19 Ingredients To Add To Ice Cream For Elevated Desserts

If you're looking for an extraordinary dessert to satisfy your sweet tooth, ice cream doesn't always feel all that special unless you put in the time and effort to make your own ice cream from scratch. But there is a way to turn even store-bought ice cream into a gourmet treat in mere moments. How, you ask? Toppings.

Toppings have long added flavor and texture to ice cream, allowing people to customize their dessert according to their own preferences. And while sprinkles and crushed Oreos may be classic ice cream toppings, leaning into more avant-garde offerings will have you nearly convinced you're at a luxe restaurant. 

The following suggestions come from myriad influences and origins. Some may be cupboard staples, while others may require a bit of hunting or a touch of planning. But trust us: If you're a fan of the savory, salty, spicy, and sweet combinations, we've got you covered.

1. Olive oil

Fruity and herbaceous, extra-virgin olive oil is a surprisingly delicious pairing for a rich ice cream. Olive oil adds a lovely earthiness to the dessert, and the ice cream brings out all of the olive oil's delicious notes, which may range from grassy to peppery and more. 

This pairing can work well with a host of different ice cream flavors. Classic vanilla is a no-brainer, but pistachio or even chocolate can be brought to next-level deliciousness with just a drizzle of the good stuff. This arrangement even works with sorbets like Sicilian lemon or orange.

Don't be afraid to gild the lily with even more toppings like fruit or spices. If you want to kick it up an extra notch, take a page out of chef Missy Robbins' book: At her Lilia establishment in Williamsburg, her sundae starts with a vanilla soft serve base and topped with extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt, honey, and fennel pollen, as posted on Instagram.

2. Chili crisp

Sichuan chili crisp has become the new sriracha of late, and for good reason: Marrying the richness of oil, the fruity heat of chili, and a touch of mouth-numbing Sichuan pepper, this condiment is delicious on everything from Chinese noodles and fried rice to your morning scrambled eggs and your evening dessert.

That's right. As counterintuitive as it may seem, it turns out that chili crisp is the ideal partner for ice cream. The combination first surfaced in 2018 in Chengdu and Chongqing but has since become relatively widespread, with chefs and food journalists singing praises of the sweet-spicy combo. Best of all, this pairing is relatively easy to recreate at home. While chili crisp is fairly simple to make from scratch, the savory hot sauce is easily accessible at Costco or even your local supermarket. Drizzle the fragrant oil over your ice cream, add crushed peanuts for an extra touch of crunch, and the dessert is ready for your enjoyment.

3. Fresh herbs

Aromatic herbs are lovely when infused into ice cream, especially with the more assertive members of the category, like rosemary, thyme, and lavender. When the herb is mixed into the dairy before churning, the almost savory notes stand out against the lusciousness of the sweet cream. 

If you're making your own herb-infused ice cream at home, a word of warning: These herbs can become overpowering and almost perfume-like, transforming a creative dessert into one that's overwhelming. Take care not to use too many of these more flavorful herbs, and be sure to respect the infusion time in your recipe. Otherwise, you run the risk of over-extracting the essential oils and turning the ice cream bitter. 

It may be easier to imagine herbs with homemade ice cream, but you can pair them with store-bought versions, too. Try plain vanilla or sweet cream ice cream with a homemade herb-infused caramel sauce or crushed herb-infused shortbread for a surprising dessert you won't be able to get enough of.

4. Honey drizzle

You've drizzled your ice cream with caramel and strawberry syrup, and you're no stranger to hot fudge or chocolate sauce. But have you ever considered something that's way simpler? 

Good-quality honey is rich in flavor, nutrients, antioxidants, and antibacterial properties, according to Healthline. It also makes a delicious ice cream topping, especially if you choose one of single-origin with its own delightful flavor. Buckwheat honey has an almost molasses-like richness with a slight bitter edge that pleasantly contrasts with the sweetness of ice cream. Lavender honey, meanwhile, is far lighter and more floral tasting. You could even transform the honey of your choosing into old-fashioned honeyscotch, a honey-infused sauce that was popular in the 50s. It sees honey combined with sugar, salt, butter, and evaporated milk to make it slightly more pourable and even richer. Consider pairing it with some salty nuts or seeds to balance the sweetness.

