Summertime is upon us, and so is soft-serve season.
It's the perfect sweet treat to beat the heat, but there are so many options out there - and not all soft-serve is created equal.
Armed to the cold-sensitive teeth with my lactose pills, I set off to seven major chains to try their vanilla frozen dairy treats. I judged them by their creaminess, texture, and overall taste, giving them a score out of a possible five on each. I also noted the price I paid for each item.
I tried soft-serve desserts at McDonald's, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Wendy's, Chick-fil-A, Shake Shack, and Checkers. Here's how they compared:
DAIRY QUEEN — SMALL CONE, VANILLA SOFT-SERVE, $2.99. Dairy Queen's claim to fame is its soft-serve ice cream treats, so its stakes in this competition are high.
CREAMINESS — 3. It's not very creamy, and it has none of that aftertaste you expect from dairy, especially dairy with a royal pedigree. TEXTURE — 3. The swirl holds its shape, but due to its watery composition, it melts very quickly from the outside. It also withstood the upside-down test, which is either impressive, disconcerting, or both.
TASTE — 3. It is the perfect level of sweet and light, like soft-serve should be. But most of the frozen treat's flavor comes from sugar, and it doesn't have the robust creamy flavor that sends me running for my Lactaid.
CHECKERS — VANILLA CONE, $1.50. Checkers was possibly the least aesthetically appealing of the soft-serves, but I'm not one to judge a cone by how it looks.
CREAMINESS — 5. I was right to reserve judgement. The Checkers cone was a creamy, lactic dream. TEXTURE — 3. However, this put the soft in soft-serve. It melted way too quickly.
TASTE — 4. It has a great, creamy taste and is slightly too sweet, but it doesn't taste too artificial. For an ephemeral lick, this one's great. But it doesn't last.
CHICK-FIL-A — VANILLA ICEDREAM CONE, $1.85. Chick-fil-A doesn't describe Icedream as ice cream, but rather as "a delicious, dairy treat with an old-fashioned vanilla taste." It sure does have a dreamy swirl.
CREAMINESS — 4. This one does have a creamy taste, but it quickly fades into a watery aftertaste. TEXTURE — 4. It has more of a gritty, watery texture than is ideal and it melts fairly quickly, but it has a nice, consistent texture.
TASTE — 4. Overall, Chick-fil-A offers a pretty well-balanced cone with minimal artificial taste. However, it doesn't deliver quite as much substance as style.
BURGER KING — VANILLA SOFT SERVE, $1.89. It's called "Burger King" and not "Dairy King," but people and fast-food chains can be good at more than one thing.
CREAMINESS — 4. It definitely has that legit dairy flavor. It's also pretty beige relative to other soft-serves, which is reassuring as to its dairy content. TEXTURE — 4. It holds up much better than DQ's strangely stiff yet melty swirl. Burger King's cream has a lovely, even melt while maintaining its structural integrity.
TASTE — 4. Despite a slight artificial undertone, the King's cone delivers a solid soft-serve experience.
MCDONALD'S — VANILLA SOFT SERVE, $2.19. Good ol' Mickey D's arguably has the prettiest cone of them all. The color of its frozen dairy dessert, like that of DQ's, is snow white.
CREAMINESS — 4. It's a different kind of creamy than Burger King's cone, but it's still pretty dang creamy. Not quite all the way there, though. TEXTURE — 4. It's super smooth but melts juuust a little too quickly.
TASTE — 4. Each lick is pretty great, but afterwards it leaves you feeling empty. It does have a noticeable artificial taste, but overall delivers a satisfying combination of creamy and sweet.
SHAKE SHACK — VANILLA CUSTARD CONE, $4.09. This one's a little different because it's not really soft-serve. It's frozen custard, soft-serve's bougie Midwestern cousin.
CREAMINESS — 5. It's super creamy, but also super egg-y. TEXTURE — 5. Smooth and velvety, you can tell that this cone dedicates a lot of time to self-care.
TASTE — 4. It's too sweet, too heavy, and not soft serve. And it's not the best value.
WENDY'S — VANILLA FROSTY, $1.99. The Frosty is not a cone. Is it soft serve, ice cream, or a milkshake? It doesn't matter. A frozen vanilla dairy treat by any other name tastes just as sweet.
CREAMINESS — 5. What's in a name? The Vanilla Frosty is by far the creamiest of the concoctions. TEXTURE — 5. It's also the thickest. The Frosty has an amazingly smooth, dense texture that's not watery at all and melts at a glacial pace.
TASTE — 5. All of the contenders had some work done, so I can't really dock any for tasting artificial. The Frosty has the thick texture and creamy taste one desires on a hot summer day. It may be going through its own identity crisis (milkshake? ice cream? soft serve? dairy chimera?), but we know what it is: a winner. Specifically, the winner of this taste test.
In this taste test, Dairy Queen was the least impressive with its unnatural texture and surprisingly high price tag. Checkers did well value-wise, but its cone didn't have enough structural integrity. Chick-fil-A's Icedream was slightly better on the structure front, but it was also too watery.