Upgrading Ice Cream Sundaes with Unique Toppings

Ice cream sundaes just might be the most whimsical of desserts. There’s nothing like coming in from the summer heat and treating yourself to a hearty scoop of chocolate or vanilla ice cream loaded up with hot fudge, candied pecans, and a cherry on top. These are ingredients most of us think of when visions of ice cream sundaes dance in our heads, but the beauty of this refreshing dessert is that there are no rules when it comes to toppings. As the digital world grows more deeply connected and more and more people share their favorite takes on classic foods, we’ve seen plenty of shock value TikToks and Instagram reels showcasing unique toppings for sprucing up ice cream sundaes. There are specialty ice cream shops and brands dedicated to experimenting with unique ice cream flavors. Who are we to say they’re wrong?

A lot of the time, you’ll see caramel, chocolate, or peanut butter sauce decorating a sundae, chopped nuts sprinkled on top, or perhaps a small serving of fresh fruit or berries on the side. These are all delicious, but let’s dream big for a moment. With so many flavors of ice cream available at ice cream parlors and supermarkets these days, there are tons of wild toppings that can be used to elevate an ice cream sundae. If you want to shock your friends and family with the best, most innovative sundaes of their lives, here are a couple of ideas to kick off your brainstorming sesh.

1. Balsamic vinegar

Bottled balsamic vinegar and grapes

Ever stopped into one of those quaint little storefronts that sell seemingly hundreds of varieties of balsamic vinegar and balsamic glaze? If you have, and you took a minute to chat with the shopkeeper, they may have offered some out-of-the-box suggestions for unique ways to use balsamic vinegar, like adding it to iced tea, mixing it into BBQ sauce, or even pairing it with ice cream. Marrying balsamic vinegar with ice cream might sound funky, but it’s actually a match made in heaven. Plain balsamic vinegar is generally sweeter than other vinegar varietals, so it’s vastly different than pouring rice vinegar or ACV on your ice cream sundae.

Balsamic can be infused with myriad flavors, and depending on the ice cream you’re using as the base of your sundae, there are tons of options that will give your dessert a major upgrade. Think bright, cherry balsamic vinegar with rich chocolate ice cream, or tart raspberry balsamic over a hearty scoop of vanilla. Sweet, creamy ice cream is heavenly in its own right, and adding a bite with balsamic vinegar gives a boost to the overall flavor. Alternatively, consider using balsamic glaze, which is balsamic vinegar reduced into a sweet syrup. It won’t sink into the ice cream as much but makes for a great drizzle on top of your Cherry Garcia.

2. Kettle corn

Kettle corn on red background

You have your regular movie night popcorn, you have your gourmet popcorn, and then there’s kettle corn. You may have seen bags of sweet, salty, golden-brown kettle corn sold at a county fair or upscale grocery store, but what exactly makes it different? Kettle corn differs from regular popcorn in that regular popcorn is made from butterfly popcorn kernels while kettle corn gleans its sturdier exterior from mushroom kernels, a completely different type of popping corn. Mushroom kernels provide more surface area and have a harder texture than butterfly kernels, which is why the caramelly syrup that gives kettle corn its flavor sticks to the popcorn so well.

Popcorn can be used to give a little oomph to everything from trail mix to beer cheese soup, but kettle corn is the way to go if you’re on the hunt for a way to spruce up your ice cream sundae. Kettle corn is predominantly sweet in flavor with a hint of salt — both flavors that play well with ice cream. Even better, kettle corn’s texture adds another layer of complexity to the mouthfeel of a sundae; with the popcorn’s crisp, crunchy consistency contrasting playfully with cool, velvety-smooth ice cream. Try topping a scoop of butternut pecan, espresso, or lavender ice cream with kettle corn for a fun and innovative treat.

3. Pistachio butter

Green pistachio butter in bowl

Move over, peanut butter. Take a seat, almond butter. It’s pistachio butter’s time to shine. Pistachio butter consists of pistachios blended with oil and occasionally other spices or preservatives. It’s thick, nutty, and only a little sweet given that pistachio nuts are the primary ingredient. There are tons of amazing and unconventional ways to use pistachio butter, from incorporating it into a creamy salad dressing to using it to create a soup or stew, but when it comes to desserts, you can’t go wrong with pistachio butter and ice cream. Of course, pistachio ice cream in and of itself is a popular flavor — what’s not to love? — but pistachio butter offers the same sinfully delicious flavor in concentrated form.

