Gelato, Ice Cream, Frozen Yogurt, & More

Frozen desserts are popular treats around the world, and with so many kinds. There are only subtle differences between them, and that can be a frosty mystery to the inexperienced palate and untrained eye. There’s gelato, frozen custard, sherbet, sorbets, fro-yo, shaved snow, ice cream. shoot, there’s even liquid nitrogen ice cream all frozen desserts have their distinct characteristics.

All Frozen desserts are delicious in their way. And this is how it should be since they are all pretty different when it comes to ingredients and preparation methods. Let us help you decode the frozen dessert scene. If you want to call yourself a foodie, you’re going to need to know this because frozen desserts are a big deal. Can you picture a better summer day than relaxing and treating yourself to a big bowl of ice cream? Or maybe gelato? Frozen custard? Which brings up, what’s even the difference between all these frozen treats?

Is gelato merely ice cream that originates from Italy? Whether the difference between sherbet and sorbet is just a matter of pronunciation? As a pre-summer activity, let’s finally dig into ice cream and all its cousins to figure out exactly how each of these frozen desserts is unique. Also, when it comes to labeling frozen desserts in the supermarket, the USDA follows precise guidelines, let’s know about them as well.

Knowledge is power, and especially when it comes to frozen desserts, knowledge is delectable. Here’s our handy guide to nine of the most common types.


Gelato is a frozen dessert made from a mixture of milk, cream, and sweetener. It originated in Italy and is widely sold in Italian shops called “gelaterias” around the country. Gelato means ice cream in Italian and is thought to have been born during the Italian Renaissance in the 14th century. Furthermore, gelato is also believed to be a combination of two Spanish words, “helado” meaning “ice” and “congelare” or “to freeze.” Italian Renaissance reflects a period where the territory of modern-day Italy was ruled over by many governments. With various rulers claiming different parts of Italy, thus a fractured definition of gelato occurred.

Gelato ice creams

In Sicily, corn starch was added to the cream to yield a thick texture. Whereas in Naples, gelato was traditionally made with milk and eggs. If we move even more towards the north, gelato is a combination of milk, cream, and eggs mixed all together. Although regional versions of gelato existed, one famous Italian chef by the name of Francesco Procopio Dei Coltelli is credited with inventing the treat. In 1688, he opened up Cafe Le Procope in Paris to serve this frozen dessert, and the restaurant is still open today.

Gelato was introduced to the United States in the late 1700s. When brought to the US, there were two major types: one made by combining water with fruits and the other by mixing milk with cinnamon, chocolate, or different flavors. Over time many variations have been made to produce the gelato that we have today.

Many people confuse gelato with ice cream. But the two are pretty different from each other. While gelato does have a custard base like its American cousin, it also contains less milk fat and less air. Gelato is churned, very much like caramel. This churning process reduces air content during freezing, creating a very dense & creamy end product. Also, gelato is traditionally served at a slightly warmer temperature compared to ice cream, that is why it feels a bit softer and looks glossier.

So, in a nutshell, gelato is different from ice cream when it comes to ingredients, preparation, texture, and serving style. While both gelato and ice cream contain cream, milk, and sugar, gelato uses more milk and less cream than ice cream. This leads to less butterfat in the product. Whereas ice cream contains less than 10 percent of butterfat, gelato standards fall within 4 to 9 percent butterfat content. And the temperature at which gelato is served is around 7 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit.

To keep gelato’s dense texture from becoming too solid and difficult to eat. Warmer serving temperature means its flavor comes across much creamier than ice cream. Add this to the fact Gelato coats your mouth, providing an unmatched flavor profile. Gelato is just as versatile in flavorings as ice cream, and it can be made with flavors ranging from sweet cream to raspberry to stracciatella.

Ice Cream

Ice cream comes from a very far-reaching history, as some people say it was introduced as early as the second century BC. Some say ice cream entered America in the mid-1700s, but it was regarded as an exotic delicacy for the elite even in the 1800s. Over time, it became more accessible to the masses. Since then, ice cream has become a great American staple as it pops up through every generation. From ice cream sodas to ice cream parlors, to the creation of sundaes, ice cream has consistently stayed near and dear to our hearts.

