Vanilla vs. French Vanilla: What's the Difference?

The answer lies in the distinction between an ingredient and a flavor profile.

bowl of French vanilla ice cream
Photo: AnnaPustynnikova/Getty Images

Tack "French" onto anything's name and it automatically sounds fancier: French wine, French cheese, etc. People often assume (consciously or unconsciously) that French vanilla is higher quality than regular ol' vanilla. However, that's not necessarily the case — in fact, it's not even from France.

Vanilla vs. French Vanilla Ice Cream

"French vanilla" is not a type of vanilla bean (like Tahitian or Madagascar varieties), it technically refers to a style of or method for making ice cream. In other words, it's not an ingredient — rather, the name "French vanilla" describes a flavor profile, achieved by using a specific type of ice cream base.

The base of French vanilla ice cream contains egg yolks, and traditionally, the base of plain vanilla ice cream does not. This yolk-less version is also called "Philadelphia-style" ice cream. That said, this doesn't mean that every carton of plain (non-French) vanilla ice cream you see on the freezer aisle is void of egg yolks — so keep that in mind if you're shopping for someone with an egg allergy. Because of the egg yolks, French vanilla ice cream typically has a creamy, yellowish color, where standard vanilla is more of a clean white color.

French Vanilla Flavor

Because of the egg yolks, French vanilla ice cream tastes richer and more custard-like than its yolk-free vanilla counterpart.

While the French vanilla label technically only applies to ice cream, you'll find many products — coffee creamer, for example — marketed as French vanilla-flavored. This simply implies that the product has a rich vanilla flavor, tasting caramelized and even custardy.


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