Pistachio butter, like most other nut butters, has a thick consistency. It’ll taste fantastic with ice cream if you just drop a glob on top of your ice cream sundae, but an even better route is to warm the pistachio butter in the microwave before adding it to your ice cream. Not only does this lower the pistachio butter’s viscosity, making it easier to spread or drizzle, but you’ll also create a delightful, taste bud-befuddling hot and cold effect from the warm pistachio butter and cold ice cream. Use warm or room temperature pistachio butter to spruce up Rocky Road, chocolate, green tea ice cream, and more — or go really nuts and go for double pistachio.

4. Potato chips

Crisp chips in white bowl

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Potato chips and ice cream both have big junk food energy. Crisp, salty potato chips are a great way to quench your thirst for a savory snack, while ice cream is the go-to sweet tooth satisfier for many of us. Sweet and salty foods balance each other out in perfect harmony — why not combine both by crushing potato chips on top of your ice cream for a mega-sundae? There are hundreds of varieties of potato chips, so your options here are limitless. If you’re a bit wary about this combo, start with plain or salt and vinegar chips — vinegar adds a signature bite that salted chips alone can’t achieve.

Keep in mind that there are tons of wacky ice cream flavors out there too, so if you’re feeling ambitious, it can be fun to experiment with weird, wild combinations like Doritos and Cheetos Flamin’ Hot ice cream, tortilla chips and avocado ice cream, or BBQ chips and ranch ice cream (yes, the mad ice cream scientists at Van Leeuwen made a Hidden Valley Rance ice cream). If you’re going a more traditional route, e.g. salted chips and cookie dough ice cream, consider adding hot fudge, chopped nuts, and/or fruit for even more flavor.

5. Hot honey

Hot honey and chile peppers

Hot honey is made by simply heating honey on a stovetop, adding dried chiles, and allowing the mixture to cool for a few days before using it; combining sweet, floral, and peppery notes with reckless abandon for a supremely evolved form of honey. Plain old honey makes a great sweetener for everything from tea to salad dressing to pepperoni pizza, but swapping in hot honey takes things to the next level.

When it comes to using hot honey to spruce up your ice cream sundae, your options are endless — hot honey’s flavor pairs well with most types of ice cream, from the most basic varieties to the oddest of the odd. Try drizzling hot honey on a scoop of chocolate fudge, Earl Grey, or peanut butter cup ice cream and enjoy the way it both sweetens and adds a spicy element to the sundae. The hot honey will firm up as it cools down after being exposed to frozen ice cream, adding a fun textural element as well.

6. Caviar

Black caviar on silver spoon

When one thinks of the ritziest, most opulent of foods, groceries with high price tags, like oysters, foie gras, and truffles often come to mind. Caviar is a similarly fancy-pants food, often limited to appearances on fine dining menus, celebrity tables, and private dinners catered by all-star chefs. While it’s technically correct to refer to any type of fish eggs as caviar, true caviar consists of unfertilized sturgeon eggs cured in salt, and it fetches a pretty penny as sturgeon are endangered.

Being fish eggs, caviar comes with a fishy, salty flavor. “Fishy” is not generally an adjective that comes to mind when one thinks “Hmm, what would taste good on my ice cream?”, but if you’re feeling daring, give it a shot. In fact, you won’t be the first — one TikToker made a $1000 caviar sundae using ingredients from infamous LA grocery, Erewhon. There’s definitely no need to drop a g on ingredients for a caviar sundae, though — the shock of fishy, salty caviar on sweet, rich ice cream provides more than enough shock value.

7. Candied citrus peel

Candied orange peels in bowl

If you use a lot of lemons, limes, grapefruits, or oranges, it’s time to stop throwing away those citrus peels. Zesty, semi-bitter citrus peels have a plethora of uses you may not have thought of. They can be used to garnish drinks, make flavorful simple syrups, and make tasty additions to baked goods. You can even candy the peels to eat as a special treat — this is achieved by simmering the peels in hot water and simple syrup, allowing the peels to dry, and then rolling them in sugar for a crystallized layer. The end result will vary depending on which type of citrus peel is used, but the candied peels are generally sweet, tart, and a little sour, with very little bitterness of the original peels remaining.

