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

Welcome to What’s the Difference: FROZEN DESSERTS EDITION. This is such a rich category that it could easily be divided up into multiple weeks, but why should you be deprived of the pleasure of absorbing all of this textured knowledge all at once? 

It’s getting hot over here, and whatever frozen dessert we’re eating is starting to melt, so let’s get right into it—starting with:


There are lots of variations in the ice cream category—and that’s even before we get into the actual flavors—so we’re going to keep it somewhat simple. In the United States, all ice creams must contain at least 10% butterfat (fat from cream and milk). Standard or “Philadelphia-style” ice creams are made with cream, milk, sugar, and various other minor ingredients; French or custard ice creams have the addition of egg yolks. (Therein lies the difference between vanilla and French vanilla flavors—French vanilla gets its yellow color from those yolks.). Ice cream is usually served at around 0–10°F, which gives it that classic, just-scooped-from-the-chest-freezer texture.

On the other hand, gelato is only required by Italian law to have 3.5% butterfat—significantly less than American ice cream. And because the more butterfat a mixture contains, the more air it’s able to absorb while churning, gelato contains significantly less air than ice cream—which makes it taste richer and more flavorful. It’s also served at a warmer temperature—between 10–20°F—giving it a softer, glossier texture.

Frozen yogurt, which became popular in the seventies and eighties, also contains significantly less butterfat than regular ice cream; it’s able to stay frozen thanks to various additives, such as corn syrup, powdered milk, or vegetable gums. It actually barely contains any yogurt at all; according to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, the standard proportion of other dairy to yogurt is 4:1. And depending on the recipe, the yogurt bacteria cultures may be entirely eliminated throughout the process, depriving you of the good-gut stuff that comes along with them.

Now, let’s head into:


This one is a little easier. Sorbet is simply a mix of fruit, water, and sugar, which is then churned together like ice cream. Sherbet is sorbet with the addition of a bit of milk or cream; according to USDA regulations, it must contain 1–2% butterfat.

And sherbet vs. sherbert? According to Merriam Webster, they’re the same thing: 

The word in question is from Turkish and Persian words that both trace back to the Arabic word sharba, meaning "drink." All three words—the Turkish and Persian words are şerbet and sharbat, respectively—lack an "r" in the second syllable, but when the word was imported into English in the early 17th century, it was coming from languages many English speakers considered exotic, and spelling was all over the place. Among the many variations that existed in the early years, two that appeared then are still in use today: sherbet and sherbert.

By the late 18th century sherbet had become the established spelling, but after only a few intermittent uses in the 18th and 19th centuries, sherbert staged a minor comeback in the 20th century. It's now a fully established (though far lesser-used) variant.

So, now you have lots of fun facts to bring with you into your pre-July 4th celebrations this weekend. Stay cool!

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What's the Difference Between Chicken Nuggets, Tenders, Cutlets, and Fingers?

Ah, the wonders of a boneless, skinless chicken breast: that unsullied expanse of solid muscle, that somewhat-flavorless-but-still-chickeny-enough-to-know-what-we're-eating taste we know so well, that blank canvas so eager to be sliced and chopped and smashed and bathed in various mixtures of condiments. Chances are, we are deeply familiar with this wonder of the world, as well as its many children: the cutlet, the finger, the tender, and the nugget. But how familiar? As we delight in these shining specimens of breaded-and-fried meat, do we know exactly what we’re eating?

Let’s start with the simplest concept: chicken cutlets. Chicken cutlets are boneless, skinless chicken breasts that have been sliced in half horizontally, creating a thinner piece of meat. These cutlets are then often pounded even thinner before cooking.

Next comes chicken fingers. To make chicken fingers, the chicken breast is cut into strips. (If you see something referred to as “chicken strips,” they are probably chicken fingers.) These are not to be confused with chicken tenders, which are made from an actual cut of meat: the pectoralis minor, a small muscle that runs directly under the chicken breast. This is also called the “inner filet.”

If we’re getting technical, a chicken finger could be made from the chicken breast or the inner filet—which means that a chicken tender can be a chicken finger, but not all chicken fingers are chicken tenders.

