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These days, vegan ice cream isn't simply à la mode.
Sure, hard-core ice cream fans may roll their eyes when they see vegan on a pint (we were guilty of it for a while, too). But things have changed since the days of soy-based frozen treats posing as "acceptable" (read: chalky) alternatives to the real thing: Thanks to the steady rise of vegan food, nondairy alternatives and artisanal ice cream shops, vegan ice cream has gotten so good that you might find yourself giving your old favorite the cold shoulder (see our golden milk ice cream recipe here).
Take New York's Alchemy, which started selling vegan push pops at Smorgasburg in 2012 and now makes more than 50 flavors (so many that the founder is looking for a bigger facility). Mike Rosenthal started vegan ice cream company Jawea three years ago and now sells to roughly 120 stores in New York City, Philadelphia and Connecticut.
"The cool thing is that the buyers of these stores and chains understand that this is a growing market. I haven't had anyone say no to getting the product in the store when I've done a tasting," Rosenthal says.
It's not just vegan-only ice cream makers churning out dairy-free options. Artisanal shops like New York and L.A.'s Van Leeuwen, Baltimore's The Charmery and Portland's Salt & Straw are taking a scoop of the market, too. Van Leeuwen's vegan caramel is "one of their most successful flavors ever," co-owner Laura O'Neill says. The shop just released vegan green tea matcha, and vegan honeycomb—made with brown rice syrup instead of real honey, for the staunch vegans out there—comes out in a few months.
And if you thought hell would freeze over before big brands went along with it, then Ben & Jerry's launching four vegan flavors this past February should make it clear that the trend has officially come of age.
And here's the cold, hard truth: Vegan ice cream doesn't suck anymore. Gone are the days of gummy mouthfuls and off-putting aftertastes. The common thread of our favorite producers' decision to go vegan is simply wanting to make the best ice cream possible. The ice cream comes first, the fact that it's vegan, second.
The founders of FoMu in Boston, who are opening two new locations, didn't initially intend to make vegan ice cream, but after running into problems with dairy regulations, they went vegan to make the all-natural product they wanted. Salt & Straw's head ice cream maker Tyler Malek arrived at certain vegan options after tasting flavors and realizing he "didn't want the cream to get in the way."
When it comes to texture, most vegan ice cream that feels closest to dairy is made with a base of of-the-moment coconut cream, along with other nut milks. For flavors like an amazing vegan coconut mint chip whoopie pie, Salt & Straw mixes coconut cream, coconut milk and homemade cashew milk, changing ratios depending on the flavor. Van Leeuwen uses coconut cream, cashew milk and cocoa butter. It all boils down to achieving the right fat content (between 15 and 30 percent), Malek says, and these ice cream producers tinker with the various combinations to reach that desirable creamy level.
"I think coconut cream has a really unique ability to freeze nicely compared to other fats that I've used. It has that toothsomeness that cow's-milk butter has," Malek says.
As with the conventional stuff, vegan ice cream always tastes best from the scoop shop. But if you must eat it straight from the pint with a spoon (on the couch, in sweatpants, no judgment), let the pint rest for five minutes after removing it from the freezer.
You've waited this long for good vegan ice cream; you can wait a few extra minutes to make sure it's the cream (free) of the crop.
Flavors to Try:
Steve's Wildflower Honey Pistachio (available online)
Van Leeuwen's Sicilian Pistachio and Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip (NYC, NJ & L.A.)
Jawea's Chocolate Horchata (NYC)
The Charmery's Toasted Coconut (Baltimore)
Salt & Straw's Coconut Mint Whoopie Pie (L.A. and Portland, OR)
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