What's the Difference Between Ice Cream, Gelato, Sorbet, and Sherbet?

Not all frozen treats are created equal.

overhead view of 4 bowls of pink colored ice cream and sorbet, blue background
Photo: Cara Cormack

Is the difference between sorbet and sherbet just a matter of pronunciation? Is gelato just ice cream that comes from Italy? You'd be forgiven for thinking so: The terms are used interchangeably in conversation all the time. But the USDA adheres to precise guidelines when it comes to labeling frozen treats in the supermarket.

Want the scoop? Here's our handy guide to seven of the most common varieties.

01 of 07


This frozen delight contains just fruit and sugar—no dairy. It's often churned in an ice cream maker, which makes it scoopable but not creamy. Restaurants use sorbet as a palette cleanser during multi-course meals because its intense fruit flavor is extra refreshing. Bonus: It's incredibly easy to make at home.

02 of 07


Halfway between sorbet and ice cream, sherbet is basically sorbet with a bit of milk added. And it is always fruit-based.

03 of 07

Granita (aka Italian Ice)

Like sorbet, granitas are often made from a puree of fruit, sugar, and water. The difference is in their texture. Unlike sorbets, which are smooth-churned, granita purees are scraped repeatedly during the freezing process, loosening their structure into icy flakes.

04 of 07

Ice Cream

The USDA requires this frozen favorite to contain at least 10% milkfat (which is exactly what it sounds like: fat from milk). It must also get churned during freezing, and (surprise!), be sweet. Want to make your own? Check out our collection of quick ice cream recipes.

05 of 07


"Gelato" means "ice cream" in Italian. But the two are not exactly the same. While gelato has a custard base like its American cousin, it also contains less milk fat and less air churned into it during freezing, which makes its texture denser. Also, because gelato is traditionally served at a slightly warmer temperature than ice cream, it feels a bit softer and looks glossier.

06 of 07

Frozen Custard

This uber-creamy treat is exactly the same as ice cream, except for the addition of egg yolk to the base. It tends to be dense and soft (more the texture of soft-serve than hard ice cream), and is most commonly sold in the Midwest and South.

07 of 07

Frozen Yogurt

Instead of milk or cream, yogurt gives this frozen dairy dessert its creaminess. But besides that, it's made the same way as ice cream. There are millions of ways to dress it up; here are some of our favorites.

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