15 Ways To Upgrade Your Ice Cream Sundae

There is a lot of nostalgia found inside an ice cream glass. Ice cream sundaes may have been a treat when you were a kid, but now that you have a little more free will, you can opt to make your own ice cream sundae whenever the mood strikes.

The ice cream sundae has a bit of a strange and contested history. There are disagreements over where the first sundae was actually made, but the origin story shares some similarities across regions. It is believed that the first ice cream sundae was created as a result of blue laws, which historically restricted alcohol sales and other sinful activities on Sundays on the grounds of religion. One 1800s blue law restricted soda sales on Sunday, meaning ice cream floats were out, so drugstore operators started using chocolate sauce instead. The name change to "sundae" likely occurred as a marketing strategy so that guests knew this treat was available on other days of the week, too. 

The traditional ice cream sundae contains ice cream, a sauce, and a cherry on top. But you actually have much more creative license over what you can add to your sundae. Here are some of our favorite ways to jazz up your sundae.

1. Start with high quality ice cream

We first have to talk about the most important part of the sundae: the ice cream. If you aren't using good, high-quality ice cream for your sundae, you can expect that things will just go downhill from there. 

Some of the best ice cream brands to use for a sundae include Gifford's, Whitney's, and Breyer's. We chose these ice creams as our top brands because they are hard ice creams, not soft ice creams trying to pose as hard ones. Some of the cheaper brands tend to infuse a lot of air into their ice cream, which makes it easier to scoop — but also less satisfying in a sundae. 

The question of what ice cream flavor to use depends on your taste and adventurousness. If you use chunky ice cream, you'll have to go easy on the toppings, or else you risk getting into a precarious imbalance in the ratio of "stuff" to ice cream. Instead, we recommend sticking with a solid base flavor — like vanilla, chocolate, or perhaps even coffee. 

2. Play with warm and cold components

Take an ice cream sundae as a place to play — with tastes, textures, flavors, and everything in between. One of the most underrated things you can do to an ice cream sundae includes adding a warm component to help contrast the cold, hard ice cream. Plus, it will help your ice cream melt enough to meld with your other flavors. 

While we certainly love using warm brownies in a sundae, our preferred warm element is grilled fruit. Grilled peaches, especially, can add a fruity element to your sundae, along with an underlying smoky flavor from the grill. If you use peaches, be sure to use slightly under-ripe ones; this will prevent the fruit from falling apart when it hits the heat. Then, add a sprinkle of sugar or a swipe of honey to bring out even more sweetness and brightness in your dessert. Our favorite toppings complementing a grilled peach sundae include streusel crumble and whipped cream.

3. Make an edible bowl

One of the logical (and wholly warranted) reasons why people choose ice cream cones over sundaes is because there's just something so satisfying about eating the cone after you're done. But you can upgrade your sundae by following this same thought process and making an edible bowl.

If you want to take the easy way out, you can purchase waffle bowls from your local grocery store. After all, it's hard to replicate a waffle cone's thin, crunchy texture without the proper equipment. You can also make no-fuss cookie bowls by chilling your favorite cookie dough and pressing it to the bottom of a muffin tin. Cover the cups with a layer of aluminum foil or parchment to help make them easier to pull off and prevent them from chipping. After you bake the tray, you can pop the cookies off, let them cool on a rack, and then fill them with your favorite sundae components.

4. Add some candied bacon

What's a simple way to make just about anything better? Add bacon, of course. Not only is adding bacon to your sundae an easy way to use leftover slices after a busy brunch, but you'll also get a ton of savory and sweet notes combined into one. 

Bacon can be greasy and slimy in a sundae if you slap it on the ice cream right off the griddle. Instead, we recommend candying the bacon to help it crisp up and take on a sweet profile. Our recipe for maple-cinnamon candied bacon combines maple syrup, ground cinnamon, and black pepper in a sauce before brushing it on streaky bacon. After the bacon has been adequately coated, it is baked on a wire rack until it turns dark and crisp. Once you cool the bacon, it should start to harden and become easy to crumble on top of your ice cream. We recommend pairing bacon with vanilla or maple walnut ice cream.

5. Build your sundae around an idea or flavor combination

One of the most common reasons ice cream sundaes fail is because they are either too busy or have components heaped on top without any thought. Not only does this make your sundae more confusing to eat, but it can also mean that flavors conflict or get muddled.

