We're rapidly approaching the official end of summer, but there's nothing saying you have to roll back your summertime habits. Keep going to the beach. Keep up the picnicking and outdoor movie-ing. And keep enjoying one of the finest of all hot weather treats: soft serve.
Between the first drips that form when your cone hits the sunlight and the last bite of frozen sweetness lodged into the bottom recesses of the cone is a metaphor for life itself: messy, delicious and gone far too soon.
And while there's lots of good soft serve out there, let's be real here: The best soft serve is fast-food soft serve.
Maybe it's the sexy-sounding emulsifiers like propylene glycol monoesters and stabilizers like guar gum, which helps keep your favorite soft serve creamy instead of icy. Maybe it's the fact that Dairy Queen goes as far to explain on its website that its soft serve doesn't meet the legal definition of ice cream. Or the fact that Chick-fil-A made up an entirely new word — Icedream — to describe its soft serve.
Whatever it is, and regardless of how many syllables the ingredients have, it's delicious. Nobody is claiming fast-food soft serve is good for you. But if you're baking in your apartment in a tough year, don't feel bad about indulging your inner child in a nice little treat from a fast-food chain.
You deserve a treat.
Below are seven of the top fast-food soft serves, ranked from my favorite to least. Please note that my definition of soft serve does not include milkshakes or treats like the Wendy's Frosty, as much as I love them. Soft serve should be eaten in a cone, ideally a cake cone.
The iconic Tastee-Freez brand is something of a classic boom-and-bust story: Founded in 1950 in Illinois, it rapidly expanded to more than 1,700 stores by early 1957. Today, there are just four standalone Tastee-Freez stores left, including one in Anchorage, of all places. The good news is, you can still get Tastee-Freez — it can be found at Wienerschnitzel (yes, the hot dog place), whose parent company bought Tastee-Freez in 2003.
It could be tickling the Midwesterner in me, but I loved this cone. There's a smooth texture with minimal iciness and a flavor that resembles frozen whipped cream. The fact that you can get a dipped cone — a dying art — adds to the allure. Tastee-Freez's chocolate shell shatters appealingly and has a slight saltiness as it dissolves on your tongue. Dipping your cone in chocolate melts the soft serve all the more quickly, of course, so plan accordingly. There's another flavor for the dipped cones, Froot Loops, which is good if you happen to like the taste of waxy floor cleaner.
It's hard to believe this corporate behemoth was once a humble little burger stand, founded in San Bernardino in 1940. McDonald's ranks a close second, but the occasional inconsistency of their soft serve availability (Have you checked out the site Mcbroken? It keeps track of whether a given location's ice cream machine is working, based on live data from the McDonald's app) knocks it down a peg, as does the lack of uniformity of cone sizes. Sometimes you get a decent amount of soft serve for your $2.19, but sometimes you get an uneven smear that barely extends over the lip of the cone.
But McDonald's soft serve is like its French fries (which happen to go well eaten together, as you likely know). When it's hitting on all cylinders, there's little that's better. The texture is light and silky, one of the best you'll try, and the vanilla flavor of the soft serve itself is almost buttery.
More Midwestern bias! I grew up going to Dairy Queen and have a spot in my heart that's as soft as their ice cream — sorry, soft serve. The texture is very good, a bit firmer than average, and the vanilla flavor is assertive without overpowering. What I like most about coming here is the shape of their cones. Unlike most soft serve cones, which resemble something like a cathedral spire, Dairy Queen's cones sit like the dome on top of the Taj Mahal: like a plump onion waiting to be plucked out of the ground.
The dipped cone is a classic DQ feature that is, unfortunately, shared by few. Who doesn't like a waxy "magic shell" of chocolate covering their ice cream? If anyone wants to start a petition to make this a permanent fixture everywhere frozen treats are sold, I'll sign it. These were the most expensive cones I tried — $11 for two small cones, one of which was dipped.
While I'm not a huge fan of their burgers, Burger King does soft serve right. The texture is good, with a few noticeable ice crystals here and there, and conspicuous, pleasant creaminess. The flavor of vanilla is strong — maybe a little too strong, as it comes across as a bit artificial tasting.
God bless Sonic, where the carhop experience lives on: You can still order at a kiosk from the comfort of your own automobile and someone will bring your food out to you. When ordering soft serve the other day, I expected a typical cone, with a typical amount of vanilla soft serve. Instead, I got a truly mammoth quantity of the stuff in a giant chocolate waffle cone, which was then placed in a big soda cup and given to me. The person who gave me my order explained that they "usually have" cake cones but didn't today, for whatever reason.
Sonic's soft serve is perfectly fine, but I have to dock points for the lack of cake cones. Here's why: Cake cones are, unequivocally, the best vessel for ice cream and soft serve. It comes down to two things: the texture of the cone and its nooks and crannies dotted throughout.
A good cake cone has all the best qualities of — and I say this lovingly — a Styrofoam peanut: a perfect blend of snap and chew. The best cake cones will have a bit of tapioca flour in them, which gives a little bit of plasticity that can almost come across as staleness. Sugar cones and waffle cones are inferior because they stamp their own authority on the treat. Notice me, they seem to say.
But a cake cone is Switzerland — a neutral vessel. It does this by way of the small dimples on the edge of each cone, which capture ice cream in their recesses, and by the large indentations at the bottom of the cone. The final bite of a cake cone is one of the single best bites of food in all of humankind.
This has been a long-winded way of saying: Sonic, please don't run out of cake cones again.
Rally's, or Checkers, as you may know it, makes a decent-tasting soft serve that is unfortunately undone by its sloppy texture. The light and ethereal quality of soft serve is part of what makes it great, but here it's too loose, too casual. It doesn't take itself seriously. It's showing up to a black-tie affair in jeans and a sport coat and hoping no one notices. The soft serve sits on the cone like a slouchy cotton beanie, instead of upright in a confident twist.
The good news? At a mere $1.29, these cones were the best bargain of those I tried. The vanilla flavor performs as expected but a strawberry option, which comes in a slightly unappealing salmon color, is notably inferior.
Chick-fil-A, which has perhaps the nicest employees on the planet, does a soft serve that is decent but doesn't quite measure up to the competition. To its credit, Chick-fil-A does not even purport to call what it serves ice cream. Instead, it calls their soft serve "Icedream," one word (which they've trademarked), to accompany their various chicken products.
The Icedream texture is a little too icy and stiff. That texture is good for holding the cone's corkscrew shape, which it handles nicely, but is less pleasing to the tongue. The taste is less creamy than some of the others and more akin to an iced milk. It's not bad — just not my favorite.