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Ice Cream, Gelato, Sorbet, and Sherbet: Here's the Lowdown on These Frosty Desserts

Get the scoop on each of these four treats—plus, learn what makes each one unique.

Associate Digital Food Editor
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As the temperature heats up, most us can't wait to scoop up plenty of ice cream, one of the country's favorite summer dessert. With a myriad of options, navigating the freezer aisle can get confusing (and very chilly!). Ever wonder what the difference is between ice cream and gelato? Aside from the fact that one is Italian, is there really a difference? What about sorbet and sherbet? Are both dairy free? And is one healthier than the other? Jeni Britton Bauer, owner of Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream, gave us sweet answers to all of these questions.

 

Related: Expert Tips for Making Homemade Ice Cream 

 

Ice Cream vs. Gelato

Everyone knows and loves ice cream but there's a particular science behind it that makes it oh, so creamy. "[Ice cream and gelato] both refer to a frozen confectionery made of some combination of milk and cream, sugar, sometimes thickeners or egg yolks, and other flavorful ingredients," says Britton Bauer. The ingredients are "churned to incorporate air, which makes it creamier." American ice cream is frozen and churned quickly, which results in a hard yet fluffy consistency compared to Italian gelato. Gelato contains less cream than traditional ice cream, meaning it has less butterfat and is lighter so it needs less air churned into it, and a silky, denser texture.

 

What Is Sorbet?

Sorbet is a dairy-free frozen dessert made with water, sugar, and flavoring, often a fresh fruit. Watermelon, raspberries, grapes or other fruits are blended to a purée. The mixture is strained through a fine mesh sieve to remove seeds and fibers. The smooth purée is mixed with simple syrup (a one-to-one ratio of water and sugar boiled together), chilled, then churned in an ice cream maker, and frozen. With so few ingredients and no egg tempering in sight, it's one of the easiest frozen desserts you can make at home (right alongside granita). 

 

Is Sorbet Healthy?

"In general, sorbets tend to have fewer calories than ice creams. So, if you are a calorie watcher, you might choose them," says Britton Bauer. And if you're avoiding dairy, sorbet is the way to go (and since it's dairy-free, sorbet has much less fat than ice cream, gelato, and sherbet). On the downside, generally sorbet contains as much sugar as ice cream. 

 

What Is Sherbet?

If you can't decide between ice cream and sorbet, try sherbet. It's a happy medium between the two. Sherbet is typically made with fruit juice, sugar, and cream. By USDA standards, ice cream must contain between 10 and 20 percent milkfat, but sherbet must have between one and two percent milkfat. So, if you want a little of the creaminess of ice cream and the low-fat content of sorbet, dig into a bowl of sherbet. It's been popular for a while: "Orange sherbet was famous at Howard Johnson's in the mid-century, and at fancy restaurants as long ago as the late 1800's," Britton Bauer explains.

 

Whether you're team chocolate or team vanilla, cone or cup, these refreshing frozen treats are a delicious way to celebrate National Ice Cream Month.