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I Tried the Vanilla Milkshake at 9 Fast-Food Chains & the Best Was Perfectly Thick and Creamy

For a quick, sweet treat, it's hard to beat a fast-food shake, but which chain blends up the best one?

Fast food in America is synonymous with many things. Burgers and fries certainly rise to the top of the list, but while those two foods go great together, you can't call it a complete meal without a nice frosty milkshake.

After all, nothing washes down a juicy, savory burger and fully cleanses the palate quite like a cool, creamy shake. This classic combo dates back at least to the 1950s, the heyday of drive-in restaurants, when servers (sometimes zipping around on roller skates) would pull up to your car with trays full of these tasty items.

Nowadays, burgers and shakes are more commonly associated with drive-thrus than drive-ins, but both items are still mainstays on menu boards nationwide. Almost every major fast-food joint that serves burgers also offers some type of milkshake—even some chicken chains do, too—vanilla being the quintessential flavor.

So, if you're looking to indulge in one of these sweet treats this summer, then you'll have plenty of places to choose from. But which fast-food chain makes the best-tasting vanilla shake in town?

I recently sampled this plain and simple option from nine popular chains to find out. Here's how each stacked up, ranked in descending order from my least favorite to the tastiest shake.


A vanilla milkshake from Sonic Drive-In
Photo: Caitlin White/Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per Small Shake)
Calories: 570
Fat: 22 g (Saturated Fat: 17 g)
Sodium: 490 mg
Carbs: 85 g (Fiber: 0 g, Sugar: 74 g)
Protein: 12 g

The old-school drive-in culture at Sonic is very endearing, but this chain seems invested more heavily in its aesthetic than its ingredients. Sonic's ice cream didn't rank high on my list when I was taste-testing vanilla cones recently, but I still gave its vanilla shake a fair shot. It cost me $5.59 and it tasted so bad that I almost asked for my money back.

The look: This shake came in a thick styrofoam cup that helps keep the drink cold but can be tricky when it starts to warm up and condensation forms. Whipped cream and a cherry on top come standard.

The taste: Absolutely shockingly bad. The first sip was all chemicals and no real cream or vanilla flavor. I tried stirring it a little with the straw to see if maybe it just hadn't been mixed properly, and I also tried letting it sit for a few minutes to melt, but nothing helped. The aftertaste was a nutty flavor, like a walnut, that then went very bitter toward the end. If you check the nutrition stats, this shake is also high in calories and high in sodium, so going with a different choice makes sense on a lot of levels.

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A vanilla milkshake from Chick-fil-A
Photo: Caitlin White/Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per Order)
Calories: 580
Fat: 23 g (Saturated Fat: 15 g)
Sodium: 390 mg
Carbs: 82 g (Fiber: 1 g, Sugar: 80 g)
Protein: 13 g

If you're a Chick-fil-A regular, then you might already know that the popular chicken chain doesn't use real ice cream, but a substitute it calls "Icedream." Spoiler alert: it's not a dream. So I already knew what I was getting into with this shake. It cost $5.75 and was also among my least favorites.

The look: One really cool thing Chick-Fil-A does with its shakes is add an insulated sleeve to the cup. This helps to avoid the slippery condensation that can build up on a plastic cup and it also keeps the drink cold for a long time. That, plus whipped cream and a cherry on top, made this shake a very aesthetically pleasing shake. Sadly, the taste didn't match up to the look.

The taste: Strangely buttery and overly chemical-flavored, not unlike the Chick-fil-A ice cream cone. There is a nice amount of whipped cream on top, as well as a cherry, which are both helpful because they effectively water down the taste of the shake itself. 

Burger King

A vanilla milkshake from Burger King
Photo: Caitlin White/Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per Order)
Calories: 560
Fat: 14 g (Saturated Fat: 9 g, Trans Fat: 0.5g)
Sodium: 400 mg
Carbs: 96g (Fiber: 0 g, Sugar: 79 g)
Protein: 12 g

Burger King has never really had a cult-favorite dessert like McDonald's McFlurry or Wendy's Frosty. Maybe it's the name, but this is always a place I go to mostly for savory and salty treats. Burger King's shake wasn't bad, but for $5.68, it's almost twice the price of McDonald's and is half as good. 

