What's the difference between sorbet, sherbet, ice cream, and gelato?

pistachio gelato

Cool, rich and creamy treats like ice cream, sherbet, sorbet, and gelato are some of life's best simple treasures. They are all delicious, but there are distinctions between the types of frozen dessert. As with most food items, exceptions blur the lines among the desserts, and there are peculiarities between countries that make strict definitions nearly impossible. If you are a stickler for definitional purity, this article may prove vexing.

To explain the characteristics of each type of treat, we will progress from lightest to heaviest. Sorbets are the most delicate of the bunch because they contain no dairy (at least in the US; in countries outside the US, sorbet has a broader definition). Most commonly, sorbets are fruit-based and at their most basic contain only fruit and sugar. However, we know that food definitions are never that simple. Some sorbets eschew fruit in favor of ingredients such as wine, coffee, chocolate and even beer. To make things more confusing, there are a fair number of recipes labeled as sorbet but which include dairy.

A close relative of sorbet is granita. The major distinction between the two is that granita has a grainier texture, since it is usually made by freezing the ingredients without stirring, allowing larger ice crystals to form. According to Larousse Gastronomique, another cousin to sorbet is agraz, which hails from North Africa. The highly acidic agraz is made from almonds, verjuice, and sugar.

On the next rung up the richness ladder sits sherbet. The original sherbet (aka sharbat) is a drink made with fruit juice, sugar, and water, but in the US it has come to be known as a frozen dessert containing fruit and dairy or fat (and rarely, egg whites or gelatin). In the UK, sherbet is a completely different product altogether, a fizzy powder used in confections. Purists maintain that sherbet is always fruit-based, but there are exceptions, including this Lemongrass-basil sherbet from Bon Appetit Magazine, and Iced coffee and almond sherbet from Serious Eats.

Sherbet differs from ice cream in the amount of milk or dairy product. Usually sherbet has about half as much dairy as ice cream, but no bright line divides the two. In her recent book Hello My Name is Ice Cream, Dana Cree notes that she labelled her Strawberry sherbet as ice cream in her store.  (As an aside, I just made that recipe and it is delicious. My husband says it has the most intense strawberry flavor of any strawberry ice cream/sherbet he has ever eaten.)

Moving on to next level of lushness, we find ice cream. The term 'ice cream' covers different combinations of dairy product, sugar, and other ingredients, but most countries regulate this particular phrase. The US Department of Agriculture demands that any product with the label must contain at least 10% milkfat. In Canada, the requirement is slightly less stringent; ice cream can be 8% milkfat if the recipe includes cocoa or syrups. Otherwise, the ice cream must be 10% milkfat. There are added complexities in the UK. There, the Food Standards Agency requires 'dairy ice cream' to have 2.5% milk protein and .5% dairy fat. However, products labelled only as 'ice cream' may contain vegetable fat instead of dairy fat. In Australia, any product called ice cream must contain cream or milk products or both, with no less than 10% milkfat and 168 g/litre of food solids.

All types of ice cream require churning to incorporate air into the mixture and to prevent large ice crystals from forming. Without churning, ice cream would be hard and grainy - not a pleasant treat. Commercial producers use the term "overrun" to describe the trapped air as a percentage of total volume after churning compared to that of the un-churned base. Low-cost commercial ice creams approach 100% overrun - that is, equal volumes of air and ice cream base. Most aficionados prefer a density of about 25% overrun. The amount of air trapped in the churning process depends on a number of factors including the temperature of the base and speed at which the product freezes, making smooth, light ice cream a challenge to produce at home without special equipment.

Premium brands and homemade ice creams exceed the regulated fat thresholds, making them richer and more indulgent. There are two distinct styles of ice cream: 'Philadelphia-style', which contains no eggs, and frozen custard, which does include egg. The egg acts in two ways: the fat enriches the mixture and the natural emulsifiers found in the yolks help make it smoother. Most commercial ice cream is Philadelphia-style but contains other emulsifiers. Until recently, the overwhelming majority of homemade ice cream recipes were frozen custard because they turn out less icy due to the thickening and emulsifying characteristics of the eggs.  Then Jeni Britton Bauer released her groundbreaking book Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home. Jeni feels that eggs mask the flavor of other ingredients, so instead of thickening her ice cream with egg yolks, she reduces the cream by boiling it and adds cornstarch to thicken it. A touch of cream cheese also enhances the texture of her ice creams.

In Hello My Name is Ice Cream, Dana Cree digs even deeper into the science of ice cream, demystifying emulsifiers. She thinks that many of them have an undeserved negative reputation. In a recent interview, she put it this way: "There's a lot of things at home that we don't know how to manufacture - there's no way for us to get corn starch out of corn, but somehow that's a completely natural product. Locust bean gum is a weird thing that holds stuff together, but carob chips, if you're super-healthy and you don't want to eat chocolate, but make chocolate chip cookies, well, they're the same plant. So why does one have a perception that it's healthy, and one has the perception that it's a weird chemical?" In her book, she provides several options for home cooks to use, ranging from xanthan gum to glucose to cornstarch.

At the end of the richness scale, we finally arrive at gelato, the Italian frozen dessert that closely resembles ice cream. However, several criteria distinguish the two. Gelato contains less milkfat than ice cream (6 to 7% vs. 10-15%), and it does not have as much air churned into it, making it denser. As with most foods in Italy, each region has its own interpretation of the treat. In the south, particularly in Sicily, milk or fresh cheese forms the base, and vegetable starch rather than egg thickens the product. In central Italy, the base is custard made with milk and eggs. In the north, cream enriches the custard. Italian gelato vendors serve their product at a warmer temperature (20 to 25°F) than normally used for ice cream (~10° F). This makes the flavor more intense because your taste buds are more receptive than when they are numb from the cold. To mimic this at home, place your gelato into the refrigerator about 20 minutes prior to serving it.

Now that you know all of the similarities and differences between sorbet, sherbet, ice cream, and gelato, the only thing that is left is for you to search the EYB Library for the perfect recipe. 

Photo of Pistachio gelato from Saveur Magazine

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