The best thing you can do to make your sundae work well is to establish a theme or a concept and pick toppings that are suitable for that vision. For example, if you love the taste of s'mores in the summertime, you can make a s'mores sundae with vanilla ice cream, mini marshmallows, chocolate sauce, and graham cracker crumbs. On the other hand, if you are feeling more adventurous, try making a black forest-inspired sundae with chocolate ice cream, crushed hazelnuts, chocolate cake pieces, and Kirsch-soaked cherries. The possibilities are endless!

6. Think in layers

You may not think that constructing a sundae means considering structural soundness, but it does. When most people make sundaes, they order them so the ice cream goes on the bottom, followed by the whipped cream, the sauce, and the cherry or other toppings. While this system makes sense for the weight of the toppings, it means that you won't get a little bit of each topping in every bite. 

Instead of adding your sauce and toppings on top of the sundae, try constructing a dessert with alternating layers of ice cream, toppings, and sauce. The one exception to this is your whipped cream, which should remain on top of the ice cream because it would be otherwise crushed. You can also drizzle your sauce on the inside of the glass before constructing your sundae; just make sure you scrape the sides in while you're eating your finished sundae.

7. Use baked goods in your sundae

Who would turn down a warm brownie? And better yet, a brownie covered in ice cream, sauce, and toppings? You can use your favorite baked treats to help add more texture to your favorite ice cream sundae. Our favorites include warm brownies paired with caramel or chocolate fudge, peanut butter cookies with peanut butter sauce and chopped peanut butter candies, and the classic chocolate chip cookie with layers of ice cream, hot fudge, and a traditional cherry on top. 

If you don't have the time or energy to add homemade treats to your sundae, you can always hit the cookie aisle of your grocery store. Our favorite cookies for sundaes include fudge ripple cookies (also known as fudge strips, depending on the brand), chocolate-covered peanut butter cookies, and mint cookies. Add these cookies as a crumble to the top of your sundae for a little bit of crunch and a flavor that complements your ice cream. 

8. Make your own sundae syrups

The syrups and the sauces can genuinely make or break your ice cream sundae. If you're making these sauces yourself, you'll first have to decide on how thick you want them to be. If you want a smooth sauce that drizzles over your dessert, you're going to need an important ingredient — corn syrup is a crucial pantry staple for a smooth dessert sauce because it can prevent sugar from crystallizing and causes the sauce to be more runny. This trick works well for thick sauces, like peanut butter sauce or a Nutella drizzle, that wouldn't otherwise be able to ooze over your sundae.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have magic shell. This concoction, which hardens when it hits the ice cream, is not flowy like other toppings. Instead, magic shell makes a crunchy topping that splits into shards. The easiest way to make a magic shell for your sundae at home is to combine melted chocolate and coconut oil together and let the mixture rest for about 20 minutes before drizzling it on your ice cream. This will prevent your ice cream from melting.

9. Mix savory and salty elements

Sundaes have the potential to be overpowered with sweet ingredients — they are made with ice cream, after all. But if you want a more adult flavor to your ice cream sundae, you should instead focus on contrasting the sweet elements of your dessert with other flavors like salty and umami. So while you might be thinking of salted caramel sauce right off the bat, we can do you one better. The umami-rich ingredient you need to add to salted caramel sauce is miso. Miso paste is rich in glutamates, meaning it's filled with complex flavor notes that can help balance out some of the other flavors in your sundae. 

To make a miso caramel sauce for your sundae, you'll want to combine white miso with caramelized sugar, butter, salt, and heavy cream. White miso has the mildest flavor of all miso, which will impart umami notes without crossing the line into a savory sauce.

10. Consult your liquor cabinet

Your liquor cabinet can provide inspiration for your sundaes as well as boozy flavors that will transport your adult taste buds to another level. Take Grand Marnier's Cordon Rouge, for example. It's Ina Garten's favorite citrusy alcohol to incorporate into ice cream because it has citrusy, vanilla, and hazelnut notes that pair well with peach ice cream. Of course, Ina Garten incorporates this alcohol into the ice cream itself, but you can use the flavors to make your own sundae. Start with a vanilla ice cream base, cover it in grilled peaches marinated in Cordon Rouge, and finish it with a zesty citrus peel garnish. 

Another alcoholic beverage that is an excellent inspiration for a sundae is an espresso martini. Although this treat is technically an affogato, we think it's appropriate to call it an "adult sundae." Cover your hazelnut or vanilla gelato with hot espresso, a few tablespoons of Kahlúa, sweet whipped cream, and chocolate-covered espresso beans. 