The look: This shake doesn't come standard with whipped cream like some of the others, but the colorful cup and orange straw were cute. The color is your standard marshmallow white, not a pale yellow. In a clear cup, the color scheme reminds me of Dunkin', but the restaurant name running vertically up the side is a nice aesthetic touch.

The taste: Overly sweet. My first thought was this shake tastes like rainbow sprinklesso much so that I did a double take to see if there were any of the colorful additives mixed in. There weren't, but the artificial sugariness dominated. There was none of that salty or fatty buttercream taste, just the sweetness of an imitation vanilla. It was also a thinner consistency than others, making it very drinkable, if not exactly enjoyable.

 10 Fast-Food Restaurants That Serve the Best Milkshakes

Carl's Jr.

A vanilla milkshake from Carl's Jr.
Photo: Caitlin White/Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per Order)
Calories: 740
Fat: 36 g (Saturated Fat: 24 g)
Sodium: 220 mg
Carbs: 87 g (Fiber: 0 g, Sugar: 70 g)
Protein: 13 g

I'm not a fan of the overtly masculine-geared advertising from Carl's Jr., which made me think the shake wouldn't be great, but it turned out to be a fine middle-of-the-road option. The price was in the middle of the pack, too, at $5.17.

The look: This is another one that comes standard with a dome lid, a bunch of whipped cream on top, and a cherry. And this one made me realize that I prefer shakes that come in a transparent plastic cup so you can see the dessert inside. 

The taste: Unlike a lot of the others, which are mostly just creamy, this one had a super strong vanilla flavor. It had a hint of chemical flavor but not in an unpleasant way. The shake does turn very syrupy very fast, and it doesn't maintain its thickness for very long. It was very, very sweet, but not a bad experience overall.


A vanilla milkshake from Rally's
Photo: Caitlin White/Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per 16-oz. Order)
Calories: 290
Fat: 10 g (Saturated Fat: 7 g)
Sodium: 220 mg
Carbs: 87 g (Fiber: 1 g, Sugar: 33 g)
Protein: 7 g

Rally's (aka Checkers) was never one of my go-to choices growing up, so it's something I've become more familiar with as an adult. I like the late-night feel of the restaurant and the fact that it's a little reminiscent of diner culture. Also, you can walk up to the window to order. You don't have to drive a car. A small vanilla shake cost me $4.06. 

The look: The shake is presented in the same opaque cup as a soft drink, so no transparent container or special dome lid. But the white cup with red accents and black checkers does give it a very particular look already, so it's not bad. You just can't really see any of the ice cream before you drink it.

The taste: This has a little bit of the same nuttiness that's in the Sonic shake, but done in a way that leans more butter pecan than walnut. It's a really nice textured shake, not too thick but not too thin or runny. There was no strong vanilla taste, but no strange chemical aftertaste, either. Overall, it's a very middling option. 

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A vanilla milkshake in a palm tree-designed cup from In-N-Out
Photo: Caitlin White/Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per 15-oz. Order)
Calories: 590
Fat: 31 g (Saturated Fat: 20 g)
Sodium: 360 mg
Carbs: 66 g (Fiber: 0 g, Sugar: 55 g)
Protein: 16 g

Because the burgers and fries at In-N-Out are so delicious, I assumed the shake would fare very well, too. But it was just good, not great. This was surprising to me, because of course I love the ice cream in contrast to all the salty food I usually eat it with, but tasting it against several other shakes? The flavor, at least, just didn't hold up very well. For $3, it's on the cheaper side, so that's a positive.

The look: This is one of—if not the only—shake that had more of a pale yellow color that I associate with a very traditional vanilla. That color is mostly hidden, though, because like Rally's, In-N-Out just throws the milkshake in a paper cup, so you're not really seeing the ice cream unless you take off the lid. 

The taste: This one tastes the most like actual soft serve. It's also very milky, and you get that nice buttercream taste as it melts. Actually, this shake gets a lot easier to drink over time. When it's handed to you, it's almost impossible to drink because of how thick it is. Like some of the very top options, this one has little tiny chunks of ice mixed in with the liquid, giving it some texture variation that is key in a great shake. 


