Everyone is always yapping about frozen custard. St. Louis residents and expats swear by Ted Drewes (the inspiration at least for Danny Meyer's Shake Shack in New York. Milwaukeeans sing the praises of Leon's and Kopp's, and their neighbors to the west in Madison love their Michael's. Indianians go crazy over Culver's, and New Yorkers wait in line at Shake Shack for an hour for their burgers and custard (custard freaks like us know to hit the always short B-line at Shake Shack, which is for drinks and custard only).
So in this era of Fed-Exed everything, we decided to gather as many of the above-mentioned frozen custards and do the ultimate frozen custard taste test.
A couple of weeks ago we had ten pints of Kopp's, six pints of Ted Drewes, and six pints of Michael's delivered to Serious Eats world headquarters. We sent intern-turned-vice-poobah Robyn Lee to Shake Shack to fetch three pints of its frozen custard (we sprung for a cab for her return trip so it wouldn't melt.)
So, need I say we had a whole lot of frozen custard in the house, as you can see from this photo. SE managing editor Adam Kuban took one for the team and volunteered to administer the completely and utterly blind taste test. Assembled were two of Robyn's friends, three people from our technology partner, Apperceptive, Robyn, and our designer, Raphael.
We were looking for the best vanilla and the best chocolate, and each of the contestants had sent a couple of pints of each of those flavors. We were looking for frozen custard that was creamy, eggy, not too sweet, and light. We wanted the vanilla custard of our dreams to taste like vanilla, and we wanted the chocolate to taste like chocolate and not just cocoa.
The two clearly superior vanilla custards came from Shake Shack and Kopp's. Shake Shack was the winner because you could clearly taste the egg yolks and the real vanilla. Kopp's was also damn good, though, and we can't discount the fact that Kopp's had frozen their custard and Fed-Exed it overnight, and Shake Shack's was as fresh as frozen custard could be. Michael's was a fairly distant third, and (if you're from St. Louis, stop reading) Ted Drewes trailed the pack. It practically disappeared the moment it hit our palates. It had very little flavor.
Kopp's edged out Shake Shack in the chocolate category. Kopp's chocolate was chocolatey and creamy and smashingly good. Shake Shack was also damned fine, but we liked Kopp's better. Again Michael's was a fairly distant third and Ted Drewes trailed the field.
In analyzing the results I looked at the ingredient lists for each of the four vanillas:
Michael's: Whole milk, cream, milk solids non-fat, cane sugar, corn syrup, egg yolk, vanilla extract, mono and diglycerides, cellulose gum, carrageenan.
Ted Drewes: Milkfat and non-fat milk, sugar, eggs, honey, guar gun, carrageenan, dextrose, vanilla, and salt.
Kopp's: Cream, milk, skim milk, sugar, corn syrup, egg yolk, mono digylceride, locust bean gum, guar gum, cellulose gum, trisodium phosphate, careegeenan, vanilla extract, massey's vanilla extract, cocoa.
Shake Shack: milk, cream, sugar, egg yolks, non-fat milk, whey protein, salt.
What did we learn from our exercise in frozen custard excess? Ingredients really matter, even in a populist food like custard. Shake Shack uses better ingredients than anyone else, and its custard is truly terrific, with or without the hype. Kopp's uses Massey's vanilla extract, which is pretty good stuff. The other factor that comes into play is knowing what delicious is. The folks at Kopp's use most of the same ingredients as Ted Drewes and Michael's, and yet their custard is markedly superior to the others we tried. And can anyone doubt that the folks at the Union Square Hospitality group who worked on the Shake Shack recipes know a lot more about food in general and what delicious is than most other frozen custard makers in this country?
Next time, we are just going to find someone with a private jet and hop from one frozen custard bastion to the next. That way the playing field will be completely even and nobody will have any excuses related to how far the custard traveled.
Until then, we wish you godspeed in finding the frozen custard of your dreams.