We Ranked 26 Classic American Desserts From Worst To Best

Saving room for dessert shouldn't just be a suggestion. There are so many different types of sweet treats that you can make in your home kitchen or order out for a special occasion. But while there are some desserts that are go-tos, there are others that will just never compare. 

We looked at some common (and some less common) American desserts to decide which one deserves the title of "best dessert." When we consider what a good dessert looks (and, more importantly, tastes) like, we think of how a dessert should act as a close to the meal, not a whole meal in itself. It should also have more going for it than just "sweet," but rather play different notes of tangy, fruity, floral, and dark to create a delicious symphony. We ranked these classic American desserts from worst to best on these factors to determine which ones are worth your while and which ones are worth just asking for the check instead.

26. Watergate salad

It shouldn't be too surprising that Watergate salad is at the bottom of the barrel. There are chunks of pineapple, pistachio pudding, pecans, marshmallows, and whipped topping involved — and frankly, we think it was something that a mad scientist conjured up in a fever dream. Not only does reading this ingredient list make us feel sick to our stomach, but so does the color of this mixture — which, in our opinion, screams "radioactive goop." 

Plus, we don't need to tell you that pineapple and pistachio just don't go together. It's a confusing creation that we think should be relegated to the depths of history.

25. Shoofly pie

Shoofly pie is a treat that we can credit to the Pennsylvania Dutch. This molasses and brown sugar pie gets its name from the fact that it is so sweet that it tends to attract flies — which is precisely its problem. 

It essentially tastes like buttery, sweet mush packed into a pie crust. There's no other flavor besides sweet, and there are no nuts to help distract from the cloying flavor.

24. Pecan pie

Pecan pie may be associated with the quintessential American Thanksgiving, but this isn't our pick of the litter. This pie is simply too sweet. The corn syrup, the pecans, and the sugar all combine to make one sickeningly sweet dessert. 

We give this pie some points against shoofly pie because it has some nuts to add extra texture — but it still doesn't alleviate the sugariness. The one thing it has going for it is that it's easier to make than a finicky custard pie.

23. Baked Alaska

A baked Alaska is essentially an ice cream cake for grownups, featuring layers of cake, ice cream, and a torched meringue coating. Despite its showstopping qualities, fundamental structural issues make it a flop.

The first is that the cake is so tall that when you slice into it, you can't get a bit of cake, ice cream, and meringue in every bite — unless you pick your spoon up and diligently grab each part. So, the individual components read as just that, rather than as a cohesive dessert. Plus, like traditional ice cream cake, the frozen dessert and the sponge compete for dominance, which makes it even less cohesive. 

22. Funnel cake

If you visit the fair, you must stop and grab a funnel cake, which was originally popularized by the Pennsylvania Dutch. This dessert's unique shape is created by pouring the batter into the hot oil using a funnel.

The major drawback to funnel cakes is that they taste really greasy if they're not eaten immediately after frying. Plus, fried desserts are generally a pain to make at home because you have to carefully monitor the oil temperature and sputtering oil. It's our once-a-year treat at the local fair rather than a staple dessert. 

21. Pumpkin pie

We understand if pumpkin pie is your favorite part of Thanksgiving. But to us, it's a dessert that's left behind in the dust compared to others. It's notoriously tough to make at home because it's prone to cracking. Not to mention, the filling can have a goopy texture that'll make it rather unpleasant to eat.

Arguably, the only good part about a pumpkin pie is the copious amount of whipped cream it's served with, along with a good crust.

20. Boston cream pie

A Boston cream "pie" is a misnomer, as this is actually a poorly designed cake that stole the pie's name. This dessert was believed to have been invented in Boston (or at least popularized in the city), which makes it an American treat, no less. It's made with layers of sponge, a tweaked version of crème pâtissière, and a chocolate ganache. 

The construction of this dessert is far from ideal. The sponge is too thick, and too often, the cream layer is too thin. We will gladly eat a Boston cream pie in donut form, but we will leave the cake in Beantown, where it belongs. 

19. Banana split

A banana split is a meal in itself and far from the first thing that comes to mind when we think of a "little after-dinner treat." There are copious amounts of hot fudge, ice cream, whipped cream, cherries, and sometimes, seemingly the kitchen sink. 

It's an overwhelming dessert, and the sheer number of ingredients prevents any single one from standing out. You might even forget there's ice cream underneath there! We would rather keep our dessert cool, calm, and collected and go with something that doesn't need a massive sundae boat to fit everything.

18. Jell-O

Although it's rare to find Jell-O in the modern culinary lexicon, this dessert is still kickin'. It wasn't too long ago that people were making Jell-O molds with everything inside of them and finding new ways to use this fruit-forward dessert. 

We personally don't enjoy the texture of Jell-O, but we enjoy that it's an easy dessert to make when you have hot water and Jell-O powder. However, it takes a long time for the gelatin to set, which eliminates any promise of a "quick dessert." Plus, there are also just more substantive desserts out there that we'd rather eat. 

