Classic Ice Cream Toppings, Ranked

From hot fudge to fluffy whipped cream, who will be crowned the cherry on top?

sundae ice cream toppings
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Ice cream on its own is a blessing, but ice cream topped with a rainbow of sprinkles, fluffy whipped cream, and a lava of hot fudge is even better. But what’s the most superior ice cream topping? Is a maraschino cherry actually the cherry on top of this list? Here are our conclusions.

A note on the ranking: We concede that some ice cream toppings will fare better on different flavors than others—hot fudge doesn’t really go with sorbet, and caramel sauce on a scoop of cotton candy would be a sweetness overload. So, in an attempt to be fair, we are using vanilla ice cream as the constant for this ranking. While it’s a flavor with complexity all its own, vanilla is as neutral as we can get.

We also admit that there are too many toppings to include—different candies, an array of sauces to choose from, types of fruit. We tried to get this ranking as traditional, what you’d find in your average mom-and-pop parlor.

13. Maraschino cherries

I like maraschino cherries in my Shirley Temple and that’s about it. The syrupy fruit, in its unnatural shades of ruby red, offers only a cloyingly sweet flavor and a cute, traditional sundae feel. That is not enough for it to render a place higher on this ranking.

12. Candy

I may get flack for this, but candy on top of ice cream doesn’t do it for me. It’s excessive. And, I know, there are so many types of candy to choose from and the desirability of those vary. Gummy bears? Horrible. The coolness of the ice cream hardens gummy candy, rendering them impossible to chew lest you’re seeking an intensive jaw workout. Candybar pieces also freeze in a way that’s unappetizing and too rigid. Reese’s peanut butter cups and Heath bars can get a pass, but candy is still low on my list of decent ice cream toppings.

11. Caramel sauce

Where this caramel sauce landed really depended on the quality. A fresh, salted caramel sauce is miles ahead of the store bought kind. But, in my experience, most ice cream parlors offer a generic store-bought caramel sauce that’s too runny while simultaneously being teeth-numbingly sweet. With a vanilla ice cream, it feels unnecessary—a dilution of the true vanilla flavor rather than a pairing that enhances the overall experience.

10. Condensed milk

If this was a ranking with strawberry ice cream as the constant, condensed milk would be top of the list. It’s delicious on kakigori, bingsu, and other shaved ice desserts—and pairs especially well with fresh fruit. But with a vanilla ice cream, condensed milk would just be redundant.

9. Whipped cream

Similarly to the condensed milk, whipped cream on top of vanilla ice cream feels one note. Whipped cream is the type of topping that needs to work in tandem with other toppings to truly shine—a chocolate sauce, some sprinkles, and even a dreaded Maraschino cherry brighten it. Otherwise it’s relatively forgetful.

8. Sprinkles

The main purpose of sprinkles is to look visually appealing. If this was a ranking based just on photographing ice cream toppings, or one conducted by a small child, rainbow sprinkles would likely take the cake. But if we’re talking about flavor, sprinkles have little-to-none and only provide an added bit of texture.

7. Chocolate sauce

Of all the chocolate toppings—Magic Shell and hot fudge included—chocolate sauce is the worst one. This doesn’t mean it’s bad! Quite the opposite. A chocolate sauce can be rich and simultaneously silky. But the ones we all grew up on and made chocolate milk out of is a bit too syrupy for my liking and doesn’t even come served warm. For that, chocolate sauce is cemented at seventh in this ranking.

6. Chopped nuts

This feels like an old-fashioned opinion, but I love chopped nuts on ice cream, whether it be peanuts, almonds, pistachios, pralines, or walnuts (in that order). There’s a hit of saltiness that balances out the aromatic vanilla and the nutty, crunchy texture pairs perfectly against smooth ice cream. Sure, chopped nuts are heightened even more with the addition of chocolate sauce and whipped cream, but it’s still one of the toppings that can stand on its own.

5. Strawberry sauce

Strawberry sauce is so dynamic. There’s the gooey, sticky texture, rippled with strawberry seeds and the occasional chunk of actual strawberries. It’s beautiful to look at, but even better to taste—a sweet-tart symphony mellowed out by vanilla ice cream. Strawberries and cream is always a winning combination, but especially when it comes to ice cream.

4. Magic Shell

It’s hard to decipher whether it’s the enchanting elements or the rich, chocolaty flavor that makes a Magic Shell so captivating. The secret ingredient is coconut oil, which has a relatively liquid state at room temperature but freezes up upon contact with ice cream. Regardless, magic shells provide a satisfying crackle, deep chocolate flavor, and alchemy all in a single topping.

3. Crushed Oreo cookies

Cookies and cream is one of the top most popular ice cream flavors in the United States, beaten out only by vanilla and chocolate. There’s a reason for that. Cookies and cream ice cream embodies America’s two other favorite ice cream flavors. The crunch of chocolate cookie sandwiches and the soft, candy-like center, paired with vanilla ice cream, is a classic. So if you can’t have cookies and cream ice cream, having crushed Oreo cookies as a topping is the next best thing.

2. Fresh fruit

Honestly, what dessert does fresh fruit not improve? Strawberries dipped in chocolate, raspberries topped on mousse, mango and sticky rice, even s’mores—these are just a sampling of the ways in which fresh fruit balances out desserts. The same goes for ice cream. Banana slices in a split are iconic, while diced strawberries, a sprinkling of blueberries, or even a drizzle of passionfruit can provide some zip to an otherwise plain scoop of vanilla ice cream. We approve of every fruit.

1. Hot fudge

The hot and cold sensation of diving into a scoop of ice cream laddled with hot fudge is unmatched. It’s the same reason that fresh brownies, cookies, or pies are served a la mode—like a song of ice and fire, but with fewer dragons and despair and more joy and sugar. Hot fudge is the ice cream topping that stands out on its own, but can also help the likes of whipped cream, chopped nuts, and even the beleaguered maraschino cherry. It is the ruler of all ice cream toppings and has firmly earned its place at the top of our ranking—and every future sundae.

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Kat Thompson is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn