In August of 2021, Marble Slab Creamery released a limited-edition Cheetos Flamin’ Hot Ice Cream. When I heard this shocking news, I was young, innocent, and naive to the wave of strange stunt ice cream flavors that would soon overtake the food news cycle. I had to try it. I don’t know why, but I was compelled by the idea of crunchy, crispy Hot Cheetos mixed in sweet, cool ice cream. Could it work? Could it even be…delicious?

So I headed to my local Marble Slab, a woman on a mission. I ordered myself a big scoop of vanilla mixed with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in a waffle cone. And honestly, it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t the best ice cream I’ve ever had. Far, far, from it. But it also definitely wasn’t the worst. The Cheetos added a really nice crunch, and the heat was nicely balanced by the sweetness of the vanilla.

The Marble Slab Flamin’ Hot Cheetos mix-in was just one of many ice cream stunts that have momentarily captured America’s attention. In the years since, we’ve seen a plethora of wacky, eye-catching flavors, from Kraft Mac & Cheese to Grey Poupon Mustard (with salty pretzel bits). From the supermarket to the scoop shop, ice creams featuring unexpected savory ingredients like kale, ranch, mustard, and BBQ sauce are growing ever more common.

Moriah House

Many of these odd flavors are just, how do I say this, not good. For example, the Hidden Valley Ranch pint that Stephen Colbert was forced to sample on The Late Show (BTW, remember late night TV? #WGAstrong). I’m sorry, but it was never going to be good. Ranch doesn’t belong in ice cream, and I’ll stand by that.

It can be hard to justify opting for a baked bean or chick’n & waffles-flavored scoop when chocolate fudge, sea salt caramel, and other such delights are available. And committing to a whole pint? That’s big stuff. But it’s worth it to keep an open mind, because some of the unique flavors popping up in the supermarket and in the scoop shop are more than just awkward brand collabs.

Take, for example, the Blueberry Kale ice cream created by The Hop Ice Creamery, an Asheville, NC institution which has been scooping up creamy deliciousness since 1978. This Blueberry Kale flavor is kind of a local legend (IYKYK). In fact, upon being asked to divulge his favorite ice cream flavor, a local four-year-old told me (confidently and delightedly) “Blueberry Kale!” High praise.

Photo by Micah Mackenzie courtesy of The Hop Ice Creamery

I talked to Greg Garrison, one of The Hop’s current owners and one of the brilliant minds behind Blueberry Kale, to determine the true backstory of this veggie-packed creamy deliciousness.

“Ten years ago, there were a lot of juice bars using kale and spinach, and we decided to give it a try,” Greg said. “It turned out so much better than we were expecting. It just worked really well, and honestly was beautiful. We started making it every day, and people took to it, especially kids…after having a sample, they’d realize it’s not just okay, it’s actually really good.”

Still not convinced? The Hop’s Blueberry Kale ice cream was named one of Saveur Magazine’s 5 Great American Ice Creams and was North Carolina’s featured flavor in “Scoop Adventures: The Best Ice Cream of the 50 States,” by Lindsay Clendaniel. And even 10 years on, the flavor is still available at The Hop at least once a month. So it’s clearly more than an attention-grabbing stunt.

Photo by Micah Mackenzie courtesy of The Hop Ice Creamery

The Hop scooped up even more controversial offerings, including a flavor made with a local mustard brand. “Lusty Monk Mustard…it's pretty spicy. But the ice cream itself is not that spicy,” said Greg. “It's really creamy and has a pretty mild mustard flavor. It ends up tasting more like a sweeter mustard than a spicy savory mustard.”

Hmmmm…as someone who has tried Cheetos ice cream, I’m definitely open to it. But this begs the question, if kale and mustard ice cream can actually work, what about all those other eccentric scoops? How can you determine if that strange-sounding ice cream has a sophisticated flavor profile or is just a haphazard stunt?

I’ve developed some green and red flags to keep in mind when making an ice cream decision. But of course I’m no expert, so take this with a grain of salt.

Green Flags:

- Produced by a small, local/artisanal shop or brand

- Uses locally sourced or generic ingredients

- Highlights more than one ingredient (e.g. Blueberry Kale)

Red Flags:

- Produced by a large brand/chain

- Emphasizes an ingredient from a major brand (e.g. Hidden Valley Ranch, Heinz Ketchup)

- Highlights a single ingredient (e.g. just Kale)

Beige Flag:

- Is dairy free/vegan

Of course, by this measure, Marble Slab’s Flamin’ Hot Cheetos ice cream should have been terrible. And while it wasn’t great, I will say I don’t regret trying it. So use your best judgment. You’re smart, I trust you.

Dairy-free options

Stunt flavors aren’t the only trend taking over the ice cream industry. Vegan and dairy free ice cream options have expanded rapidly in recent years, while dairy ice cream consumption seems to be on the decline. As a lactose-tolerant individual, I am usually skeptical of vegan ice cream. But at The Hop, I order plant-based alternatives confidently, knowing I won’t miss the dairy.

I asked Greg what makes The Hop’s dairy-free options so special. “A lot of places, there’s only one or two vegan or dairy-free flavors on the menu, and it’s usually a sorbet,” he said. At the Hop, in contrast, there’s at least eight vegan flavors on the menu at all times, and nearly every menu item can be made vegan.

Photo courtesy of The Hop Ice Creamery

“Vegan ice cream is more than a feather in our cap,” Greg said. “It’s a huge part of our business…All the vegan milk bases we make in house from scratch starting with pepita seeds, hemp seeds, bananas, raw oats. We’ve worked really hard to make sure our menu is as inclusive as possible.” He added “We are a family of four, and three of us are lactose intolerant. I’m the only one that can eat dairy, but I get vegan ice cream just as often as dairy at this point.”

And with plant-based options like Chocolate Peanut Butter Banana Creme and Local Strawberry Pepita Milk that would convert even the most die hard dairy-devotee, I don’t blame him.

Of course, not all ice cream shops are as vegan-friendly as The Hop. Here’s my dairy-free ice cream ordering tips to help you avoid icy, bland scoops (again, I am not an expert).

Green Flags:

- Wide variety of plant-based flavors available

- Made with a unique vegan milk base, such as pepita milk, bananas, or hemp seeds

Red Flags:

- Only one or two vegan options

- The dairy-free flavor is also sugar free (AKA it’s the “diet option”)

- Made with almond milk (this might just be a personal preference, but I don’t think it’s creamy enough)

Ice cream is serious business, and if you’re anything like me (incredibly indecisive), choosing a flavor feels pretty high stakes. My desire to be adventurous is often overpowered by my fear of ice cream order regret (the worst kind). But with the world of ice cream growing ever more diverse and creative, it’s worth keeping an open mind. You might just be surprised.

So, if an *interesting* new flavor catches your eye on your next trip to the scoop shop, don’t be afraid to ask for a sample. And hey, there’s always the split scoop.