17. Rice Krispies treats

Rice Krispies treats are fun and whimsical, but the novelty wears off. Not only is a Rice Krispies treat sickeningly sweet, but it also doesn't keep well on day two. So you're better off buying the pre-packaged ones, sticking them in your kid's lunchbox, and calling it a day. 

However, we will give this dessert credit for being pretty versatile; you can upgrade your Rice Krispies treats by mixing in everything from condensed milk to bacon or swapping out your cereal for another variety. 

16. Bananas Foster

Bananas Foster was invented at a famous New Orleans restaurant and has since become a dish associated with the culture and fabric of the city. The fruits are flambéed in a pan with butter, brown sugar, and rum — a process that gives this dish its iconic flame — and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and walnuts.

But this tropical dessert is more show than substance. When served, you get cooked fruit and ice cream — it's missing some baked or cakey component to tie the dish together. Plus, you must be skilled at making bananas Foster at home so you don't inadvertently burn your eyebrows off. 

15. Black and white cookies

Black and white cookies were a fun part of our childhood. But the "cookie" moniker never sat well with us since they are tiny cakes with a frosting that tastes more like plastic than anything. Our other main qualm with these New York City staples is that the chocolate half just tastes like the vanilla half; there's nothing more complex or tasty about it. 

The only time it's acceptable to grab a black and white cookie is when you're bustling through Grand Central Station and are craving something sweet while you're walking. It's a cookie we'll eat, but not one that we'll go out of our way to find.

14. Peach cobbler

We, of all people, will never turn down a good peach. The feeling of the fruit dripping down the side of our hand and gushing everywhere is a quintessential component of the eating experience. And as much as we love peaches, we can't say we feel the same about cobbler.

As long as the peach is good (meaning it's not in a bag from the frozen aisle of the grocery store), you don't need a sugary topping to accompany it — or rather, hide the flaws in the fruit's texture and flavor. If it's not peak growing season, peach cobbler is just not worth making. 

13. New York cheesecake

We don't like cheesecake — sue us. But, we can put our personal feelings aside about this popular dessert to give it the most objective analysis possible. The versatility of the cheesecake cannot be understated. After all, the Cheesecake Factory alone offers nearly 40 different flavors. 

This dessert, however, doesn't deliver on texture or ease. Cheesecake is mushy and lacks the contrast in texture that would make it more pleasurable to eat. After sitting in the fridge, the crust gets soggy, and we find ourselves scraping it off to get to the cheesy center. Aside from no-bake versions, this is a difficult, time-consuming, and downright frustrating dessert to make at home. If you look at it the wrong way, it cracks. 

12. Banana pudding

Banana pudding is a classic Southern dessert made with layers of plain vanilla pudding (not banana-flavored, as you would expect), fresh bananas, wafer cookies, and whipped cream. Our favorite thing about this dessert is that it can be made into a show-stopping trifle or set into individual glasses for serving. This treat is incredibly novice-friendly because you only have to whip up the instant pudding and use the other pre-packaged ingredients.

The major drawback of this dessert is that you have to make it on the day of. Otherwise, the wafer cookies risk getting unpleasantly soggy.

11. Coca-Cola cake

When we first ordered this cake from Cracker Barrel, we expected it to have some cola flavor. But we were disappointed to learn that it just tasted like a good, plain chocolate cake. 

Upon closer look, the Coca-Cola cake gets its moisture from the buttermilk and mini marshmallows in the sponge and a bit of cola in the fudgy icing. The fudge layer prevents the cake from drying out — which is one of the most common faults of other cakes and cake-like desserts we've ranked. But it's just not as widely baked as other, more popular desserts. 

10. Mississippi mud pie

There are so many variations of pie out there, and the Mississippi mud pie is one that is often forgotten. This chocolate-forward dessert is made with a cookie base, followed by a chocolate pudding and some sort of whipped topping. Although the name makes you think that the pie will be round, it can also be baked in a square dish. 

Mississippi mud pie is super easy to make, especially if you use a pre-made pie shell, boxed pudding mix, and Cool Whip. The one thing that we wish was different about this dessert would be if it had a greater ratio of crust to filling, as it seems more like a pudding that had crunch added as an afterthought. 

9. Tapioca pudding

We love tapioca pudding, and we're honestly a bit hurt that it isn't as popular as other desserts. This pudding combines elements of a perfectly sweetened custard with small, but not obtrusive, pieces of tapioca. It can't be beat, especially when it's topped with a layer of whipped cream. 

Some think tapioca pudding fell out of popularity because brands have spent more time marketing more up-and-coming desserts, including boba tea, which also uses tapioca pearls. Though we think that this classic (and underappreciated) American dessert could use a renaissance. 

