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It's not hard to buy good ice cream these days. Same goes for sorbet. But sherbet?* Good luck finding anything besides the icy, crunchy stuff that tastes like watered-down bubble gum and comes packed in gallon tubs for church socials.
* And yes, it's sherbet, not sherbert! The etymology stretches back to the Arabic and Pesian sharbat, an icy drink flavored with botanicals like rose petals. The latter spelling, beyond an American linguistic corruption of the original word, also refers to the famous 1963 court case Sherbert v. Verner concerning unemployment compensation. File that extra "r" under Really Interesting.
Though sherbet's been around for a long time, it gets precious little love today. And that's a shame, because when done right, sherbet is just as good as ice cream and sorbet: rich and creamy like the former and refreshing like the latter. If you want the good stuff, you'll have to make it yourself.
Sherbet nowadays has a rigid definition. To legally call your product sherbet in the U.S., it must be a frozen churned dessert between one to two percent butterfat by weight. That means a base made of milk, sugar, water, and flavoring (usually fruit). Sherbet isn't made with eggs and is light on fat, so it tends to melt faster and cleaner than ice cream. But since its fruity intensity is tamed by milk, it has the mildly creaminess of milky coffee, a richness that dairy-free sorbet lacks.
There's no one winning sherbet texture or flavor. Within the sherbet world you can have clean, bright scoops—citrus barely tempered by dairy—or resoundingly rich ones like the jammiest berry sorbet. If you want to cheat on the FDA, as I'm wont to do from time to time, you can even up the fat content by replacing the milk in a recipe with half and half or cream, as anything less than ten percent butterfat isn't legally ice cream and tends to behave more like sherbet anyway.
I consider sherbet the perfect way to use fruit that needs a helping hand. Oranges are great, but truly fantastic oranges—the kind you'd be proud to spin into sorbet with nothing more than sugar for flavor—are rare. Sherbet is more forgiving, and it can turn decent oranges into something greater than they'd otherwise be. Sherbet's also a handy way to rein in the bracing acidity of some fruit. Love passionfruit or raspberries but need a dessert that's less tart? Sherbet points the way.
But don't limit yourself to fruit flavors. Actually, my favorite sherbet has no fruit at all. Instead it has tea for a dessert that tastes just like a frozen version of milk tea. Then there's this root beer edition, and yup, it's eerily similar in flavor to a root beer float.
If there's a trick to sherbet, it's achieving a texture that's refreshing and light but still creamy, not icy. That means you need a good amount of sugar, at least a quarter cup per cup of liquid, but perhaps more. Just like with sorbet, swapping out some or all of your granulated sugar with liquid sugar like corn syrup or glucose can do remarkable things to sherbet's texture, transforming a thin, watery scoop into something richer, almost fudge-like.
Then there's the dairy. Whole milk is the standard for sherbet, but don't be afraid of fattier half and half or cream when you want something richer. Though my favorite dairy for sherbet is more about twang than fat: buttermilk does miraculous things to fruit, and its viscosity works well in sherbet. What about amounts of dairy? It depends on how fruit-forward or creamy you want your sherbet to be, but most sherbets are between one third to two thirds dairy by volume. The fattier your dairy the less you need, and vice versa.
And this is the great thing about sherbet: it's incredibly flexible. Though tangy fruit may be sherbet's best friend, it's far from the only good sherbet flavor. And the texture can be as dense or light as you like. Your church social won't know what hit it.
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