11. Incorporate at least one crunchy element

The most under-appreciated texture in ice cream sundaes is always crunch. Unfortunately, fruits and creamy ice cream only contribute to softness, so you'll have to rely on your toppings to add some crunch to your ice cream. One of our favorite ways to do this is to add chopped roasted nuts. Raw nuts don't always have a very evident crunch factor, while roasted nuts have a more well-rounded flavor and a bit more satisfying crunch. Of course, you can also use honey-roasted or spiced nuts to add flavor to your sundae. 

You can also get more unconventional with your ice cream toppings with the help of kettle-cooked potato chips. These crunchy snacks satisfy the salty and crunchy quota, and you can keep them from getting too soggy in the ice cream by covering them with a layer of melted chocolate and letting it dry before adding it to your ice cream.

Your pantry is home for yet another under-appreciated sundae topping: breakfast cereal. One of our favorite types of breakfast cereal to use for sundaes is Cinnamon Toast Crunch. The cinnamon sugar coating enhances the flavor of vanilla ice cream, while the cereal provides a bite-sized crunch effect that satisfies all of our senses. Plus, when you get to the bottom of the sundae, you'll find a super-sweet cereal "milk" that will transport you back to watching Sunday morning cartoons as a child.

12. Whip up your own whipped cream

There's no sundae without whipped cream. And while your go-to may be that can of Reddi-Whip in your fridge, we recommend taking this ingredient a step further and making your own at home. There are tons of ways to make whipped cream at home, but we've found that the most advantageous is with an immersion blender or a tabletop blender. Simply add a cup of heavy whipping cream, ¼ cup powdered sugar, and ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract, and mix together until stiff peaks start to form. If you're using a standard blender, this takes less than thirty seconds. Immersion blenders tend to take slightly longer at just under two minutes. 

You can venture beyond the confines of a standard whipped cream and include more unconventional ingredients to complement your sundae. For example, fold in spices like ginger or cayenne after you've whipped the cream for a hint of heat, or make chocolate whipped cream with cocoa powder.

13. Macerate berries for your sundae

If you've ever tried to add fruit directly to your sundae, you've probably realized that the fruit itself may not be sweet enough. The berry is also in a single concentrated area rather than oozing over the entire sundae, which does little for a fruity flavor or an aesthetic appearance. 

Instead of just plopping your fresh berries on your sundae, you should take the time to macerate them in sugar and lemon juice. Chef Eva Ein from McConnell's Fine Ice Creams recommends sprinkling your berries with a little bit of sugar and letting them sit out on the counter for at least an hour to draw out the moisture and to create a syrupy liquid to drizzle over your sundae. She also recommends adding lemon juice and a few mint sprigs for a more citrusy and herbal flavor profile. This tip works well for almost any berries, but we've had the most delicious results with strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries.

14. Switch up your cherry-on-top

When you find the maraschino cherry on top of your sundae, do you eat it yourself or hand it off for someone else to enjoy? While this finishing touch is a sundae's trademark, it can get a bit boring sometimes.

One of the ways to finish off your sundae is to make your own spin on the classic cherry. If you like a boozy finish on your desserts, try making bourbon-soaked cherries with orange juice, orange peel, and vanilla extract. The flavors of these cherries are positively divine and perfect for adding to vanilla, chocolate, or every ice cream flavor in between. 

If you're looking for a maraschino cherry alternative that's a little less DIY, try looking for the special Luxardo Maraschino cherry. These cherries are made with the small Marasca cherry that has a more acidic and cherry-like flavor than the standard maraschino. These cherries are also suspended in a thick substrate that is perfect for dripping down your sundae. Find these special cherries in liquor stores near the other garnishes; we think they're worth the price tag. 

15. Use jackfruit for a chewy compote

Have you ever thought of using jackfruit in a sundae? Probably not. This Asian fruit is a key ingredient for making vegan "pulled pork" and other savory dishes, but its unique texture makes it worth trying in a sundae. Our ultimate sundae recipe features jackfruit as a star ingredient in a compote. Two cups of seeded jackfruit bulbs are combined with sugar, water, grated lime zest, grated ginger, and kaffir lime leaves for about eight minutes or until the mixture turns syrupy. This compote is then spooned on top of vanilla ice cream with Sichuan peppercorn hot fudge, cardamom-pistachio brittle, and coconut cream caramel. The result is heavenly.

Although the flavors of this sundae may seem a bit unconventional, the flavors meld surprisingly well with one another. Every bite is filled with a little bit of savoriness, heat, and warmth — earning it the well-deserved title of the "ultimate sundae."

Static Media owns and operates Tasting Table and Mashed.