Food & Drink

Ice cream vs. gelato: An eat-this-or-that guide to summer's frozen desserts

If it’s soft, cold and creamy, it may fit into several categories of frozen desserts.
If it’s soft, cold and creamy, it may fit into several categories of frozen desserts. For The Washington Post

Before you order a double scoop or get out the ice cream maker, consult our this-vs.-that guide to the frozen treats of summer.

Ice cream (and frozen custard) vs. gelato

To be designated as ice cream, the FDA stipulates that the product contains at least 10 percent fat. If it has more than 1.4 percent egg yolks, then it can be called frozen custard, French ice cream or French custard ice cream.

Gelato (Italian for “frozen”) is more dense, as there is less air whipped into it as it’s churned. Gelato typically has less fat than ice cream, as it is often milk-based (instead of cream) and contains little or no egg yolks.

Soft-serve vs. fro-yo

While it’s not mentioned per se in FDA regulations on frozen desserts, that swirly, old-time favorite known as soft-serve typically contains between 3 and 6 percent fat, although you'll see some purveyors push the fat up as high as 10 to 12 percent.

The fat content in fro-yo, short for frozen yogurt, can vary depending on whether regular, low-fat or nonfat yogurt is used. When served straight from their churning machines, both soft-serve and fro-yo have soft, airy swirls.

Ice milk vs. low-fat

Ice milk contains less than 10 percent fat; fresh from the freezer, it tends to be rather hard and have a few icy particles. You're not likely to see it around these days, though. In 1994, the FDA allowed manufacturers to label ice milk as low-fat ice cream, and the designation has since come to replace ice milk as a term. Low-fat ice creams today tend to include stabilizers and additives that help mimic the mouth feel of a higher-fat ice cream.

Sorbet vs. Italian ice

Sorbet can be made with practically anything – fruit, vegetable, chocolate, for example. But it almost always lacks dairy and egg products; its ideal texture is smooth and mostly free of icy shards. Fruit-based Italian ice (think Rita's brand) is similar in texture to a slushy that has been frozen; it has an icy crispness and loose-set. However, store-bought brands such as Luigi's are packed into small containers and frozen solid.

Sherbet vs. sherbert

Linguist Dan Jurafsky writes in his 2014 book “The Language of Food” that the name sherbet originates from the Arabic word sharab, the name for fruit syrups consumed for health and refreshment. (The root of the word means “drink.”) In Persia, syrups made from orange blossoms, sour cherries and the like were called sharbat – in Turkey, serbet – from the same Arabic word.

Sherbert, on the other hand . . . just kidding! They're the same. In a blog post, the dictionary Merriam-Webster writes that when the word was imported into English in the early 17th century, the extra “r” crept in incidentally and is now an accepted – if not as common – way of spelling and pronouncing it. By FDA standards, sherbe(r)t must contain between 1 and 2 percent fat.