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.