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Candied citrus peels make a delicious snack or even dessert, but they’re also a great addition to an ice cream sundae. Use candied lemon peel to add another layer of flavor to limoncello ice cream, or candied blood orange peel to elevate dark chocolate or vanilla. Candied citrus peels have a delicious gummy, chewy texture, and the bits of sugar coating their outsides will make an ice cream sundae even sweeter.

8. Wasabi peas

Crispy wasabi-coated green peas

Katie B. Foster/Look

Wasabi is similar to horseradish or mustard in that its flavor carries heat very differently than the way a spicy pepper or hot wings do. The bite of wasabi hits the nasal cavities rather than the tongue. Spice aside, wasabi has a fragrant, herbal, slightly sweet flavor to it, making it a unique and pungent accompaniment for a variety of dishes, including sushi, sashimi, and dried goods like wasabi peas. Wasabi peas are A+ snack material — not only are they a tasty change from potato chips or carrots and hummus, but they’re also healthy.

Wasabi peas can be eaten by the handful or used to dress up a soup, salad, or grain bowl. Most people wouldn’t think to use them in desserts, but we’re all about shaking things up. If you want a truly out-there ice cream sundae, use wasabi peas to give your masterpiece a boost in a weird, but wonderful, way. Whole or crushed wasabi peas add an unusually bright, spicy, fresh level of flavor to ice cream and add a little crunch to the whole shebang. One tip: Wasabi has a super unique flavor, so it’s probably best to keep the ice cream simple for your first go. Try wasabi peas on chocolate or vanilla ice cream before further experimentation.

9. Chili crisp

Red chili crisp in jar

Chili crisp fever is real. It’s been around for a long time, but it’s recently taken over as a popular and Instagram-friendly addition to fried eggs, avocado toast, ramen noodles, and more. There are many brands that sell their own versions of chili crisp, but generally, the spicy condiment is made up of chili peppers, oil, garlic, onion, and other fresh or dried spices. It’s definitely packing heat from the peppers, but chili crisp also contains a blend of savory, herby notes from the alliums and additional aromatic spices in the mix.

Chili crisp might sound like a bizarre ice cream topping, but if you look into boundary-pushing, Willy Wonka-esque ice cream makers like Salt & Straw, Van Leeuwen, and similar brands, you’ll find spicy ice cream toppings and mix-ins galore, from cayenne powder to dried chiles and more. Hot peppers pair well with chocolate, so consider using chili crisp to top off a sundae made from dark chocolate ice cream — perhaps with a little honey or extra hot fudge to balance things out.

10. Edible gold

Crinkled gold pieces

If you’ve been on the Internet at all in the last decade, chances are you’ve come across some kind of crazy food topped with edible gold — burgers, tacos, chocolate-covered bacon, and so on, often with a considerably marked-up price tag (a little wack, as edible gold is available online for as little as $6.99 on Amazon). Edible gold has no distinct flavor. Its appeal lies solely in aesthetics, but what marvelous aesthetics edible gold creates! Edible gold may come in the form of sprinkles, flakes, gold leaf pieces, or a thin sheet.

In terms of taste, edible gold won’t do much to elevate your ice cream sundae, but it’s guaranteed to make your sundae look cool. If you’re looking for even more oomph, add your toppings of choice — pretzels, cherries, edible flowers, or whatever else you’re craving — and wait until the very last second to add your edible gold so that it’s shimmering brightly come photoshoot time (and let’s be honest, there’s no reason to add edible gold to your sundae unless you’re going to show it off on social media).

11. Gorgonzola

Sliced blue-veined gorgonzola cheese

Gorgonzola, hailing from the blue cheese family, is one of those love-it-or-hate-it cheeses. It’s a funky, stinky, aromatic cheese whose sharp flavor and aroma are simply too big a turn-off for some folks. However, those who love this unique cheese have put it to work in many recipes, from wraps and salads to grilled peach and gorgonzola pizza. It’s still pretty foreign to the dessert table, but the most adventurous of palates may find gorgonzola to be a great way to spruce up ice cream sundaes.

