The Reason the Best Ice Creams Taste Better

It all comes down to one seemingly unimportant component.

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ice cream in containers
Photo: stockcreations (Shutterstock)

The ice cream section in any grocery store can be a pretty overwhelming place. You’ve got choices ranging from small, shockingly expensive pints all the way up to entire buckets at bargain prices. You’ll also see terms like “premium” and “super premium” slapped onto the packaging, labels that do more to confuse the consumer more than enlighten them. Deciphering the wide world of grocery store ice cream comes down to understanding one key concept: overrun.

What is ice cream overrun?

The word “overrun” is used by the ice cream industry to describe how much air is churned into a batch of ice cream during production. The higher the volume of overrun, the cheaper the product is, which makes sense if you think about it. Being charged top dollar for air doesn’t seem fair, does it?

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Overrun is conveyed in percentages: 100% overrun means that for every unit of ice cream base, you get two units of product after the churning process.

How overrun affects ice cream

A major benefit of low overrun is that the ice cream you eat is going to be silky and rich, but it’ll also be quite dense. Ice creams with higher overrun tend to have a foamier, lightweight texture to them; the experience of eating each type of ice cream can feel drastically different.

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But overrun also determines what can even be called “ice cream” and what can’t. The definition of ice cream, as regulated by the FDA, is pretty straightforwardthere are two main rules. One of them is that it needs to contain at least 10% dairy milk fat. The other is that it can’t be beyond 100% overrun (“not less than 1.6 pounds of total solids to the gallon”) and needs to weigh no less than 4.5 pounds per gallon.

The different categories of ice cream, explained

Commercial buyers of ice cream have their own purchasing terminology behind the scenes, and though there are many factors that go into grading ice cream, overrun is a significant factor in how a brand’s quality is determined.

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There are four major categories of ice cream, all of which you’ve probably tasted at some point in your life, since they have their own time and place.

  • Economy: The term “economy” probably doesn’t conjure the idea of luxury for you, does it? It means that this type of ice cream has at least 10% butterfat and is under 100% overrun, but not by much. This is the cheapest stuff, the kind that comes in literal buckets, meant to fill the quantity-over-quality need.
  • Regular (sometimes called “standard”): This is the ice cream I grew up with. It typically comes close to 100% overrun, and The Kitchn explains that this category comprises the bulk of the major brands you can find at the grocery store, including Edy’s and Breyers.
  • Premium: Brands like Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s fall into the “premium” category. These are the ones that cost more and are typically sold in smaller portions (pints) than the regular/standard ice cream sold by the half gallon. Premium ice cream has significantly less overrun, too, typically under 50%, with a higher butterfat ratio that can shoot up to 15% or 16%.
  • Super Premium: We’re adding superlatives to existing categories here, which means we must be at the cream of the crop (pun intended). This is a relatively new category in the industry, meaning the definition is still a little murky and can vary depending on the market. Overrun can go as low as 20%, while the butterfat content can be quite high, all the way up to 18%. You’re paying for those ratios, though, as these pints can cost you $10 or more. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams is one example of a super premium product, and I have to say, it’s pretty fantastic.
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It’s worth mentioning that if a frozen dairy product doesn’t fit the bill for the technical definition of ice cream, it can still be sold at the grocery store—it’s just labeled “frozen dessert.” That term can encompass the use of plant-based products like non-dairy milk, or artificial ingredients like those found in a novelty bar.

While these categories aren’t always clearly marked on ice cream packaging, at least now you know why the pints can sometimes cost so much more than the buckets. When it comes to ice cream, the answer is usually in the air.

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