5. Balsamic vinegar

Vinegar on ice cream? Believe us — this odd-sounding pairing totally works. Traditional balsamic vinegar made from grape must – very young wine – boasts a rich, woodsy complexity thanks to the must aging in wooden barrels, typically of oak, juniper, chestnut, mulberry, and cherry, according to Use Balsamic Vinegar. The resulting vinegar offers the ideal blend of sweetness and acidity to make it the perfect pair for creamy ice cream.

The better the quality of your balsamico, the more nuance you'll get out of this pairing, so opt for traditional balsamic vinegar di Modena with some age on it for best results. If you want something with a slightly more syrupy texture, consider using balsamic reduction instead of vinegar.

Balsamic vinegar or reduction makes a great ice cream topping on its own, but if you want to refine it even more, it goes particularly well with fresh fruit like strawberries, a drizzle of fruity olive oil, or both. Garnish with some fresh basil for a pleasant pepperiness and even more vibrancy.

6. Flaky salt

It's become a millennial trope to fawn over desserts that are "not too sweet," according to Vice. The opposite of sweet is salty, and a bit of salt goes a long way in balancing the sugar in most classic desserts and pastries, which is why it's long been the secret ingredient that makes so many bakes extremely delicious. These days, sweets are getting a bit bolder in embracing salt, and it's no wonder salted butter caramel and chocolate-covered pretzels are so popular. And guess what? That same salty flair can be the crowning glory of your next bowl of ice cream.

Seasoning ice cream with a touch of salt can take many forms. A good flaky fleur de sel boasts far more minerality and flavor than table salt, and a judicious pinch is more than enough to make a scoop of ice cream that much more special. Salt can also be paired with another ostensibly savory ingredient like olive oil or balance the almost cloyingly sweet flavors of a classic hot fudge sundae.

7. Chili powder

Chocolate fans — and "Chocolat" fans — know that a touch of chili goes a long way in bringing out the flavors of cacao. The Aztecs were perhaps the first to combine chocolate and chili, enjoying the blend in a savory ceremonial drink seasoned with vanilla and honey. These days, top chefs and even brands like Lindt combine the two flavors for a smoky hit of spice within the decadent chocolate.

Hence, it's no surprise that chili is a great addition to chocolate ice cream or sorbet. Choose fruity chilis like Aleppo pepper or smoky chipotle peppers for even more flavor and pizzaz, and consider adding a dash of cinnamon so those flavors can really sing. But chili pepper can also bring out great flavors in non-chocolate ice creams. Chile de arból and mango are a common street food pairing in Mexico, so it's no surprise that a pinch of the powdered chili meshes well with mango sorbet.

8. Curry powder

Aside from the chili powder in your spice cupboard, you can also reach for the curry powder when you're ready for some dessert. With its beautiful golden color and complex aroma, curry powder is already a savory fave, but surprisingly, it can go wonderfully with ice cream. 

Curry powder isn't just one spice but a blend of spices, featuring anything from fenugreek seeds, which is often used in imitation maple syrups because it smells like it, as well as ginger, which already features in desserts regularly. Spreading a touch of curry powder over vanilla ice cream brings out the lovely floral aromas of the vanilla, but this is far from the only way to use it. Given the preponderance of coconut in South Indian cuisine, it's perhaps no surprise that curry powder also goes wonderfully with coconut sorbet or ice cream. Pair it with lime sorbet for a welcome bit of acidity, and consider garnishing with toasted desiccated coconut for even more flavor and texture.

9. Potato chips

It may sound weird at first, but anyone who has dipped French fries in a Dairy Queen Blizzard knows the distinct pleasure of marrying salty fried potato and sweet, smooth ice cream. But compared to French fries, potato chips do you one better thanks to their crispy, crunchy texture, which contrasts perfectly with the creamy dessert.

A touch of crunchiness is an appreciated addition to ice cream, as fans of crunchy toppings like peanuts or crushed Oreos know very well. But while you may be more accustomed to sweeter choices, potato chips make a particularly desirable topping with their touch of salt. Opt for thick-cut kettle chips for an even crispier, firmer texture, and resist the urge to mix these in, as they can quickly become soggy and lose their texture. Instead, sprinkle them on top right before serving and dig in immediately — you're sure to fall in love with this unique combination!