A vanilla milkshake in a see-through plastic cup from McDonald's
Photo: Caitlin White/Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per Small Shake)
Calories: 480
Fat: 13 g (Saturated Fat: 8 g)
Sodium: 210 mg
Carbs: 80 g (Fiber: 0 g, Sugar: 40 g)
Protein: 10 g

McDonald's scored pretty high when I taste-tested vanilla cones, so I was ready for this shake to be pretty good—and it was. This shake cost $3.71. It took about 60 seconds for me to order and receive the drink, and it was very tasty (there's a reason McDonald's wins out in the fast-food wars so often). I do think McDonald's gets a boost from Proustian nostalgia because so many generations grew up getting this fast food when they were kids.

The look: This shake comes standard with a healthy dose of whipped cream on top, which means it arrives with the dome lid. This gives it more of a Starbucks-style Frappuccino look than a milkshake, but it's contemporary and clean. The cup is transparent with a big yellow M so you know where you are, and the shake itself is pretty close to true white, even though the shake itself is a mix of vanilla ice cream and vanilla syrup

The taste: The shake was thick with a genuine vanilla flavor and no after taste. Its thickness was consistent, yet it was still drinkable through a straw. This felt like a classic fast-food shake to me. It was nostalgic and creamy with a slight hint of butterfat. The whipped cream is also a nice contrast to the ice cream, because it does have a slight chemical taste, and that only shows how pure tasting the ice cream is. It might not be the best ever, but it's incredibly consistent.

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Dairy Queen

A vanilla milkshake in a white cup from Dairy Queen
Photo: Caitlin White/Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per Small Order)
Calories: 520
Fat: 19 g (Saturated Fat: 14 g, Trans Fat: 1 g)
Sodium: 200 mg
Carbs: 73 g (Fiber: 0 g, Sugar: 65 g)
Protein: 13 g

DQ won my vanilla cone taste test in a landslide, so it seemed inevitable the shake would win, too, but it wasn't quite the best. It was still a shake with great flavor, but not as good as the cone. Maybe adding the milk and syrup took away from the already excellent ice cream. Who knows? This shake was $6.45the most expensive in the entire survey and almost the best. Almost.

The look: This shake came in a classic see-through plastic cup with a nice dome lid, which is great if you opt for whipped cream (at no extra charge), which I did. It also comes with a thick sturdy straw that fit the cup size perfectly, which I can't say was the case for every restaurant. (I'm looking at you, Rally's!) 

The taste: Creamy and sweet but not overly so, the balance here with the sugar levels is key to enjoying the shake the whole way through. The optional whipped cream didn't change the taste in a major way when I had a couple bites with it. There were nice flakes of ice suspended throughout the shake, so you get a good amount of texture. There wasn't a lot of butter or salty elements present, but the shake was very thick and stayed cold really well.

Still, there was one shake that I liked even better.

Shake Shack

A vanilla milkshake in a see-through cup from Shake Shack
Photo: Caitlin White/Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition: (Per Order)
Calories: 680
Fat: 36 g (Saturated Fat: 22 g)
Sodium: 430 mg
Carbs: 72 g (Fiber: 0 g, Sugar: 71 g)
Protein: 18 g

Shake Shack has always advertised that it uses real cane sugar and cage-free eggs in its ice cream, but I never really thought much of it until I was trying nine milkshakes back to back. The difference in taste was obvious right away. The Shack's vanilla custard wasn't my favorite because it was almost too eggy, but once it was mixed with some milk, the proportions were perfect. At $6.29, it's on the expensive side, but worth the price.

The look: This shake arrived in a nice, clean transparent cup with the green Shake Shack logo and a matching green straw, giving it a modern look. Inside, the shake struck a marshmallow-white color. It had a clearly thick texture, not too thin or melted. Its stark look was a departure from some of the other choices, but it fit the overall Shake Shack aesthetic well.

The taste: In my tasting notes, I immediately wrote: so so so good! The shake had the perfect thickness, with a super consistent texture that included nice flecks of frozen cream throughout—that's a characteristic both DQ and Shake Shack shared. The flavor was super creamy and buttery, with only faint vanilla notes, but it had no chemical after taste. For this one, whipped cream costs extra, so I opted to get it without, but the shake itself was so good that it didn't even need the extra boost.

Caitlin White
Caitlin White is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle reporter with an expertise in food and travel. Read more about Caitlin