Lastly, we have chicken nuggets. Unlike its more pure brethren, chicken nuggets are usually made from chopped and/or processed meat that is then reformed into a chicken-nugget shape. The meat involved does not have to be breast meat—it could be meat from any part of the chicken. Yup, these are your McNuggets, folks; consume at your own risk.

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What's the Difference Between a Cobbler, Crisp, Crumble, Buckle, Betty, Pandowdy, etc.?

There are a lot of ways to get cute with this topic—lots of fun food-history tidbits to dredge up, lots of delightfully retro and oddly worded recipes to photocopy from my extensive collection of old-fashioned community cookbooks and brand-marketing ephemera—but let's get down to business. We all like fruit desserts, and we all like being right. So here is your reference to refer to while cooking, consuming, and conversing about the cobblered, crisped, and crumbled cooked-fruit casseroles we love. 

A mess of fruit topped—or “cobbled”—with biscuit dough, pie dough, or cake batter and then baked in an oven. Some old-fashioned variations of cobbler are inverted before serving, so the biscuit-y stuff ends up on the bottom. 

A deep-dish fruit dessert topped with a streusel made of butter, flour, oats, and sometimes nuts. 

A crumble but with NO OATS in the streusel.

A casserole made with layers of fruit and buttered bread crumbs and baked. 

A fruit-studded coffee cake with a streusel topping. According to my research, this streusel can be made either WITH OATS or WITHOUT OATS.

A buckle but without a streusel topping.

A biscuit, pie, or cake-topped fruit dessert that’s cooked in a covered Dutch oven or cast-iron skillet on the stove. Grunts are very similar to cobblers, but they are STEAMED instead of BAKED. 

The New England name for a cobbler. 

Similar to a cobbler, but the biscuit or pie dough is rolled out and placed on top of the fruit. During the baking process, the topping is broken up with a knife or spoon and pushed into the fruit, causing the fruit to bubble over it. 

Essentially the same thing as a cobbler? But worth checking out Kim Severson’s article in the New York Times for the full context.

The only time I’ve heard of a schlumpf is through food professional and dear friend Marian Bull, who has a delicious Blueberry Schlumpf recipe on Food52. It looks like it’s technically a crisp (NO OATS!), but let this serve as a reminder that you can essentially make up any name for any of these types of desserts and it’ll sound about right.  


A combination of lightly sweetened biscuits, whipped cream, and fresh fruit, prepared separately and layered together for serving. Its components are similar to that of a cobbler (fruit + biscuit), but the fruit is not cooked and the biscuits are prepared on their own, rather than dolloped on top of the fruit mixture before baking. (Since the shortcake uses fresh fruit instead of cooked fruit, it’s in its own category.)

And in case this was too many words and you enjoy gazing at Excel spreadsheets devoted to your favorite desserts, I present you with a handy table summarizing all of the above:


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What's the Difference Between Jam, Jelly, Preserves, Compote, Marmalade, and Chutney?

As spring and summer fruits begin to reveal themselves at the market, it feels appropriate to explore the nuances in the various methods of preserving them. Jam, jelly, preserves, marmalade, compote, and chutney all involve some combination of fruit, sugar, and heat, and they rely on pectin—a natural fiber found most plants that helps cooked fruit firm up—for texture. (Not all fruits contain the same amount of pectin, so powdered pectin is sometimes added—we’ll get into that below.) The underlying difference between all of them? How much of the physical fruit is used in the final product. 

On one end of the spectrum, we have jelly: the firmest and smoothest product of the bunch. Jelly is made from fruit juice, which is usually extracted from cooked, crushed fruit. (That extraction process, which involves straining the fruit mixture through a fine mesh fabric, is also what makes jelly clear.) The resulting juice is then heated with sugar, acid, and oftentimes additional powdered pectin to get that firm, gel-like texture. That cranberry stuff you eat on Thanksgiving, the stuff that slides out of the can in one perfect cylinder, ridges intact? Definitely jelly.

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Next up we have jam, which is made from chopped or pureed fruit (rather than fruit juice) cooked down with sugar. Its texture is usually looser and more spoonable than jelly, with stuff like seeds or skin sometimes making an appearance (think of strawberry or blueberry jam, for example). Chutney is a type of jam made without any additional pectin and flavored with vinegar and various spices, and it’s often found in Indian cuisines. 