10. Popcorn

Much like potato chips, salty, loud popcorn also makes a tasty ice cream topping, and it comes in various flavors to choose from — be it salty or sweet. If contrast is what you seek, classic movie theater-style popcorn with butter and salt is sheer perfection. If you'd rather something a bit less adventurous, choose kettle corn or caramel-coated popcorn to echo ice cream's sweetness.

Topping ice cream with popcorn also invites quite a bit of inspired imagination for the array of flavor choices. While plain vanilla is certainly nice, the popularity of chocolate-covered popcorn also works well atop chocolate ice cream, to no one's surprise. Similarly, the attractiveness of caramel corn should make it clear that popcorn and caramel ice cream — especially salted caramel — are truly a match made in heaven. Use caramel corn for a one-two punch of flavor and texture that you are sure to relish.

11. Black truffle

For a truly gourmet dessert, we can think of no better ice cream topping than black truffle — a rich, luxe treat with a deep umami flavor that brings out the best in everything it touches, from egg and chicken to cheese and pasta. And while it might sound out-there, it turns out that pairing black truffle with ice cream is nothing new. According to chef Jean-Louis Palladin's cookbook, about a fifth of which is devoted to these aromatic fungi, André Daguin stumbled upon a recipe for black truffle ice cream that proves this combo is centuries old. 

If you think making your own truffle ice cream is too time-consuming, there is a quicker and less expensive way to enjoy this pairing. Just choose an ice cream topping and add truffle seasoning. Spanish Marcona almonds are a gourmet treat in their own right, and when seasoned with truffles, they make a wonderful topping. You can also consider truffle-infused flaky sea salt or even a drizzle of good-quality truffle oil.

12. Cacao nibs

Cacao nibs are crushed bits of cacao beans that undergo a fermentation, drying, roasting, and de-husking process and boast a pleasantly bitter chocolate flavor. According to Healthline, they also supposedly contain loads of health benefits, including a richness in antioxidants that fans of chocolate never neglect to mention. Taste and texture combined, cacao nibs have become a favorite in single-origin chocolate bars to lend a touch of texture without departing too far from the chocolate flavors chocoholics go gaga for. 

It's no wonder that cacao nibs complement chocolate ice cream. Though, cacao nibs can unfortunately get a bit lost when paired with rich, sweet ice cream on their own because they're not overly sweet. So, if you want them to shine a bit more, consider candying your cacao nibs by tossing them in homemade sugar syrup and baking them in the oven. Allow them to cool and harden before breaking or chopping them to sprinkle over the ice cream. 

13. Almond Roca

Almond Roca is a brand of chocolate-covered butter toffee produced by Tacoma's Brown & Haley for over a century. Crispy and buttery with loads of sweet flavor, Almond Roca is a delight all on its own, but should you have any bits left over, it also makes an exquisite addition to ice cream. 

If you can't get your hands on Almond Roca, it's fairly simple to make your own version of the popular toffee at home. The chopped treat can be stirred into a homemade ice cream base or assembled on top of a bowl of your store-bought ice cream. And what's more, the candies can also be a core ingredient in a tasty ice cream pie made with almond cookies, slivered almonds, Almond Roca syrup, and the crushed toffee candies themselves. Consider pairing this treat with almond ice cream or butter pecan for a nice marriage of flavors between the ice cream and the topping.

14. Smoked sugar or smoked salt

A touch of smokiness can add heaps of gourmet flair to simple ice cream; while some smoked ice cream recipes call for all manner of technical approaches to infusing that woodfire flair into the cream, the truth is that you don't need any fancy equipment to bring this flavor to the table. Smoked sugar or smoked salt flakes can simply be decked atop your preferred ice cream to add a touch of nuanced smoke. Or, if you want a bit more texture, smoked almonds can add some richness and crunch.

There are many other sources of smoke for this pairing. Smoke adds depth and complexity to chocolate and plays wonderfully with the floral flavors of vanilla. Maple pecan ice cream may also benefit from a subtle kiss of sweet smoke. But it may be better to leave the smoke out of more complex flavors like cookies and cream.