About 16.3 billion liters of ice cream are produced worldwide each year. By country, the United States leads in ice cream production with an estimated 4.4 billion liters per year. And creating ice cream is no joke. In the States, ice cream has a legal definition, called a standard of identity, and is confined by several laws that dictate its composition. According to USDA, ice cream must contain at least 10 percent of. It should also get churned during freezing and be sweet. Thus, ice cream is a frozen dessert made from a custard made of milk, cream, sweetener, and often egg yolks.

Ice cream

By definition, ice cream is a mixture of milk fat and milk solids, mostly protein with some lactose, sugars, and flavorings. There are additional ingredients like stabilizers and emulsifiers, but these are used in much lesser amounts. This mixture is frozen and whipped at the same time, which results in air bubbles and tiny ice crystals. This is what gives ice cream its light and foamy texture. Further, the ice cream is packaged and stored in a freezer for further hardening.

Ice cream contains the highest milk fat among all the frozen desserts, usually ranging from 14 to 25 percent. It’s fluffy, creamy texture is unique among frozen desserts. It is churned inside an ice cream maker at high speeds to add air bubbles to the mixture, resulting in its unique texture. It can also be served in a style called “soft serve,” with more air bubbles, and is served at a slightly higher temperature for an ultra-soft swirl.

Ice cream is served at the coldest temperature of most frozen desserts between 6 degrees and 10 degrees Fahrenheit. This affects its flavor, as the cold temperature numbs your taste buds and doesn’t allow intense flavors to come through in ice cream as well as they do in gelato, sherbet, or sorbet. Ice cream is incredibly versatile in flavor and can include anything from caramel to strawberry to pistachio to chocolate. Adding toppings like chocolate sauce or nuts to vanilla ice cream creates an ice cream dessert variation called a sundae.

Even within the category “ice cream,” there can be significant differences in quality. Cheaper ice creams tend to whip in more air since this is essentially a free ingredient. On the other hand, premium ice creams have higher milk fat content, which is the most expensive ingredient, but important for that rich flavor and creamy texture. A premium brand would include about 16 to18 percent milk fat than an economy product with only 10 percent of milk fat, which follows the legal minimum.


The word sherbet is thought to have originated from Turkish and Persian words that both trace back to the Arabic word sharba, meaning “drink.” The Turkish and Persian words are serbet and sharbat, respectively, and lack an “r” in the second syllable. When the term was introduced to the English in the early 17th century, it was heard from languages that many English speakers thought exotic, and the spellings were all over the place. Amongst the various versions that existed in the early years, only two are still in use today: sherbet and sherbert.

Sherbet is another one of those foods that has a legal definition according to U.S. law. A sherbet must contain milk ingredients and milk fat, but at much lower amounts than traditional ice cream. This results in an icy and coarse mouthfeel rather than the rich taste of ice cream. More apparent differences include higher uses of fruit ingredients, explaining the tart taste. Sweeteners are usually used at higher levels too.

Sherbet image

The significant differences between sorbet and sherbet are: sherbet is basically sorbet with a bit of milk added, and it is always fruit-based. Sherbet, similar to the sorbet, is also made from sweetened fruit juice. But unlike sorbet, it may contain fat-free milk. It’s crucial to remember this distinction between sherbet and sorbet, especially for the people who suffer from dairy intolerances or are vegan.

Thus sherbet, also called sherbert, is a frozen dessert made from a mixture of fruit juice, sweetener, and a little bit of milk or buttermilk. Sherbet’s small amount of dairy gives it a butterfat content of between 1 to 2 percent, which is significantly lower than both ice cream and gelato, but still higher than sorbet. With less cream than both ice cream or gelato, sherbet is less creamy than either. However, sherbet’s small amount of dairy gives it more creaminess than sorbet. Sherbet is less versatile in flavors than ice cream or gelato because it is mainly limited to fruit flavors.

