15 Quick and Easy Ice Cream Sauces for the Best Sundae Ever
Chocolate, caramel, or strawberry? With a few pantry ingredients, you can make homemade ice cream sauces to rival the fanciest ice cream parlors.
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Early in the pandemic, my family was locked down. We live in Queens, and our local hospital was then a global epicenter. Spending 24/7 in our apartment for weeks on end was doing a number on our mental health, so I looked for small ways to brighten the days. We tired of jigsaw puzzles, board games, and family movie night pretty quickly. The most successful idea by far: Sundae Dinner. Think salad bar, but instead of fresh veggies, you lay out a variety of ice creams and toppings.
Now, I don’t own an ice cream maker — NYC apartment, limited freezer space, and so on — but I wasn’t about to let our Sundae Dinner be 100% store-bought. (Plus, pandemic boredom. I needed something to do!) So I sought out recipes for DIY sauces, from classic hot fudge to gooey caramel to pretending-to-be-healthy fruit toppings.
It turns out, making ice cream sauces from scratch is one of the easiest cooking projects you can try. Most call for baker’s pantry ingredients like chocolate chips, brown sugar, vanilla extract, and butter. All take less than half an hour, and many can be ready to pour over your bowl of chocolate chunk or butter pecan in under 10 minutes.
We emerged from lockdown long ago, but Sundae Dinner is firmly entrenched as a new family tradition.
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How long does ice cream sauce last?
Most chocolate ice cream sauces will keep in the fridge for a month or more. Caramel ice cream sauces last about two weeks in the refrigerator, and fruity ice cream sauces last about one week refrigerated, maybe two. All of this is to say that once you create your sauces, you’ll be ready for multiple Sundae Dinners.
How to make chocolate sauce
Chocolate sauces for topping ice cream come in several types. I’m a sucker for the contrast of hot fudge sauce and cold creaminess, but homemade magic shell will forever hold my childhood heart.
Straightforward and satisfying, this is my go-to hot fudge sauce recipe. It calls for both cocoa and chocolate (I use dark chocolate), and after mere minutes on the stove you’ve got a decadent, thick, sauce. The basic how-to is shockingly simple, and once you see how easy it is, you’ll want to try variations. Here are peppermint hot fudge sauce, mocha hot fudge sauce, marshmallow hut fudge sauce, peanut butter hot fudge sauce, even a vegan hot fudge sauce (which uses full-fat coconut milk instead of heavy cream).
What’s that you say? Your passion for hot fudge sauce can’t wait the brief amount of time it takes to cook it on the stove? Check out this five-minute microwave miracle. Evaporated milk, two kinds of chocolate, and powdered sugar ensure that it comes out rich and thick.
Psst … This delectable sauce has only two ingredients, and one of them is Nutella! While this recipe calls for heating the sauce over the stovetop, it could easily be done in the microwave instead, which means it’s ready in mere minutes. I like to dunk apple slices and strawberries in the choco-nutty sauce, too.
When I was a kid, Magic Shell was my favorite thing to put on ice cream. Even now, that satisfying thwack of a spoon against the hardened topping just can’t be beat. For years, I wondered how to make magic shell at home. When I discovered how easy it is, I just about fell off my chair. It’s literally two ingredients, five minutes. And just like hot fudge sauce, homemade magic shell has variations: Check out Peanut Butter Magic Shell, 3-Ingredient Strawberry Magic Shell, and Nutella Magic Chocolate Shell.
If your Sundae Dinner invites are for a grown-up crowd, you’ll definitely want to include a sauce or two with an alcoholic kick. This one plays up stout’s natural hints of chocolate as well as its creamy consistency. Another option: Bourbon Chocolate Sauce.
How to make caramel sauce, marshmallow sauce, and other classic toppings
In my view, an array of chocolate-based sauces makes a perfectly respectable Sundae Dinner. But the rest of my family wants more. Maybe you do, too.
The day I learned you could make a perfect, gooey caramel sauce in the microwave, I swear I heard the angels sing. Seriously, this could not be easier. But I realize not everyone has a microwave oven, so here’s a version that’s nearly as simple, which you make on the stovetop. Oh! Let’s not forget salted caramel sauce, also super-easy.
Butterscotch looks a lot like caramel, but the flavor is distinctly different. That’s because caramel is made with white sugar, while butterscotch calls for brown sugar plus butter. In my opinion it’s less finicky than caramel — if it's on the stovetop for too long, it won’t burn, but will become too thick to pour. Which just means you’ve made chewy butterscotch candy!
My husband spent a lot of time at Friendly’s as a kid, and he fell in love with their peanut butter sauce. Replicating it is surprisingly easy. This recipe calls for just four ingredients — smooth PB, heavy cream, sugar, and light corn syrup — and less than ten minutes on the stove.
I’m a hot fudge enthusiast and my husband is a peanut butter guy, but our son is a marshmallow fiend. (Actually, he’ll put all the sauces on his sundae, but that’s another story.) Heating marshmallow creme (y’know, Fluff) with heavy cream and a little vanilla makes a nearly-instant sauce.
Imagine melting down a sweet, nutty New Orleans praline and pouring it over your ice cream. That’s what you get with this fantastic dessert sauce. Pro tip: For extra pecan punch, toast the chopped nuts for a few minutes before adding them to the sauce.
How to make fruity ice cream sauce
I’m not going to pretend these are as healthy as putting fresh fruit on your sundae, but hey — these fruity ice cream sauces are all lower in sugar than the more indulgent sauces.
Whether you have an abundance of fresh cherries (and the patience to pit them) or just want to grab a bag of frozen ones, this simple sauce is the perfect way to use them. I love that the recipe also includes suggestions for other ways to use the cherry-studded sauce — you can even turn it into a lickety-split pie filling.
This is nothing like the mass-produced “strawberry” sauce you’ll see in stores. Instead, you get a chunky ice cream topping that’s bursting with fresh berries — and fresh berry flavor. If you prefer a smooth texture, puree the sauce at the end.
We try to go blueberry picking at least once a year, and when we do, we come back with blueberries. Like, a truckload of them. A double- or triple-batch of this effortless sauce seems like an excellent way to use them — the sauce freezes well, so you can have fresh blueberry sauce all year long.
This won’t surprise you, but: Ice cream is pretty darn sweet. So I like to add a little tart, tangy zing for contrast, like this raspberry sauce. The recipe has just two ingredients. I’ll bet you can guess what they are … That’s right, it’s nothing but raspberries and sugar. They simmer together for 10 minutes, until the berries break down and the sauce thickens naturally, after which you pour the sauce through a strainer to make it perfectly smooth. (FYI, the fancy name for this sauce is raspberry coulis.)
Want a little tropical flair for your Sundae Dinner? Whir a couple cups of chopped fresh pineapple in the food processor until it’s still somewhat chunky, then simmer briefly with light brown sugar, light corn syrup, and a little cornstarch. When the mixture thickens, stir in vanilla extract and lemon juice to enhance the flavors. Spoon it over your favorite ice cream and dig in.
Bonus recipes for other toppings
Once you start enjoying Sundae Dinner, you may find yourself looking for additional toppings for your bowls. Check out these recipes for Homemade Whipped Cream, Homemade Maraschino Cherries, Edible Cookie Dough, and Wet Walnuts.
More for your ice cream sundaes
Now that you have your ice cream sauce recipes, let’s not forget about the ice cream! Will it be vanilla ice cream, chocolate ice cream, or caramel ice cream? And how about a brownie or a boozy splash?