Ice Cream, Gelato, Sorbet: What’s the difference?

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This week, at the official start of summer, a primer on the world of ice cream:

Ice Cream is made of heavy cream (of course), milk, sugar and flavorings. Ice cream varies in percentage of butterfat, with premium being the highest in fat (11-15%). Commercial ice creams are whipped and contain a lot of air, which gives them a lighter texture.

French ice cream is, in other words, frozen custard. The base for this ice cream includes egg yolks that are cooked into a custard which is then churned into ice cream. The result is rich, smooth, heavy. And very, very good.

Gelato is Italian-style ice cream that typically has less fat than regular ice cream (shocker). Churned more slowly than ice cream, gelato is never whipped to increase its volume. Gelato is known for its silky, softer, denser texture. This comes in part from the temperature at which gelato is served, which is not as cold as ice cream. No wonder I’ve always preferred it.

Bouza bi haleeb. OK, I had to sneak Lebanese ice cream into the mix even though you won’t see it anywhere except here, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Middle East (if you see it anywhere else, you better tell me!). Authentic Lebanese ice cream is remarkably “chewy” in texture, which comes from sahleb (salep), a thickening powder made from the tubers of particular orchids in Turkey. Sahleb is impossible to find and purchase here in the U.S. or anywhere else for that matter (an inferior substitute would be corn starch). Bouza also includes mastic (more later), which gives bouza a pine-like flavor.

Soft serve ice cream is akin to regular ice cream in its make-up but is served…soft. Not so cold, so it doesn’t freeze your taste buds. Again, a clear explanation as to why soft serve has always ranked high in my ice cream dreams, despite the unhealthy and scary list of chemicals it contains to achieve its consistency.

Sorbet is frozen fruit puree with sugar. The high sugar content and a lot of whipping keep the sorbet smooth and light. This is my non-fat go-to treat.

Sherbet is like sorbet but contains a touch of dairy, which explains the milky color of my favorite orange sherbet (ideally eaten as a push-up).

Granita is all about the ice. It’s frozen fruit puree and sugar, but the goal here is icy crunch. This is the easiest of all to make because no ice cream maker is needed, and it’s a simple mix of ingredients.

Let the summer of ice cream eating commence…

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  1. Very helpful. My favorite is Gelato, (in Italy of course). Nothing here seems to match the creaminess and flavor of my favorite lunch in Italy. But I’m happy to know the differences of these frozen treats.

  2. Very helpful break down. Curious if you’ve tried making sherbet with eggwhites and no dairy. I’m just on the verge of this…but haven’t attempted any yet.

  3. Thanks for this. Very informative. Never exactly knew what gave Arab-style bouza its special taste and texture. Now I know. I plan to be making a lot of homemade ice cream this summer. Will be watching your blog to see what you are up. 🙂