The Best Fast Food Ice Cream, Ranked

How does the vanilla ice cream at Dairy Queen, Burger King, McDonald's, and Sonic stack up?

In my neck of the woods, 'tis the season for soft serve ice cream. In Vermont, soft serve is called a "creemee," and creemee stands start opening mid-May. It's a much celebrated time of year, but it's also short-lived, lasting from May to September. What keeps us going in-between? For me, it's fast-food soft serve.

I've long been a fan of McDonald's soft serve. Recently though, I started thinking about the ice cream itself, wondering if I'm missing out on something greater. Of the many fast food restaurants that offer ice cream in a cup or a cone, which one has the best basic vanilla soft serve?

To find out, I compared four popular options: McDonald's, Burger King, Sonic, and Dairy Queen. One was a clear winner, and it wasn't at all the one I expected.

Fourth place: Dairy Queen vanilla soft serve

I'm sorry to say that Dairy Queen is not the queen of my heart. In the notes I scribbled down while eating, I wrote, "Soft in a bouncy way—has a marshmallow quality." It was like a cloud that wasn't quite cold enough. Furthermore, it have the creaminess or the strong vanilla flavor I had hoped.

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Perhaps if I'd thrown some toppings on it, this soft serve would have made for a good sundae base. But I'm here to judge this ice cream on its own merits, and as such, Dairy Queen was not the winner by a long shot.

Third place: Burger King vanilla soft serve

This one tasted pretty dialed-down. One thing I found interesting, when comparing soft serve vanilla ice cream experiences, was the point at which the vanilla flavor hit my palate within a particular bite—like a wine tasting, but much less classy. At Burger King, the vanilla soft serve tasted like milk first, and then vanilla. That milk-forward flavor was at least surprising, especially when compared to more vanilla-forward ice creams, but it wasn't an altogether welcome one.

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Second place: McDonald’s vanilla soft serve

McDonald's, my tried and true, has a pretty assertive vanilla flavor. And, as usual, the mixture was very cold and quite creamy. Before I took a more serious look at this broader fast food dessert category, I would have told you that McDonald's ice cream isn't as creamy as others, but I would have been wrong. Mercifully, it stayed firm enough to hold its shape during a car ride, still retaining optimal texture once I got home with it. McDonald's vanilla soft serve is a stalwart. Just not the champion of the group.

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Winner: Sonic Drive-In vanilla soft serve

As I've documented in the past, I didn't grow up eating Sonic, and although I know it has an expansive menu, its ice cream wasn't on my radar. As it turns out, Sonic takes the cake: of all the ice creams sampled for this ranking, Sonic's was far and away the best. It had an off-white color that the rest didn't, one that reminded me of homemade vanilla ice cream, which I have made and which is, before frozen, reminiscent of egg nog.

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(You might be wondering why the photo looks a little melty. In fact, that's a testament to the quality of the ice cream: Its tastiness was so distracting that we happily ate our servings before remembering to photograph the portion we'd set aside as the model.)

Its flavor was supremely vanilla-forward, and as such, it was the only serving of fast food ice cream I felt compelled to finish. It's also the only one I failed to take a representative picture of. I'll probably seek out a second serving of Sonic soft serve soon. Maybe even before the creemee stands close for the season.

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