What Is Vanilla Ice Cream?

Ray Hawk

Vanilla ice cream is a form of chilled or partially frozen desert that is flavored with vanilla beans, which are actually not beans at all but the fruit seed pods of plants in the orchid genus Vanilla. Though vanilla ice cream is often considered the most plain and common of ice cream flavors, vanilla spice is the second most expensive spice available after saffron due to the labor requirements of cultivating vanilla orchids. As of 2011, popularity rankings for various ice cream flavors consistently puts vanilla ice cream at the top of the list, with about 29% of people preferring it overall. The second most popular flavor, chocolate, only ranks as favored first by 8.9% of ice cream fans.

Vanilla beans are often used to flavor ice cream.
Vanilla beans are often used to flavor ice cream.

Since orchids are tropical plants, the Vanilla orchid is only cultivated in select regions of the globe. The main exporters of vanilla are Madagascar, Mexico, and Tahiti. Due to the expense of vanilla beans, much of modern vanilla ice cream is made with a vanilla extract that is 35% alcohol. Imitation vanilla flavoring is also used in many vanilla ice cream desserts, with the flavoring largely derived from lignin, a byproduct of wood processing in the pulp and paper industry.

Vanilla ice cream gets its flavor from Vanilla fruit seed pods.
Vanilla ice cream gets its flavor from Vanilla fruit seed pods.

Many homemade ice cream recipes also exist for vanilla, as it is a relatively straightforward flavor of ice cream to produce. Ice cream itself is a dessert that has been around since at least 1700 AD, when Governor Bladen of the state of Maryland in the United States is known to have first served it to his guests. Early recipes for the dessert first appeared in the same year, with the printing of the French cookbook L'Art de Faire des Glaces.

Commercial ice cream machines or home ice cream makers are commonplace today, and come with instructions for how to make many unique flavors of ice cream. The process is fairly simple and involves chilling a mixture of cow's milk, sugar, salt, and cream with flavorings in a central tub surrounded by ice. Motorized blades spin the ingredients into a thick paste-like mixture that is frozen later for greater consistency and thickness.

As of 2011, the United States ranks as the top nation in the world in terms of ice cream consumption, with US citizens eating on average 5.5 gallons (21 liters) per person per year. New Zealand is a close second, and sometimes takes the lead over the US, followed by Denmark, Australia, and Belgium/Luxembourg to round out the top five. In the UK alone, 2.1 gallons (8 liters) of ice cream are consumed per person per year. It is estimated that about 1.52 billion gallons (575 billion liters) of ice cream were produced and consumed in the year 2009, accounting for about 26% of the entire frozen dairy product market.

Cream is the main ingredient in ice cream.
Cream is the main ingredient in ice cream.

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Discussion Comments


If I get an old-fashioned burger and onion ring combo at a 50s kind of diner, I have to wash it down with a vanilla ice cream shake. If I get a slice of apple pie, I only want to add a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The nice thing about vanilla is that it meshes well with a lot of other desserts, like cookies and pies and cakes. Other ice cream flavors are good, but they can clash with other dessert items.


I read in a trivia book that when vanilla ice cream was first introduced to the public, it was promoted as a very exotic flavor. It wasn't supposed to be a bland base for other concoctions like milk shakes and floats. Vanilla just became so popular that it became synonymous with good ice cream.

Personally, I think the best vanilla ice cream, although it's not technically the same thing, is frozen vanilla custard. I also like homemade vanilla ice cream when it's made with real vanilla pods, not just flavoring.

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