Culver's Vs Dairy Queen: The Ultimate Frozen Treat Showdown - Mashed (2024)


Culver's Vs Dairy Queen: The Ultimate Frozen Treat Showdown - Mashed (1)

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ByCrawford Smith/

Dairy Queen is the longstanding monarch of fast food ice cream, with a history that stretches back to 1940. Culver's, a relative newcomer, opened its first location in 1984. Both are proud products of the Midwest, with Dairy Queen starting in Illinois and Culver's in Wisconsin — where else could two of America's foremost dairy-slingers have their roots but in the Midwest? Now, they compete over similar territory, offering menus of comparable ice cream parlor throwbacks like milkshakes, malts, and sundaes. Culver's churns custard while Dairy Queen sells soft serve, but beyond that, the two chains' frozen menus look nearly identical to a casual observer.

I'm far from a casual observer, however. I have taken it upon myself to taste every comparable frozen treat at Culver's and Dairy Queen to decide once and for all which restaurant does a better job. I'll be evaluating the two chains on taste, value, novelty, and overall quality. After a long and exhausting taste test, I emerged with a tummy ache and one heck of a sugar rush, but more importantly, answers. Keep reading to learn which restaurant will win the ultimate frozen treat showdown.

Dairy Queen offers a wider variety of treats

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Culver's is a full-service fast food restaurant with burgers, sandwiches, chicken, seafood, and salads, so it makes sense that the chain's ice cream menu would be a bit limited, considering how many other items its kitchens have to deal with. It offers a modest selection of sundaes, Concretes (the chain's term for frozen custard blended with toppings), shakes, malts, and scoops or pints of custard. You get the sense that the custard is a complement to the savory food, not the star of the show.

While some Dairy Queens also offer savory food, in my area, they tend to be ice cream-only, and as such, they have more frozen treat options. Dairy Queen serves equivalents of most items on the Culver's custard menu, plus a banana split, Cupfections (sundae-like ice cream treats that incorporate brownies and other toppings), the Peanut Buster Parfait, packaged ice cream bars, and dipped cones. You can also order an ice cream cake from the chain for your next celebration. Dairy Queen wins the variety award, but as we'll see, quantity doesn't always lead to quality.

Culver's has more exciting mix-ins

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You might be able to order a greater variety of treats from Dairy Queen, but Culver's has the edge when it comes to mix-in creativity. At my local Dairy Queen, there are 17 standard Blizzard options. If you want to customize your Blizzard further, your choices are relatively limited. You can pick from seven candy or other toppings like brownie pieces, Heath bars, or Reese's, and four sauces: caramel, peanut butter, strawberry, or "chocolaty" (not chocolate).

Meanwhile, my local Culver's is an embarrassment of topping riches. Though the chain doesn't offer pre-built Concretes in the same way that DQ does with Blizzards, I can choose from over 30 toppings, syrups, sauces, and mix-ins to trick out my frozen treat. The options aren't just more numerous, either — they also feel more special. Culver's has fun add-ins that DQ just can't compete with, like Andes Mints, butter cake pieces, cashews, marshmallow crème, and espresso. And at Culver's, I'm not just limited to the Concretes if I want to express my ice cream creativity — I can add the same list of toppings to shakes and dishes of custard as well. Dairy Queen doesn't let you do that.

The chains' offerings are equal in value

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These two frosty titans are evenly matched in terms of value. I ordered the smallest version of each item I got from both chains — sometimes the Culver's version was cheaper, but other times it was Dairy Queen. The smallest plain ice cream from Culver's was $3.39, while Dairy Queen's was $2.29. Dairy Queen's milkshakes and malts were more expensive than Culver's, but its sundaes were cheaper.

All in all, in the six categories where I could make a direct comparison between items from Dairy Queen and Culver's, DQ was more expensive four times. However, when Dairy Queen was more expensive, it also tended to offer a larger serving size compared to Culver's. DQ's pre-packaged ice cream treats (which Culver's doesn't offer) were also quite affordable at $2.99 for the Dilly Bar and $3.49 for the Buster Bar. I'd call this category a tie.

Culver's custard was better on its own

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Dairy Queen's classic ice cream is reduced-fat, artificially flavored soft serve. It's made with both regular and nonfat milk, corn syrup, sugar, whey, and a variety of fun chemicals, including polysorbate 80, artificial flavors, and mono- and diglycerides. Culver's frozen custard has a similar ingredient list, with the notable additions of cream and eggs (the difference between custard and ice cream is the addition of eggs).