8. S'mores

S'mores are exclusively an outdoor treat — you need the heat of a roaring fire to get the perfect golden color and crisp shell on your marshmallow. That means when the weather is frightful, you either have to settle for a lackluster, microwaved marshmallow (or precariously cook one over a gas burner) or opt for another dessert. 

S'mores win some points for being a nostalgic treat and easily customizable with different kinds of crackers, chocolate, or candy fillings. But it's one of the only desserts (besides meringue) that depends on the weather to be successful. 

7. Red velvet cake

Red velvet cake just screams opulence. It towers over its dessert competitors, both literally and figuratively, and makes for a show-stopping dessert that eaters of all ages can appreciate. We ranked it among our top popular cake flavors because it has the puckeringly sour flavor of buttermilk that hits the back of your tongue, which is quickly coated with a thick cream cheese frosting. This is one dessert where the cake and the frosting are inseparable — which comes as both a blessing and a curse. 

Another downside to red velvet cake is that it's dense. It's a dessert that we could eat a couple of bites of before politely putting down the fork and asking for a to-go box. 

6. Whoopie pies

New Englanders are probably ecstatic to see a whoopie pie make its way onto this list. These treats aren't actually pies but are instead made of two soft chocolate cakes sandwiching a whipped cream filling. Although chocolate is the most common cake flavor, it can also be made with red velvet or even carrot cake batter. 

Whoopie pies are much more portable than a standard slice of cake. The whipped cream filling makes for a soft, ethereal dessert with the perfect balance of decadent cake and filling. However, whoopie pies are one of those desserts that you have to eat within the first two days, otherwise the cake goes stale and makes this dessert really unenjoyable. 

5. Snickerdoodles

We can thank the Germans for inspiring this cookie with their shneckennudel — a version of a cinnamon bun — but we should credit New Englanders for cementing its whimsical name. A snickerdoodle is about as fun to say as it is to eat. These soft cookies get their flavor from a coating of cinnamon and sugar, as well as cream of tartar, which gives them a distinct tang. 

Snickerdoodles are a more complex dessert than other cookies because of the cream of tartar. But it's also an ingredient that makes a snickerdoodle cookie recipe tough to tweak.

4. Milkshake

A milkshake wins novelty points because it's a drinkable dessert that is one of the easiest sweet treats to whip up. Throw any ice cream, milk, and whatever syrups or add-ins into a blender, whizz it together, and pour it into a glass, and you have an on-the-go dessert at your fingertips. Of course, you can also grab a glass at your local diner — or anywhere where homestyle breakfast food is aplenty. 

Milkshakes need to be prepared in real-time rather than too far in advance. But we consider that to be the only major downfall of this classic American dessert. 

3. Apple pie

We will never turn down a slice of apple pie. Unlike peach cobbler, you can really make apple pie at any time of year since the fruit is more readily available. But it will always be an autumnal dessert best served with a scoop of ice cream. 

Apple pie is sweet but not heavy. The buttery yet comparatively bland crust helps subdue some of the sweetness and makes each slice of apple pie one we can finish. Plus, apple pie is a much easier pie to make than a pumpkin or a custard-meringue pie, which makes it one that is novice-friendly, as well as a staple for seasoned bakers. The only downside of this pie is that it isn't as convenient to pop in your mouth and walk away, unlike a cookie or a brownie. 

2. Chocolate chip cookies

We love eating chocolate chip cookies — and who doesn't? These cookies trace their roots back to the Great Depression and have remained a timeless classic ever since. Plus, you don't have to be a great baker to make a solid batch; there are countless store-bought break-and-bake cookies to choose from. Recipes for creative variations on the classic cookie are also a dime a dozen. 

These cookies win us over because you can eat one after a meal without feeling overwhelmed, as they don't have the same heaviness as other desserts. The versatility of a chocolate chip cookie is also unquestionable. You can sandwich ice cream between them, dunk it in milk, or eat them shamelessly from the grocery store cookie bin. 

1. Brownies

When we think of brownies, we think of the word "customizable." Not only can you make a decadent fudgy batch or stick to a more cake-like version, but you can also elevate your brownies with everything from nuts to fruit. Plus, you don't even have to be a great baker to make a batch of this for dessert; just grab a box of Betty Crocker, oil, and eggs, and you'll be good to go. 

You can even mix together brownies with chocolate sandwich cookies or cookie dough, or use it as the base for your ice cream sundae. There's pretty much nothing a brownie can't do — which catapults it to the top of our list. 

Our methodology

While it might seem arbitrary to pick one dessert over another, we tried to be as objective as possible in our analysis to find the best American dessert. We chose treats that were created and popularized in America but may have been inspired by recipes from around the world. When it came to selecting a dessert, we looked for one that was relatively easy and accessible to make at home or order at a restaurant. We also gave preference to desserts that don't bog down your stomach or your tastebuds. Our ideal dessert was also one that was more than just sweet, but rather had balanced flavors that made it a pleasure to eat.