Preserves contain the most physical fruit of the bunch—either chopped into larger pieces or preserved whole, in the case of things like cherry or strawberry preserves. Sometimes, the preserves will be held together in a loose syrup; other times, the liquid is more jammy. Marmalade is simply the name for preserves made with citrus, since it includes the citrus rinds as well as the inner fruit and pulp. (Citrus rinds contain a ton of pectin, which is why marmalade oftentimes has a firmer texture more similar to jelly.)

Compote, a cousin to preserves, is made with fresh or dried fruit, cooked low and slow in a sugar syrup so that the fruit pieces stay somewhat intact. However, unlike preserves—which are usually jarred for future use—compote is usually used straight away.  

So, in short, here's your cheat sheet:

Jelly: fruit juice + sugar
Jam: chopped or pureed fruit + sugar
Chutney: chopped or pureed fruit + sugar + vinegar + spices
Preserves: whole fruit or fruit chunks + sugar
Marmalade: whole citrus (either chopped or left intact) + sugar
Compote: whole fruit or fruit chunks + sugar (but usually eaten immediately, not preserved)

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What's the Difference Between Seltzer, Club Soda, and Sparkling Mineral Water?

We all love our Pellegrino and LaCroix and the various fancy and non-fancy bubbly waters in between, but what are we actually drinking? Turns out there are marked differences in the various waters con gas we have available to us in these glorious times. 

Let’s start with the most basic: seltzer. Seltzer is just plain ol’ water, carbonated with added carbon dioxide. This is the bubbly stuff that’s most likely to come flavored, since it’s such a neutral canvas; it’s the base for your LaCroix and those less-delicious Poland Spring flavored guys you get at the bodega. 

Club soda is also carbonated with carbon dioxide, but unlike seltzer, it has the addition of potassium bicarbonate and potassium sulfate in the water. These minerals give it a slightly saltier taste than seltzer, which makes it a favorite of bartenders for mixed drinks. 

Sparkling mineral water is made with natural spring or well water, which means it has naturally occurring minerals (like salts and sulphur compounds) in it. These minerals sometimes give the water a natural carbonation; other times, carbon dioxide is added for extra oomph. Depending on where the water’s from, it might taste heavier than seltzer or club soda—or you may just detect some sort of presence of taste, unlike its more-tasteless brethren. 

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What's the Difference Between an Ale and a Lager?

Experientially, the difference between a lager and an ale can be explained with brands of beer everybody knows: lagers are the crisp, thirst-quenching yellow beers like Budweiser and the like; ales are richer/more full-flavored beers that include pale ales (like Sierra Nevada) and everything else that isn't golden and clear (including Guinness, stouts, IPAs, and beers that nerdy college guys tend to prefer). 

While there are many many variables in beer making—including the kind of grains the beer is based on (Budweiser has rice in it!) and the quantity and kind of hops (craft beers, mostly ales, favor "fruity" hops that tend often have a hint of weed flavor to them), the functional difference between the two categories is in the kind of yeast used to make them. 

Ales are made with top-fermenting yeasts that work at warmish temperatures; lagers are made with bottom-fermenting yeasts that need the liquid they're fermenting to be cold and still for a longish time. That's why lagers are called lagers—it comes from the German word "lagern," which means "to store." Lagers were originally fermented in caves in cold months and drunk in the spring, when the weather warmed up and the yeast was done with its job. 

The advent of refrigeration and the general thirst-quenching quality of lagers have made them the dominant global style of beer. The reason craft breweries almost exclusively produce ales is because the time and storage requirements to make quality lagers is a much bigger cash suck than ales, which can be fermented, hopped, and canned in just a few weeks. 

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What's the Difference Between Caramel, Butterscotch, Dulce de Leche, and Cajeta?

Caramel, butterscotch, dulce de leche, and cajeta: all are sweet, golden, syrupy concoctions that are delicious things to eat. However, according to Mark Bittman’s How to Bake Everything and pastry chef Stella Parks over at Serious Eats, there are marked differences between the four:  

Caramel is made from slowly cooking down granulated sugar, simply by itself or with a splash of water. As the sugar melts and cooks, the caramel gets richer and toastier, and the color goes from a pale gold to a dark amber. 