Sherbet is served at similar temperatures to gelato, between 10 degrees to 22 degrees Fahrenheit, because at colder temperatures, sherbet’s dense texture causes it to become hard and difficult to eat. Warmer temperatures mean its flavor comes across much creamier than ice cream. The bright colors of popular sherbet flavors like lime, lemon, orange, and raspberry are bound to catch any person’s eye. Sherbets are appreciated for their fruity, fun flavors, but that’s not all that distinguishes them from ice cream.


In the middle of the seventeenth century, a dessert termed water ice became commonly served at royal courts around Europe. At the time, only nobility would have had access to such a treat. Remember, this is long before any type of mechanical refrigeration or freezing. As the name implies, the treat was a simple mixture of ice and sugar syrup for flavoring. Sorbet is a fancier version of water ice that’s whisked while freezing to incorporate air, which makes it scoopable but not creamy. Similar to water ice, sorbet is dairy-free with no milk or cream used to its making. This is a huge differentiating factor from ice cream and its many other spinoffs.

The first written record of sorbet was in 1691 by a Frenchman François Massialot, who published 11 different sorbet recipes in his cookbook “Nouvelle Instruction pour les Confitures, les Liqueurs et les Fruits.” By 1695, the first book dedicated solely to sorbet recipes was introduced. It was also seen in a published cookbook in 1692 by the Frenchman Nicolas Audiger, who claimed to have been serving the dessert to royalty for several decades preceding. As ices began to spread throughout Spain and Italy, they garnered many names, including Eaux glacées, acqua gelate, and Eaux.

Sorbet ice creams

Think of water ices as the ancestor of slushies, snow cones, and popsicles. Composition wise, water ices are traditionally 30 table sucrose (table sugar) and 10 percent corn syrup. The remaining 60 perfect is a mixture of water and flavor preparation. More deluxe versions may have fruit pieces or purees used as flavorings in this type of frozen dessert. Restaurants serve sorbet as a palette cleanser during multi-course meals because its intense fruit flavor is extra refreshing. One variation on sorbet, called granita, also called Italian ice or water ice, is periodically scraped during freezing, so the ice crystals are especially flaky.

Sorbet is a popular frozen option for people suffering from dairy intolerances since milk or cream are not included ingredients and purely made from sweetened fruit juice and fruit puree. While ice cream, gelato, and sherbet are dairy products, sorbet is dairy-free and, therefore, vegan. Due to its lack of cream, sorbet has the lightest, iciest texture compared to other frozen desserts. Similar to sherbet, sorbet is limited in its flavors to fruit-based flavors. Sorbet recipes often incorporate fresh fruit, and popular sorbet flavors include strawberry and watermelon sorbet.

Frozen Yogurt

Frozen yogurt, also identified as Froyo, is a delicious treat from fermented dairy products containing live and active cultures within a skim, whole, or fat-free milk base. The Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus bacteria help turn the milk into yogurt. In the process, the bacteria also break down lactose content in the yogurt, assisting lactose-intolerant people in enjoying it without feeling discomfort. These good bacteria can have very positive health benefits for the consumer. Froyo comes in all flavors from tart to sweet, and its consistency is very similar to soft-serve, which is often mistaken for soft serve.

Frozen yogurt is usually regarded as a healthier version of ice cream, which is likely spurred by its lower fat content, typically only 2 to 4 percent. Additionally, the microorganisms used in frozen yogurt have a reputation of being probiotics or aiding in digestive health. Instead of cream or milk, yogurt gives this frozen dessert its creaminess. But besides that, it’s made the same way as ice cream.

Frozen Yogurt

While regular yogurt has been here for thousands of years, frozen yogurt became popular in the early 1970s. Initially, it was served in scoops just like ice cream, and then later, it was shaped like popsicles too. A remarkable evolution of frozen yogurt has occurred in the past few decades. While invented freshly, frozen yogurt has suddenly become a household frozen treat for millions. Now you can see there are thousands of froyo shops all over the country.