While I enjoyed that Dairy Queen offered its soft serve in a cone rather than a boring plastic dish, Culver's custard was clearly superior. The DQ product was noticeably lower in fat, which gave it a light mouthfeel with unpleasantly grainy ice crystals. Culver's custard, by contrast, was rich, creamy, and smooth on the tongue. The custard seemed to have much less air whipped into it than DQ's soft serve, which added to its luxurious texture.

Flavor-wise, DQ delivered more vanilla, but its ice cream was excessively sweet. Culver's tasted eggy and dairy-forward, with just enough sugar to enhance the other flavors. Both ice creams suffered a bit from a pasty texture I attributed to the use of stabilizers in the recipes. However, despite this issue, Culver's offering felt like a more premium product than Dairy Queen's. Culver's also gives you more variety, as it always has vanilla, chocolate, and a seasonal custard flavor, while DQ just serves classic vanilla.

Culver's vanilla milkshake was thick and rich

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While Dairy Queen's soft serve already tastes pretty strongly of vanilla, the restaurant adds extra vanilla syrup to its shakes, along with some milk to thin out the ice cream. Culver's vanilla milkshake, on the other hand, has the exact same ingredient list as its vanilla custard.

The milkshake battle amplified the differences between the two brands' products that I observed in the plain ice cream comparison. The Dairy Queen shake was disappointingly thin, perhaps because the restaurant's ice cream is already extra light. It was also painfully sugary; the additional vanilla syrup, while adding lots of good vanilla flavor, also seemed to make DQ's already-too-sweet soft serve even more saccharine.

Culver's milkshake was almost too thick when first served; this is the type of shake that's best after it loosens up for a few minutes outside on a hot day. It tasted pretty much exactly like the chain's plain custard: eggy and fatty, with just a hint of vanilla. The only notable difference was that the shake tasted a bit milkier than the straight custard. Culver's lack of overwhelming sweetness and superior texture made it the clear victor in the milkshake comparison. Culver's also gives you more milkshake variety; while DQ only sells basic vanilla, chocolate, hot fudge, caramel, and strawberry milkshakes, Culver's lets you choose from a menu of dozens of syrups, toppings, and other add-ins to customize your shake.

Culver's malt is the drive-in treat of your dreams

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A malt is similar to a milkshake; the only difference is the addition of malted milk powder, which is a blend of dried milk and malted barley. This ingredient was originally a standard part of milkshake recipes but has become less common over time. It adds notes of nuttiness and toasted grain to a milkshake, giving it a more complex flavor. I opted for the chocolate malt from each chain, as I find that the toasty flavor of malt usually complements bittersweet chocolate very well.

Just like its vanilla shake, Dairy Queen's malt was an assault on my palate. The twin flavors of chocolate syrup and malt powder punched my tongue hard, making their presences forcefully known. While I appreciated that I could really taste the malt in Dairy Queen's version, the flavors felt unbalanced and, once again, overly sweet. Culver's chocolate malt was relatively light in the chocolate department, but the malt came through loud and clear, and the barley flavor wasn't overwhelmed by excessive sugar. Culver's wins another round.

Dairy Queen's Blizzard is a classic for a reason

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Introduced in 1985, Dairy Queen's Blizzard came to define the chain, and the frozen confection remains a signature item. The idea of whipping soft serve into a not-quite-milkshake, not-quite-ice-cream texture and adding fun toppings has been replicated by other chains in subsequent years, including McDonald's with its famous McFlurry. Culver's version of this menu item is called a Concrete, and the snack has an even older history than the Blizzard — or Culver's itself. St. Louis native Ted Drewes started serving frozen custard concretes in 1959.

I compared the basic Oreo Blizzard and Oreo Concrete for this taste test. Both had generous helpings of Oreo cookies blended with the ice cream, with many tiny crushed Oreo bits for flavor and a few big chunks that added nice pops of crunch. This was the first contest where the light, fluffy texture and strong, sweet vanilla flavor of DQ's soft serve were assets, rather than liabilities. The lightness of the ice cream made it easier to eat a generous portion of the Blizzard, while the Concrete felt excessively rich. The potent vanilla taste of Dairy Queen's ice cream also paired beautifully with the chocolatey Oreos, and the bitter cocoa flavor of the cookies tempered DQ's inherent sweetness. The Oreo Concrete tasted a little bland and flat next to the Blizzard, so Dairy Queen claims this round.

Both chains have great sundaes

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Comparing Culver's and Dairy Queen's sundae offerings is a bit of an apples-to-oranges endeavor. Dairy Queen's sundaes are basic affairs made with soft serve and your choice of sauce: hot fudge, chocolate, strawberry, or caramel. Culver's only has two sundae options, but they're both pretty elaborate. The Turtle Sundae combines vanilla custard with hot fudge, caramel sauce, and roasted pecans, while the Caramel Cashew Sundae is just what it sounds like: caramel sauce and cashews on ice cream. Both Culver's sundaes are crowned with a maraschino cherry.

