it tasted a bit like marzipan to me.
It had a good consistency, with an ice-cream-like scoop and a normal meltiness factor. Unfortunately, it was just not quite as close to the control sample, although it wins points as the overall least-unhealthy (cuz healthy is not the right word).
For those who are used to eating Passover food, this will remind you strongly of that week of off-tasting sweets.
A warning though: if you are an almond milk fan, don’t jump to the conclusion that this is the pint for you. It has little in common taste-wise with the drink.
Calories per 1/2 cup: 140 (60 calories from fat)
First Ingredient: Filtered water
Taste Grade: B
3. The Clearest Flavor: Coconut-Based
From the onset, this flavor didn’t stand much of a chance with me, as I am not a coconut fan. That said, it is not a bad product.
There is absolutely no escaping the coconut flavor, but some people use coconut as an ice cream topper anyhow. If that’s you, a pint of this concoction is your dream dessert.
Similar to the cashew-based ice cream, this lacks a bit of the usual creaminess, but it has its own smooth texture and leaves a bit of a refreshing, mint-like aftertaste.
So Delicious also makes ice cream bars with this product, perfect for those who need a coconut fix on the go.
Calories per 1/2 Cup: 140 (70 calories from fat)
First Ingredient: Organic Coconut Milk (which is made primarily of water)
Taste Grade: B
2. The Easy Switch: Cashew-Based
They had me at dark chocolate truffle.
This product from So Delicious was the first pint to be finished off after all of the alternatives had been taste-tested. With a dollop of whipped cream (not vegan, I know) and some sliced strawberries, this substitute is fire.
Cheapest among the competitors, it has its own creaminess, although it takes more melting than regular ice cream to reach that point, making it a good candidate for adding to ice cream sandwiches.
While some of my fellow tasters sensed the cashew flavor here, it was not strong enough for me below the chocolatey goodness.
The only downside to this product? It’s extremely hard to scoop. It feels a bit hard and frosty, but it holds its own once you get it out of the container.
Calories per 1/2 Cup: 180 (80 calories from fat)
First Ingredient: Cashew milk, which is mostly water
Taste Grade: A
1. The Vegan Winner: Soy-Based
Am I vegan? No.
Could I go vegan after eating this? I’m willing to discuss it.
So Delicious’s soymilk cookie dough ice cream could hold its own against the real ice cream control and wins extra points from me for being gluten free.
On the first taste, this is indistinguishable from ice cream. Its creamy with the same color and weight as regular ice cream. There is a slight moment where you can sense a soy aftertaste, but it doesn’t linger.
For the flavor I sampled, the cookie dough bites were a bit sweeter than necessary, but there were no particular hints in the taste that it was gluten free. I didn’t get any of the usually grittiness common to some gluten free cookie doughs.
The only downside to this wonder-substitute? It’s got a very steep price tag.
Calories per 88g: 170 (60 calories from fat)
First Ingredient: Water
Taste Grade: A+