I ate soft serve from 7 major fast-food chains, and the winner surprised me

Soft Serve McDonald'sIrene Jiang / Business Insider

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:

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

McDonald's and Burger King essentially tied, as both offered a great-value, great-tasting soft serve. Shake Shack's costly confection was delicious but didn't quite qualify. Wendy's Frosty hit all the targets with a tasty, creamy, and affordable frozen treat that didn't melt on arrival.

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