Glossary of Frozen Desserts

Strawberry sorbet with fresh mint garnish

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When the dog days of summer have a stranglehold on your normally calm, cool temperament, getting your chill back is as easy as indulging in a frozen dessert. But what, exactly, is a frozen dessert? That covers a lot of territories. Technically, it's a dessert made by freezing flavored liquids, sometimes with semi-solids or purées added and the varieties are seemingly endless.

Frozen Custard

Frozen custard is a dairy-based frozen dessert that also contains egg yolks for added richness. Although very similar to ice cream, less air is whipped into frozen custard during freezing, which creates a distinctly dense, creamy texture.

Frozen Yogurt

Frozen yogurt became popular in the United States as a low-fat alternative to ice cream during the latter part of the 20th century. Unlike ice cream or iced milk, frozen yogurt is made with cultured milk rather than fresh. The bacterial cultures in the yogurt provide a tangy flavor and thick, creamy texture without a high-fat content. Fat and sugar contents of frozen yogurt, however, vary widely from brand to brand.


A rich, dairy-based dessert with approximately 4% to 8% butterfat and 12 percent to 16 percent sugar. This Italian dessert is denser than ice cream because less air is whipped in during the freezing process. Gelatos are often flavored with fruit, nut butter, and sometimes fresh herbs.


Granitas are a crunchy frozen dessert made primarily with sugar and water that originated in Sicily and often are served between meals as a palate cleanser. Granitas have a delightfully crunchy texture due to the large ice crystals that are allowed to form during freezing and this coarse texture is what defines a granita, making it distinctly different from sorbet or Italian Ice. Popular flavorings include fruit juices, coffee, or fresh herbs.

Ice Cream

Ice cream is a frozen dairy dessert that contains between 10 percent and 16 percent butterfat. The high-fat content and generous amount of air that is whipped in during freezing create an unparalleled level of creaminess. The higher fat and air content makes ice cream distinctly different from similar desserts, such as gelato. A frozen dessert known as ice milk, however, is made with less than 10 percent butterfat. When ice cream is labeled as a frozen dessert in fine print, that usually means it has been made with vegetable oil (typically coconut or palm) and is technically not ice cream or ice milk.

Italian Ice

Italian ice is a smooth, non-dairy frozen dessert. Although it contains no dairy, it is made similarly to ice cream. Sweetened and flavored water is agitated during the freezing process to create very fine ice crystals, which yield a soft, smooth product. The freezing method and resulting texture are what make Italian ice different from its more rustic counterparts—granita and shaved ice.


Sherbet is a very low-fat frozen dairy product. Unlike ice cream, sherbet contains a mere 1 percent to 2 percent butterfat. To maintain a soft, smooth texture, sherbet compensates for the low-fat content with much higher sugar content. The high level of sugar prevents large ice crystals from forming and keeps the mixture soft. Sherbet is often found in fruit flavors, most notably orange, strawberry, and lime. In many European countries, sherbet and sorbet are synonymous, both terms being used for a non-dairy type of frozen dessert.

Slush, Slushie, or Slushy

"Slush" is the common term given to frozen carbonated beverages. These beverages are frozen while being constantly churned in a machine that doubles as a dispenser. Slushies are also known as Slurpees, frozen Cokes, or ICEEs and are a popular item sold in convenience stores.

Snow Cone

Snow cones are a popular summertime treat in the Southern United States. They consist of a ball made from finely shaved ice topped with flavored syrup and sometimes sweetened condensed milk.


Sorbets are a frozen dessert made with no dairy at all, just sugar, a fruit purée or other flavoring, and sometimes water, wine, or liqueur. Sorbets have a fine, soft texture due to constant churning during the freezing process.