I decided that the most useful comparison would be the Culver's Turtle Sundae versus the DQ Hot Fudge Sundae; when I ordered at Dairy Queen, the clerk asked if I wanted peanuts and whipped cream on my sundae. I said yes, as I felt the added toppings made the taste test more fair. The toasty, salty chopped peanuts really did add a lot to DQ's sundae — they gave each bite some crunch and helped to offset the sweetness of the ice cream. DQ's hot fudge was also excellent, with a deeply bittersweet cocoa flavor.

Despite DQ's strong showing in this round, Culver's still eked out a victory. The salty, buttery caramel sauce added complexity that DQ's hot fudge alone lacked, and the whole roasted pecans felt like a luxe upgrade over the finely chopped peanuts.

Dairy Queen's MooLatté is a refreshing surprise

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Crawford Smith/Mashed

Dairy Queen and Culver's offer very different options in the ice cream-based beverage category. In keeping with its devotion to drive-in classics, Culver's only ice cream drink is a root beer float. The beverage is made with the brand's own signature root beer, served on ice, and topped with a scoop of vanilla custard. Dairy Queen takes a different route with its line of MooLattés, which are basically milkshakes with added flavorings and ice blended into them. I opted for the Mocha MooLatté, as I figured something with the word "latte" in the name would be best with chocolate in it.

The Root Beer Float was tasty and comforting. Culver's makes a high-quality root beer, and the addition of the custard gave the drink a deliciously creamy texture. However, it wasn't very exciting, and the taste of the custard was overpowered by the soda. Conversely, theMooLatté was surprisingly delicious. The coffee flavor came through way more than I expected, and its bitterness tasted excellent alongside the hot fudge blended into the drink. The added ice helped water down the sweetness and made theMooLatté more refreshing than a regular milkshake, as well. This is an underrated fast food coffee drink, and it wins this round for Dairy Queen.

Dairy Queen has packaged ice cream novelties

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Dairy Queen wins this category by default, as Culver's doesn't offer any packaged ice cream bars; its only take-home option is pints of custard. Still, I thought it was worth sampling DQ's pre-packaged offerings to let you know if they're worth buying. I chose the cherry Dilly Bar (Dilly Bars are also available in chocolate and butterscotch) and the Buster Bar.

Dilly Bars are simple pucks of vanilla soft serve dipped in a hard candy coating. I wouldn't recommend the cherry flavor, as it was aggressively artificial and medicinal. The crunchy texture was great, though, so I'm sure the other two flavors would be better. The Buster Bar was awesome; it combines soft serve with fudge and whole peanuts, all enrobed in a crispy chocolate candy shell. As with Dairy Queen's sundae, the peanuts did a lot of the heavy lifting here, adding texture and savoriness to what would otherwise have been a one-dimensional dessert. The Buster Bar is well worth buying if you want something you can stash in your freezer for later.

The verdict: Culver's is the fast food frozen treat champion

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Crawford Smith/Mashed

It was a close battle, but Culver's takes the crown. Dairy Queen ultimately could not overcome the weaknesses of its soft serve and its penchant for excessive sweetness, despite winning categories like drinks and Blizzards and putting up a valiant showing in other areas. Culver's just seemed to be using slightly better ingredients and had more finesse when it came to balancing flavors. Its delicious custard is amazing no matter how you serve it, and its treats deliver the soda-fountain nostalgia I want from this kind of ice cream. It also edges out Dairy Queen when it comes to customization.

That said, Dairy Queen is no slouch in the frozen dessert department. I'd happily eat most of DQ's menu again (except for the shakes — those were just too much for my sweet tooth). If you live somewhere without Culver's, DQ is more than an adequate runner-up. It also serves some treats that Culver's doesn't have.


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Crawford Smith/Mashed

To select the treats for this list, I tried to find every area where I could make a direct comparison between the menus at Dairy Queen and Culver's. Although both chains offer a lot of opportunities for customization, I elected to order the simplest version of most of the treats to make it easy to evaluate the quality of the basic components of each dish.

The first thing I looked for when tasting each treat was overall flavor. I also weighed in texture, novelty, and quality of ingredients. If something was so sweet that it was a struggle to eat more than a couple of bites, I factored that in, too. All of the ice cream was ordered at the same time and tasted in one session.

Culver's Vs Dairy Queen: The Ultimate Frozen Treat Showdown - Mashed (2024)
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