What's the Difference Between Ice Cream, Gelato, Frozen Custard, Frozen Yogurt, and Others?

Cold, sticky, melty, drippy, sugar blobs are the sweetest sights of summertime. While it's tempting to slap an ice cream label on all of it, there's a slew of unique scoopable desserts in this camp. Sorbet? Gelato? Frozen custard? Sherbet? These aren't synonyms. It's time to sort these scoops out once and for all.


Here's the Scoop

Ice cream

In the United States, there is a legal definition of ice cream. No kidding. The USDA requires ice cream (for commercial purposes) to contain at least 10 percent milkfat (you know, fat from milk). It also must get churned while freezing (as opposed to just sitting in a still bucket in the freezer overnight) and must be no more than 50 percent air. Wait, air? Yes, the more air churned into the ice cream base while freezing, the lighter and fluffier the result. Too much air, and, well, you get ... not much of the good stuff.

Where to get it? Pretty much anywhere on Earth. Oh, but if you're looking for the ice cream shop with the most flavors, set a course for Heladería Coromoto in Venezuela.


As rumor has it, the Italian word for ice cream is gelato, but that's a bit misleading. Gelato differs from ice cream in that it has very little air whipped into it while churning, which results in a very dense end result. In Italy, as Thrillist reports, gelato is traditionally made with whole milk and without added cream, which puts the milkfat percentage around 3.8 percent.

Where to get it? Italy, baby. Because gelato has no legal definition in the U.S., beware of what you're buying in the freezer aisle. The low milkfat and lack of hardening make true gelato a tough keep on store shelves, so you may just be buying a carton full of marketing jargon.

Frozen custard

Known to some as French ice cream, frozen custard is very similar to ice cream in a number of ways. The key differentiator, however, is that it must be at least 1.4 percent egg yolk. In addition to its eggy base, frozen custard is also typically only about 15-30 percent air, making it thicker and smoother than ice cream.

Where to get it? While an early version of the stuff is said to have come from Coney Island, the frozen custard capital of the world is Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Thank the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago for making frozen custard a Midwestern staple.

Frozen yogurt

Fro-yo differs from ice cream because, instead of milk or cream as the main dairy ingredient, this stuff uses — wait for it — yogurt. But this isn't the kind of yogurt currently sitting in your fridge. Frozen yogurt uses cultured milk (using bacteria such as Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, which may or may not be live), but the probiotics do not survive the freezing process.

Where to get it? Frozen yogurt originated in the U.S., and isn't hard to find thanks to the recent froyo gold rush. Rumor has it that the vanilla ice cream cone at McDonald's is frozen yogurt. Wrong. It's reduced fat ice cream.


Don't Got Milk?


This stuff (not pronounced to rhyme with Herbert, by the way) is fruit-based. Or famously rainbow-based. The USDA requires sherbet to contain at least 50 percent single-strength fruit juice, and just a touch of dairy: 1-2 percent milkfat. You may also see it labeled as sorbetto, not to be confused with sorbet. We know.

Where to get it? On his return trip to Italy, Marco Polo brought with him an ice cream recipe that was actually closer to sherbet. While, sure, you can travel to the boot for a sherbet, the stuff in your grocery store's freezer section will suffice for a suitable palette-cleanser.


Here's an easy one: Sorbet is simply fruit and sugar. No dairy here. Restaurants may sometimes use sorbet between courses to cleanse the palette. Also, sorbet is slow-churned, so it's smooth and scoopable like ice cream.

Where to get it? Sorbet is one of the earliest known desserts, dating back to the 7th century B.C.E. in China. No reason to make special travel plans to try it; this stuff is super easy to make at home yourself. Try it.

Italian ice

So very similar to sorbet, Italian ice has a slightly different texture. This dessert, also known as granita, is not as smooth as sorbet, but rather icy and flakey. Granita is repeatedly scraped during the freezing process, loosening it into icy flakes, Real Simple reports.

Where to get it? Granita originated in Sicily, but, like with most of these sweet treats, can be found all over the world.

In addition to the above, we could go down the rabbit hole of Hawaiian shave ice (not "shaved," silly mainlander), sno-cones, popsicles, and whatever is inside a Push-Up, but we'd get brain freeze.

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream For ...

We know what you've been thinking this whole time: Okay, so which one should I eat? Let's start with the bad news: There is no option here that we'd feel particularly comfortable labeling as healthy. The reason is that they're all loaded with sugar: so goes the nature of desserts. Another reason is, it's not quite a fair swap given the density of the different variations. Basically, the comparison all comes down to your taste preferences. And now for the good news: No matter which you choose, it'll likely be delicious.

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Feeling adventurous? Try making your own frozen treats with "The Perfect Scoop: 200 Recipes for Ice Creams, Sorbets, Gelatos, Granitas, and Sweet Accompaniments," by New York Times best-selling cookbook author and blogger David Lebovitz. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

6 Ice Cream Hacks

Written by Joanie Faletto September 19, 2017

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