The market for frozen yogurt goes through cycles of high popularity to near non-existence. Out of the total frozen desserts category, frozen yogurt continually makes up less than 5%. Unlike custard and ice cream, frozen yogurt doesn’t have a legal definition in the U.S. Instead, makers have a lot of leeway in what distinguishes frozen yogurt from ice cream. Generally, frozen yogurt reflects regular yogurt by containing live microorganisms that ferment sugar to lactic acid. This gives the dessert a tangy flavor. Other products take a short cut and directly add citric acid to develop acidity.

Frozen Custard

Frozen custard was first seen in France in the middle of the eighteenth century and termed “fromages glacés,” which translates to “cheese ice.” The main difference between custard and ice cream is the addition of egg yolk to the base.

It tends to be dense and soft, imagine more of the texture of soft-serve than hard ice cream, and is most commonly sold in the Midwest and South. Frozen custard is a very popular frozen dessert in the Midwest and slowly gaining steam towards the coasts. The egg lends the custard-like flavor, while also supplying an emulsifier called lecithin. Emulsifiers are ingredients that are especially suited to link different phases like oil, water, and air. This gives custard its distinct smooth texture compared to ice cream.

Frozen Custard

In the United States, frozen custard has a legal definition specifying that it must contain at least 10 percent butterfat and 1.4 percent egg yolk by weight of the finished food. Anything less, the dessert cannot be called frozen custard, and instead, it would fall under the ice cream category. Frozen custard is frozen at 16 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit as it churns through the barrel freezing faster and creating a much smoother product. It is then stored at 18 degrees Fahrenheit, maintaining the soft, dense, and creamy texture until it is served.

Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream

As the world of frozen desserts becomes more of a gourmet art, sellers are coming up with more creative ways. While the original method of ice cream making is a deliciously commended science experiment, ice cream makers have decided to kick it up a notch, incorporating ice-cold chemistry into the process.

For a couple of years, liquid nitrogen ice cream stores have been coming up worldwide. Liquid nitrogen ice cream is technically ice cream but made differently—the same ingredients consisting of milk fat, sweeteners, cream, sugar, stabilizers, and eggs. But rather than churning and freezing, liquid nitrogen is added to the mix to produce the frozen end result.

Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream

The use of liquid nitrogen in the process of making ice cream is unique in every way. The process begins by taking a molten mixture of cream, full-cream milk, sugar, and flavoring of your choice and churning it with liquid nitrogen at an exact temperature of -195 degrees Fahrenheit. Due to the well below the freezing temperature of the nitrogen, the mixture freezes instantaneously. It is a quick process, but unlike ice cream and gelato, which contain around 30% to 50% air after the churning process, it is essentially air free. This results in a creamy, dense texture.

With the addition of liquid nitrogen, ice cream can be made immediately and on the spot. This trend is becoming increasingly popular, making appearances in ice cream shops across the country. And the probably the coolest thing in the world, literally and figuratively, is watching the showmanship involved while liquid nitrogen ice cream is being made.

Summing-up Frozen Desserts 101

Being aware of the differences between popular frosty desserts is fun and informative, but it’s also helpful and healthy. If you suffer from food allergies, it’s vital to know potentially triggering ingredients. Likewise, if you’re counting your calories or the fat intake, it’s helpful to know which frozen dessert choice is the best option.

Summing up Frozen Desserts

Now you know, if you’re looking for a dairy-free frozen dessert, sorbet is your best bet. You could also consider gelato or sherbet, although they contain milk ingredients, but at lesser amounts than regular ice cream. Frozen yogurt is undoubtedly a healthy and tasty alternative. And so on. As summer quickly approaches, it’s no longer a conundrum that differentiates one frozen dessert from another. So go forth and enjoy these tasty frozen treats, and don’t forget to impress your friends with all your knowledge about ice cream and its diverse varieties.

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