As is the case with many of the aforementioned unique sundae toppings, gorgonzola won’t complement every flavor of ice cream equally, so brainstorm carefully before trying it out. The cheese’s sharp taste can elevate tart flavors like raspberry ice cream, nutty varieties like pistachio, and rich classic fudge. For best results, you’ll probably want to add at least one other element to your ice cream sundae. Fresh, sweet herbs like mint or basil; warm honey; or grilled fruit would all be fun, innovative choices.

12. Furikake

Cirsp furikake in white bowl

Furikake is a Japanese seasoning made from dried flakes of bonito fish, sesame seeds, nori, dried herbs, and a handful of other ingredients. It was developed by a Japanese pharmacist centuries ago for medicinal dietary purposes but nowadays is used simply to elevate everyday dishes like fish, vegetables, soups, and plain old rice. Furikake has a nutty, salty flavor that differs greatly from the spices and seasonings the average American has lurking in their pantry, and a nice, crunchy texture thanks to the nori, seeds, and fish flakes.

Furikake is most commonly used to give savory foods a boost, but salted nuts are a common topping for ice cream sundaes, so think of furikake simply as an elevated form. It’ll pair well with a broad spectrum of ice cream flavors — everything from lychee to butter pecan to espresso ice cream can benefit from the addition of furikake. The seasoning contains big, crispy flakes, which make a nice textural contrast to ice cream’s velvety texture.

13. French fries

Salt sprinkled on crispy fries

Growing up, we all had that one friend who insisted on dipping their greasy French fries into their McFlurry (or perhaps you were that friend). As weird as it may have seemed at first glance, if you’ve ever tried the combo of fries and ice cream, your mind may have changed. Sweet and salty foods are a match made in heaven — just look at salted caramel, chocolate-covered bacon, or freshly baked chocolate chip cookies with sea salt sprinkled on top. Assuming the salt isn’t overdone, it coaxes an entirely new flavor out of sweet foods and adds an exciting element of surprise.

Fries’ primary elements are salt and fat, so they’ll go with just about any kind of ice cream. Go classic and stick some salted fries on top of chocolate ice cream, or toss your leftover Wendy’s fries on that pint of phish food in the back of the freezer. While it’s easy enough to dip fries into ice cream, creating a fry-topped sundae is even more efficient … or flip the switch and build an entire sundae on top of some fries, dessert nachos style.

14. Chicharrónes

Fried chicharrónes in wicker basket

Name a food that isn’t made better by bacon. We’ll wait. Bacon brings sweet, salty, smoky, fatty, and sometimes spicy elements to the table, and while it’s usually teamed up with savory foods like eggs, burgers, and Cobb salads; these days, the dessert world celebrates bacon too. Chicharrónes may look very different from bacon at first glance, but under the surface, the two foods actually have quite a bit in common. Chicharrónes are made from pork skin or belly that has been deep-fried, leading to an irresistible crunchy texture enclosing a fatty, salty flavor quite similar to that of bacon.

Bacon has been used as an ice cream topping or mix-in before, but replacing it with chicharrónes is a game-changer. Chicharrónes’ crispy skin offers a fun crunch to the mix in an ice cream sundae, while a smoky, salty, bacon-like taste pairs playfully with the sweetness of ice cream. Try adding chicharrónes to an ice cream sundae using salted caramel, cookies and cream, or cherry ice cream as a base … and whatever you do, add some chocolate sauce or hot fudge, too.

15. Olive oil

Pouring olive oil into bowl

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The health benefits of olive oil are undeniable. It’s high in monosaturated fats (a.k.a. “healthy fats”), loaded with antioxidants, and has been shown to prevent a variety of health issues (per Healthline). As the world at large has adapted olive oil into its diet on a regular basis, it’s shown up in some surprising places, including Starbucks’ new Oleato drink and now, ice cream. Olive oil might seem like a surprising ice cream topping, but an Instagram post from Cook’s Illustrated claims that topping ice cream with the healthy oil adds “an herbal, earthy richness to this creamy treat.”

Sound wacky? Maybe, but is it any more bizarre than adding caviar, wasabi, or chicharrónes to a sundae? Olive oil goes hand in hand with balsamic vinegar, so if you’re thinking of trying this out, that’s a good place to start. Consider a sweet or tart balsamic vinegar like raspberry or cherry to help balance out the herbal, subtly fruity flavor of the olive oil.

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