What's the Difference Between Sherbet and Sorbet?

By: Sharise Cunningham  | 

Strawberry vanilla sherbet
Strawberry vanilla sherbet is an easy, delicious way to enjoy seasonal strawberries. Sherbet, unlike sorbet, includes cream or milk, and has a consistency closer to ice cream. Portland Press Herald/Getty Images

When summer arrives, it's natural for our thoughts to turn to chilly treats. But what if you don't want to add back on all those pounds you worked all winter to get rid of? The good news is that you can avoid calorie-laden ice cream and go for lighter options like sherbet and sorbet instead.

Both sherbet (pronounced shur-bit unless you're from New Jersey, and then it's shur-bert) and sorbet are fruit-based but what's the difference between the two?

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Sorbet is mainly just fruit puree, sugar, water and sometimes additional flavoring to help boost subtle fruit flavors. Although it's churned like ice cream, the lack of dairy gives it an icy-rough texture. Vegans can enjoy dairy-free sorbet, but will need to avoid traditional sherbet.

On the other spoon, ahem, hand, milk or cream is added to sherbet's fruit foundation, making it smoother and creamier than sorbet and closer to ice cream in consistency. Some manufacturers even add egg white or gelatin as additional binder to ensure a finer texture.

Exotic Origins

The origin story for each treat is fairly rich. One account asserts that sorbet was invented by the fiddling Roman emperor Nero (54-68 A.D.), who had buckets of snow passed by hand from the tops of mountains to his banquet hall. There the snow was then mixed with honey and wine — an adult version of Italian Ice? Other reports say it was mixed with fruit juice.

The most common story, however, credits Antonio Latini (1642–1692), a man working for a Spanish Viceroy in Naples, with being the first person to write down a recipe for sorbetto after he saw ice drinks being made into frozen desserts with the addition of sugar.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the word sherbet is from the Persian "sharbat," an iced fruit drink. During the Ottoman Empire, Alexander the Great served a drink made from fruit and flower petals.

Later, Ottoman Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent made sherbet part of the judicial process. Legend has it that when an Ottoman ruler was unhappy with one of his advisers, he had a gardener-executioner (interesting skill combo), deliver a glass of one of two colors of sherbet. White meant the adviser would live; red meant the adviser was condemned. It's not clear how the color was selected or who chose it.

While sherbet seems to have served a life-or-death purpose long before becoming a favorite frozen treat, sorbet also had a function — albeit a less lethal one. It was used as a palate cleanser between the courses of an elaborate meal, and still is. Today, though, the scariest thing about either frozen dessert is a piercing case of brain-freeze if you gulp them down too fast.

Mango sorbet
Mango sorbet is a great palate cleanser, and even better dessert. Unlike sherbet, sorbet contains no dairy so it's a perfect dessert option for vegans.
Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post via Getty Images

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Originally Published: Nov 21, 2007

Sherbet Vs. Sorbet

What is the difference between sherbet and sorbet?
Sorbets are friendly to lactose-intolerant individuals since they don't contain any dairy products. Sherbet on the other hand can contain dairy in it.
What is sherbet made from?
Sherbets are made with puréed fruits, sugar and water. They also can contain milk, gelatin, or egg whites.
What is sorbet made of?
Sorbets are made with puréed fruits, sugar, and water.
Does sherbet have dairy in it?
Yes. In fact, most brands of sherbet sold in supermarkets contain from 1 percent to 2 percent milk fat or cream.
Is sherbet healthier than ice cream?
Yes. Sherbet is a fruit-based dessert that contains fewer calories and less fat than ice cream.

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