Butterscotch is made from cooking down brown sugar with butter, and its flavor is sweeter and softer than that of caramel.

Dulce de leche is made from slowly cooking cow milk and sugar together. Dulce de leche made with goat milk is known as cajeta. They're cooked at a lower temperature than caramel, and their golden color comes not from the caramelization of sugar, but from the browning of the lactose and lysine in the milk (also known as the Maillard reaction). Thanks to this technique, they have a more mellow, nuttier, and complex taste than their cousins. 

Both dulce de leche and cajeta can also sometimes include baking soda, which balances out the pH of milk (which is slightly acidic) and speeds up the Maillard reaction. (To read more on this topic, I highly recommend this article.)

So, in short:

granulated sugar —> caramel
brown sugar + butter —> butterscotch
cow milk + sugar + baking soda —> dulce de leche
goat milk + sugar + baking soda —> cajeta

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What's the Difference Between Whiskey, Whisky, Scotch, Bourbon, and Rye?

 Lots to unpack here. The basics, according to Encyclopedia Britannica:

Whiskey (or whisky) can be any of a variety of distilled liquors that are made from a fermented mash of cereal grains and aged in wooden containers, which are usually constructed of oak. Commonly used grains are corn, barley malt, rye, and wheat. 

The difference between whiskey and whisky is where the stuff is made: in the United States and Ireland, it’s spelled “whiskey”; in Scotland, Canada, and Japan, it’s “whisky.”
Whiskey vs. Whisky ✅
Now, for the differences between Scotch, bourbon, and rye. Back to Encyclopedia Britannica:

Scotch is a whisky (no e) that gets its distinctive smoky flavor from the process in which it is made: the grain, primarily barley, is malted and then heated over a peat fire. A whisky cannot be called Scotch unless it is entirely produced and bottled in Scotland.
Bourbon, a whiskey that was first produced in Kentucky, U.S., uses at least 51% mash from corn in its production. It also uses a sour mash process—that is, the mash is fermented with yeast and includes a portion from a mash that has already been fermented. U.S. regulations specify that in order for a whiskey to be called bourbon, it must be made in the United States.
And rye whiskey? It’s a whiskey that uses a rye mash or a rye and malt mash. In the United States, regulations stipulate that the mash must be at least 51% rye in order for it to be called rye whiskey. In Canada, regulations do not specify a minimum percentage of rye. 

Flavor-wise, Scotch is smoky, bourbon is sweet, and rye is more astringent than the two others, making it particularly suitable to cocktails.  
Scotch vs. Bourbon vs. Rye ✅

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What's the Difference Between a Sweet Potato and a Yam?

For today’s answer, we’re turning to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. According to McGee:

The sweet potato is the true storage root of Ipomoea batatas, a member of the morning glory family. It is native to northern South America, and may have reached Polynesia in prehistoric times. Columbus brought the sweet potato to Europe, and by the end of the 15th century it was established in China and the Philippines. China now produces and consumes far more sweet potatoes than the Americas, enough to make it the second most important vegetable worldwide.

There are many different varieties, ranging from dry and starchy varieties common in tropical regions, some pale and others red or purple with anthocyanins, to the moist, sweet version, dark orange with beta-carotene, that is popular in the United States and was confusingly named a “yam” in 1930s marketing campaigns.

Did you hear that? What we think of as a “yam” here in the United States is actually a sweet potato. Back to McGee:

True yams are starchy tubers of tropical plants that are related to the grasses and lilies, a dozen or so cultivated species of Dioscorea from Africa, South America, and the Pacific with varying sizes, textures, colors, and flavors. They are seldom seen in mainstream American markets, where “yam” means a sugary orange sweet potato. True yams can grow to 100 lb/50 kg and more, and in the Pacific islands have been honored with their own little houses. They appear to have been cultivated as early as 8000 BCE in Asia.

SO, in short: sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) and true yams (species of the Dioscorea family) are completely different plants. Both species are old; both are tubers; both come in various textures and colors. And to add to the confusion, if you’re in a grocery store in the United States, what is labeled a “yam” is most likely a sweet potato. You may have never actually eaten a true yam, which you are more likely to encounter in international or specialty markets and in African and South American cuisines.

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