Published on August 15, 2016

Get the Scoop: The Sweet Truth About Frozen Treats

With the summertime heat melting us on the daily — at the office, on weekend adventures and everything in between — everyone’s craving their favorite cold desserts. Whether you like a classic, simple lemon sorbet or go all out for artisan black ice cream, there’s something for every palette. 

Knowing the differences between all the options will help you pick a frozen delight that hits just the right (sweet) spot. Here’s a quick primer about six frozen treats we can’t get enough of.  

cold desserts Photo provided by Lula Cafe in Chicago.


Let's start with the creamy classics — ice cream, gelato and frozen custard.

1. Ice cream is the country’s most popular frozen treat.

In fact, the United States has been screaming for ice cream for centuries. In the 1700s, the nation’s first president, George Washington, loved ice cream so much that he stocked the White House with the necessary equipment to make it. Today, Americans eat an average of 48 pints of ice cream per person, per year (mostly vanilla), and 87% of the country has a stash in their freezers at any given time. With all the endless flavors and varieties of ice cream (traditional cookies and cream, low-fat cherry almond chunk) and places to get it (grocery stores, bodegas, restaurants), it’s the most diversified, accessible frozen treat of the bunch. Now for the technical stuff: to be labelled “ice cream,” it must contain at least 10% milk fat (otherwise known as butter fat), as well as a minimum of 6% non-fat milk solids. Otherwise, it could be something else..

2. Gelato is thicker and creamier than ice cream.

Containing less air than ice cream, gelato typically also has less milk fat, anywhere from 5-8% less, due to its higher ratio of milk to cream. This results in a thicker product with a richer mouthfeel. Also, because it has a lower percentage of fat than ice cream, the main flavorings (chocolate ribbons, mint extract or hazelnut liqueur, for example) are more pronounced and intense (read: even tastier!). And while the word “gelato” in Italian literally means “ice cream,” gelato is usually served at a slightly higher temperature than ice cream, to help foster a melt-(slowly)-in-your-mouth, ultra-satisfying texture.

cold desserts Photo by Anthony Jackson. Photo provided by Osteria Morini in New York.

3. Frozen custard is gelato's richer cousin.

What separates custard from the rest? An egg yolk (wink). Even though ice cream and gelato sometimes contain egg yolk, it is not essential to their recipes. Frozen custard absolutely must contain at least 1.4% egg yolk solids in order to be considered a custard — egg yolk is what gives it its thick and ultra-rich consistency. So when lighter ice creams or gelatos just won’t do, frozen custard fits the bill. Custard also has to contain at least 10% milk fat (like ice cream), but it has less air beaten into it (like gelato). The result is a thick, old-school frozen treat — which hit the height of popularity after the 1933 World’s Fair — that modern spots like Shake Shack are reimagining in innovative flavors like blueberry lemon curd and raspberry fromage blanc. 

On the lighter side, there are sorbets, granitas and sherbets — the perfect vehicles for fresh, fruity flavors.

4. Sorbet is the fruity, dairy-free alternative.

Sorbet is a firm, super-smooth, often fruity frozen delight. It’s made from a base of sweetened water and flavoring (typically fruit juice). As a lower calorie, low-fat alternative to the richer, creamy desserts like ice cream, gelato and frozen custard, it’s perfect for those warm summer months when you just want something cold and sweet.

cold desserts Photo by Hale. Photo provided by The Perennial in San Francisco.

5. Granita is coarser and looser than sorbet.

Whereas sorbets are velvety smooth, granitas have a slushy, granular texture. Hailing from the island of Sicily off the coast of Italy, granita has a relatively coarse texture compared to sorbet. It’s loose, slushy consistency comes from raking a fork through the mixture as it freezes; doing so periodically creates a frozen dessert that is more crystalline than smooth. If you’re in the market for an easy, DIY frozen refresher, granita is the easiest to make, requiring no more equipment than a fork, saucepan and a freezable container and only a few simple ingredients (sugar, water and flavorings).  

cold desserts Photo provided by Contra in New York.

6. Sherbet combines the best parts of sorbet, granita and ice cream.

Sherbet bridges the gap between fruity and creamy treats. It’s a frozen dairy dessert with a milk fat content of 1-2%, from just a splash of milk or cream. By adding a touch of milk, cream or egg white to a sorbet-like base, sherbet stays creamy while keeping the fruity freshness of a sorbet — ideal for when you want the mouthfeel of ice cream but the low-fat content of a sorbet.

Contributed by Andrew Burt

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