Sorbet vs. Sherbet: What's the Difference?

Sherbet and sorbet are both refreshing frozen treats, but they're not exactly the same.

Sorbet
Photo: Phil Dickson / Getty Images

When it comes to chilled refreshments, you are hard pressed to do better than a sorbet or sherbet. Whether you are using one of these light frozen treats as a garnishing scoop for a baked dessert, or as the main event, their bright intense flavors are a welcome note at the end of a meal. But while many use the designations interchangeably, sorbet and sherbet are actually two very different recipes.

OK, but what is sorbet?

Sorbet is essentially made of a simple sugar syrup, infused with fruit puree or juice or another flavoring agent like coffee or chocolate, that is then chilled and churned. The texture and any subtle creaminess comes entirely from the aeration created during the churning process, creating micro ice crystals and a smooth texture. Commercial sorbets are almost always much smoother than you can achieve at home due to their ability to freeze the mixture faster and churn more powerfully so that the results are velvety and not icy at all. Since sorbets are usually mostly juice or puree, they are also a terrific place to play with interesting vegetable or herb flavorings, think watermelon basil, or beet pomegranate, or green apple celery, or peach thyme, or chef Sam Fore's Tropical Jackfruit–Ginger Ale Sorbet with Charred Pineapple.

Got it. So, what is sherbet?

Sherbet is a similar preparation to sorbet, but with some sort of added dairy product (or dairy alternative like in this Boysenberry Oat Milk Sherbet). Unlike ice cream, which is a milk or cream-based recipe with some flavoring, the ratios for sherbet have a much smaller percentage of dairy, which is there to support the main flavors. The dairy can be milk, cream, buttermilk, or even evaporated or sweetened condensed milk. In some sherbets, milk or cream or buttercream are additionally supplemented with egg white or gelatin for texture. The added dairy allows for a rounder and more subtle flavor, and much smoother texture due to the added fat, but still lets the flavors of the fruit really shine. Sherbets are often flavored with fruit that has an acidic punch, like lemon, orange, lime, grapefruit, raspberry, or pineapple. The texture is also usually a bit softer than sorbet, which can firm up a bit solidly due to the higher water content.

And how is sherbet pronounced?

"Sure bet!" not "Sure, Bert." Lots of people add a second "r" but that's not technically correct.

Why does the difference between sherbet and sorbet matter? It is because of the dairy?

For starters, since the basic elemental difference is that sherbet includes dairy and sorbet does not, it is an especially important distinction if you or someone in your sphere is vegan or chooses to eat dairy-free, since then you know you can serve sorbet without worry. While sherbets make for a fun lighter frozen dessert, with plenty of creaminess but not the wallop of an ice cream, they tend to shine best on their own in a bowl or on a cone. One special exception worth trying is to whip softened (but not melted) sherbet into lightly set gelatin of the same flavor and quickly pouring it back into a lightly greased Bundt pan or the like to create a fluffy, jiggly molded dessert that is a bit of throwback yum.

So how do I serve sorbet?

Sorbets, on the other hand, play very well with others. They are a wonderful pairing with baked desserts, or with fresh fruit, or even with a float of sparkly wine for a fizzy sweet meal-ender. If you are not worried about the dairy aspect, a scoop of sorbet nestled beside a scoop of ice cream in a complementary flavor is all kinds of fabulous. If you like to go a bit old-school, revisit the classic intermezzo and serve a small scoop of punchy sorbet between your starter and your entrée, to cleanse the palate. This is an especially fun mini course to add to a dinner party, and also a sneaky way to buy an extra 15 minutes of kitchen time for the cook to finish zhuzhing the main course.

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