Have you ever wondered what differentiates ice cream from gelato? Sorbet from sherbet? With this handy guide, you’ll wonder no longer.
Ice cream: By FDA regulation, ice cream sold in stores has to contain at least 10 percent milk fat and has to contain less than 1.4 percent eggs by weight of the finished product. (If it contains more, it is required to be called “frozen custard” or “french ice cream” or “french custard ice cream”.) Typically it is milk fat (cream, whole milk, condensed milk, etc.) and sugar, churned with a dasher to incorporate air into the mixture and frozen at a relatively quick speed to promote small crystal production. (This is why ice cream frozen with liquid nitrogen is so velvety, because the crystals are so small.) If you buy ice cream in the supermarket, it has to weigh at least 4.5 pounds per gallon because ice cream manufacturers used to inject so much air into their product that it should have been called ice air instead of ice cream.
The difference between soft serve and hard ice cream is that soft serve is served immediately after churning (never being stored in a freezer) and has a significant amount of air pumped into it (sometimes up to 50 or 60 percent of its total weight).
Frozen yogurt: As far as the FDA is concerned, “frozen yogurt” is ice cream (since yogurt is a milk fat). Yogurt is typically the primary type of milk fat used in frozen yogurt, but other milk fats can be legally included, and usually are. Because yogurt has a high level of lactic acid from its fermentation process, it tends to lend a more tart taste to the end product. This flavor difference is likely why “frozen yogurt” appears on the product label instead of “ice cream made with yogurt.”
Fat-free frozen yogurt and fat-free ice cream are usually made with corn syrup, which can mimic the presence of milk fat. Also, these fat-free products usually contain twice the amount of sugar to help with freezing (letting the product freeze at a higher temperature) and flavor (without the yumminess of fat, the desserts taste bland so manufacturers pump up the sugar content).
Frozen custard: As mentioned above, frozen custard is like ice cream but with more than 1.4 percent eggs by weight. When making custard at home, be sure to cook the egg mixture first before churning it or use pasteurized eggs. You don’t want to give you, your family, and friends salmonella poisoning.
Gelato: Similar to ice cream, but with less milk fat (usually between 5 and 10 percent by weight). Think of it like ice milk. It’s on the frozen dairy scale between sherbet and ice cream.
Sherbet: A product containing milk fat and churned like ice cream, but with 1 to 2 percent milk fat. It also is usually fruit- or alcohol-infused. Sherbet feels and looks creamy, though, because it either has eggs (like custard) or gelatin added to it.
Sorbet/Italian ice/Water ice: As far as I can tell, sorbet, Italian ice, and water ice are the same products in the U.S. They’re made with a simple sugar syrup and fruit juice, fruit puree, or alcohol (no milk). Think of them like a snow cone, but churned like ice cream instead of shaved.
Granita/Glaces/Shave ice/Snow cone/Slush: A frozen mixture of simple sugar syrup and fruit juice, fruit puree, alcohol, or other popular drinks (like coffee or soda) that is shaved before serving. Granitas typically don’t contain milk fat.
A couple other favorite frozen liquid desserts:
Wendy’s frosty: It is similar to a milk shake, but containing corn syrup as a main ingredient, and many other things not typically in a milk shake you might make at home. From Wendy’s website: “Milk, Sugar, Corn Syrup, Cream, Whey, Nonfat Dry Milk, Cocoa (processed with alkali), Guar Gum, Mono and Diglycerides, Cellulose Gum, Carrageenan, Calcium Sulfate, Disodium Phosphate, Artificial and Natural Flavoring, Vitamin A Palmitate.”
Tasti D-Lite: This popular New York chain’s product is similar to a soft-serve gelato, but containing water as its main ingredient with corn syrup as its fourth. Also contains a lot of ingredients we don’t typically use when making homemade gelato … like guar gum and locust bean gum. The ingredients for its vanilla product, from Tasti D-Lite’s website: “water, nonfat milk, sugar, corn syrup, cream, guar gum, locust bean gum, carrageenan, vanilla, lactase.”