15. Macerated fruit

Fruit is a lovely topping for ice cream all on its own, but with just a handful of steps and a bit of patience, you can make it even more special. Macerating fruit is a process similar to marinating: By adding a bit of sugar to the sliced fruit and leaving it to sit for as little as 20 minutes or as long as a day, the fruit will release its juices, creating its own sweet, flavorful syrup. You can also add other ingredients like citrus, spices, or herbs to infuse the fruit, resulting in an even more flavorful syrup. 

While any fruit can be macerated, technically speaking, this technique works best with soft, thin-skinned fruit like berries or tropical fruits like pineapples. Strawberries are one of the top contenders for this technique, considering their floral perfume and gorgeous red color, but feel free to experiment with your favorite seasonal fruit to find your favorite mash-up. Just be wary of macerating fruits that tend to oxidize rapidly, like apples or pears, which may turn an unappetizing brown in the process.

16. Broken cookies

If you've been tossing or eating your broken cookie fragments straight out of the package, it's time to get creative. Broken cookies make the perfect ice cream topping from the perspective of both flavor and food waste. The benefit of this approach is that it truly works for all sorts of cookies, from Oreos and Chips Ahoy! to fortune cookies and biscotti. Use your imagination to come up with pairings that may be particularly delicious, like Thin Mints on mint chocolate chip ice cream or Oreos on the already cookie-studded cookies and cream.

In addition to being the ideal way to upcycle cookie fragments from store-bought cookies, this is also a great way to use up misshapen homemade cookies, hiding the evidence of any home-baking experiments gone wrong. Whichever cookie you're using may benefit from a quick blitz in the food processor to help them become a bit more uniform, though you could also place them in a freezer bag to bash before scattering them on the scoop of your choosing.

17. Bacon

Bacon may have already had its moment as an omnipresent dessert offering, but just because the bacon dessert trend is no longer at its peak doesn't necessarily mean it's no longer a good idea! Smoky and salty, crispy and umami-rich, bacon welcomes sweet flavors and pairs wonderfully with ice cream.

When using bacon as an ice cream topping, there are several different directions you can take things. You could always go the simplest route and directly sprinkle bacon bits on the ice cream. Or you can consider first caramelizing bacon strips in brown sugar or maple syrup, with or without added spices, to sweeten up the savory protein a tad. Chop the strips into small pieces that won't prove too overwhelming in the finished dessert, and garnish with one beautiful candied bacon strip to call attention to the uniqueness of the pairing. This smoky topping works with many different ice cream flavors, though chocolate is the perfect foil for the sweetness, saltiness, and smokiness.

18. Crushed wasabi peas

You've made it this far, so trust us with this idea: Wasabi peas are just as delicious an ice cream topping as the other gourmet additions thus far. Wasabi peas are — as their name suggest — a fusion of green peas and spicy wasabi. The roasted peas are covered in a mixture of sugar, salt, oil, and wasabi for a finished snack that's slightly sweet and toasty, super crunchy, and moderately spicy. While they're typically served with drinks like beers, you may be surprised to learn they also work well as an ice cream topping.

Wasabi peas skyrocketed to dessert supremacy when New York City's Big Gay Ice Cream Truck had it on its menu, coating vanilla soft serve in the snack. The barely crushed peas add both texture and flavor to the ice cream. Since you can find wasabi peas in nearly every grocery store, putting them on your shopping list as a dessert topping sounds convenient enough. 

19. Hot sauce

The sheer variety in the hot sauce category means it's the ideal unconventional ice cream topping. Hot sauces, after all, aren't just about heat. Each sauce takes full advantage of a host of other flavors, from smokiness to sweetness and tanginess to fruitiness, to create a harmonious symphony for the palate. So, let your imagination be your guide when adding it to your chilled dessert! 

Fruity habanero chilis are often paired with fruits like peach or blueberry in hot sauces; as a result, this can be a great jumping-off point to discover how these two foods work together. Chipotle-based hot sauces bring a touch of smoke to the party, while newer creations like chocolate-infused hot sauce may provide the perfect opportunity for a complementary marriage of flavors. Meanwhile, classic sriracha is a lovely addition with its slightly sweet edge, and it makes for a pretty drizzle, thanks to its thick consistency.