The freezer section at the local grocery store is only getting more complicated as food trends ebb and flow. Seasons change, kitchen technology improves, and what results is a seriously confusing collection of frozen treats. But anyone with a serious sweet tooth will want to stock the freezer with nothing but the best so you can satisfy that sugar craving with the right kind of sweet.
As it turns out, gelato is not just the Italian word for ice cream. Sorbet isn’t the same as sherbet, and frozen yogurt is miles apart from frozen custard. Not all these sweet treats were created equal, but it’s absolutely possible to learn their differences and know what you’re getting when you place your order at the ice cream parlor. Examining some of the basics, from type of milk to sugar levels and production processes to serving styles, will make it easy to impress your fellow sweet teeth and help anyone staring in confusion at the freezer aisle selection.
We begin with the classic, made from milk, cream, and sugar. But ice cream isn’t just an American favorite and a staple of dessert menus across the country, it’s actually an official term protecting the federal definition. To be called ice cream in the United States, a frozen dessert has to be made with no less than 10% milkfat and must be below 100% overrun. Because ice cream is made by adding air to the freezing base, this overrun percentage requirement mandates that the base can’t grow to any more than twice its original size through the churning process.
50% air may seem like a lot in the finished product, but it’s this part of the process that makes smooth, creamy light ice cream unique from other desserts like gelato and frozen custard. Different ice creams will offer a range of air percentages, and it is quite common that less expensive products have a higher air to custard ratio, presumably because air is free and more is better.
Rumor has it that gelato is just the Italian word for ice cream, but the differences between these two desserts run much deeper than simple translation. First, the ingredients: gelato is typically made using more milk, less cream, and less sugar than American-style ice cream. Real Italian gelato is typically made completely from whole milk without any added cream, which keeps the milkfat percentage closer to 3.8% on average. And there are definitely no eggs allowed in a traditional gelato recipe.
Gelato is also made by churning a custard base as it freezes, but churning for the Italian style is a much slower, gentler process. Less air is incorporated in gelato, which makes the finished product denser and less fluffy. While American ice cream is blast-frozen during commercial production, gelato usually skips that process and so it stays only semi-frozen and keeps a consistency closer to soft-serve than hard, scoopable ice cream. Lower aeration and less added sugar means traditional gelato offers more intense, true-to-label flavors, too.
Traditionally made gelato also melts faster, so keep that in mind when you’re placing a cone order on a very hot day. And unlike ice cream, gelato is not a protected federal term in the States so what you’ll find in stores and on shelves could very well be fudging the line.
For the lactose intolerant and dairy sensitive among us, sorbet is a go to frozen treat when ice cream gets cut from the diet. Sorbet is usually made from fruit, water, sugar, and some type of acid addition to balance out the flavors and keep the product shelf stable. Sorbet is technically dairy-free, but since the name doesn’t protect any kind of federal regulatory definition you should make sure to check the ingredients before you buy.
In addition to the lack of dairy, sorbet can also forego the churning process that whips air into ice cream and gelato. What results is both a grainier texture and a more concentrated, intense flavor profile. These refreshing, intense flavors are the reason sorbets can often be found in fine dining establishments as palate cleansers between courses. Many homemade sorbet recipes make use of ice cream machines to whip up a creamier texture from the dairy-free ingredient mixture, but the graininess typically remains no matter how fluffy your sorbet gets from the aeration.
Sorbets tend to stay colder longer because of their limited ingredient profiles and high water content, so some big producers add alcohol to lower the freezing point and reduce unwanted icing. Meanwhile, sorbet is not to be confused with sherbet, which is technically halfway between sorbet and ice cream. Start with a fruit-based sorbet mixture and add in just a small amount of milk to end up with a classic sherbet. Sherbet contains anywhere between 1 and 2% milkfat, compared with gelato’s 3.8% average and ice cream’s 10% and above.
While frozen yogurt is not a federally regulated term in the US, some states do mandate what can be called frozen yogurt and what can’t. For the most part, frozen yogurt is just ice cream made with yogurt instead of milk and cream. It’s churned in the same way, but it has less fat than ice cream and highlights a more tart flavor compared with ice cream’s traditional sweetness, particularly in the soft-serve style. If you tossed your favorite yogurt into an ice cream machine, you’d wind up with a tasty soft-serve treat.
Sugar is most often added to frozen yogurt for the sake of hard packed options, like pints you’d buy in a grocery store or take home to store in your own freezer. Sugar keeps plain old yogurt-in-the-ice-cream-maker from turning into an impenetrable brick once you stash it in the freezer, which is why it’s safe to say that all that talk about frozen yogurt being a healthier option is not necessarily true.
While frozen yogurt does have to be made with yogurt (it’s all in the name) there’s no guaranteeing that your local fro-yo joint introduces any live, active cultures so if you’re looking for some healthy gut flora to mix in with those candy toppings, check the ingredients first.
Originally, French-style ice cream added egg yolks to the milk, cream, and sugar mixture so the resulting treat was richer and thicker in texture. Some American-style ice creams started to borrow from French tradition to include egg yolks in their recipes, and that’s where we got frozen custard. Since “ice cream” is a federally regulated term, toss eggs into the mix and you’ve got to find a totally new name to go along with the thicker, creamier frozen treat.
Now, frozen custard is also a federally regulated food name. To be labeled frozen custard, a product has to contain at least 10% milkfat (just like ice cream) and at least 1.4% egg yolk. Soft-serve is the favored and most popular style for frozen custard in the US today, but it can also be blast-frozen and packaged for grocery stores. In its softer, ready to serve style, frozen custard is extra creamy, super rich, and sweet as can be. And although legend says it was inspired by a French ice cream recipe, these days frozen custard is usually found in the Midwest and the South.
Allergies and dietary restrictions aside, any of these frozen delights could be the one to hit the spot when you’re a diehard dessert lover. Learning about the differences between each of these sweet treats may make you a celebrity at the local sweets shop and sugar-heavy birthday parties, but at the end of the day don’t forget to savor the flavors and enjoy your indulgent dessert! After reading this, you may even insist on having dessert first. Go on. You know you want to.