Sherbet and Sorbet

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SHERBET AND SORBET. Sherbet and sorbet are both frozen desserts. Sorbet is flavored syrup with a slushy texture; it is sometimes called a water ice, and contains no dairy ingredients. Sherbet describes a similar product, but contains milk. One definition, by the International Dairy Foods Association, states that sherbet should contain 12 percent of milk fat in the final product. Despite this, the word sherbet is sometimes colloquially applied to sorbets. Related recipes, such as ice milk, frappés, and granita (a grainy water ice of Italian origin) lead to further confusion.

In other countries, the definition of sorbet remains consistent, but that of sherbet varies considerably. In British English it means a class of children's candies, powders which give a fizzy sensation on the tongue, sweetened and flavored with lemon or other fruit. In the Middle East, sherbet is a chilled soft drink. The constants in these different foods are sugar, a sweet-sour flavor combination, and the idea (if not the actuality) of cool refreshment.

A complicated history of linguistic and culinary borrowing lies behind these definitions. Modern writers have despaired of untangling the subject. Liddel and Weir comment that it is almost impossible to define the word sherbet, because of a shifting background of common usage, local customs, and legislation.

Sorbets and sherbets in North America both start with sugar syrup. This may be specially made, but sugar and water are also naturally present in ingredients such as fruit juice, wine or milk and individual recipes allow for this. Flavors other than fruit are provided by infusing flowers, herbs, or spices in the base syrup. If too much sugar is present, the sorbet will not freeze properly. Large-scale producers, and those seriously interested in making sorbets by craft methods, measure the syrup concentration. The optimum is between 1720° on the Baumé scale. Sorbets containing alcohol use a lower density of 1417° Baumé. Although excellent sorbets are made using only sugar, water, and flavoring, some recipes require egg whites or gelatin. These act as stabilizers, especially in sorbets which melt quickly, or when fruits with a high pectin content (which affects texture) are used. Occasionally, egg whites are added as meringue, for instance in champagne sorbets.

Freezing by churning produces the smoothest texture, although at home a still-freezing method can be used. As the temperature gets lower, ice crystals begin to form, kept small and evenly distributed by churning or periodic beating. The ice consists of pure water, so in the liquid fraction of the sorbet, the sugar content becomes increasingly concentrated. Sugar lowers the freezing point of water, and prevents the mixture becoming completely solid. Alcohol also freezes at a lower temperature than water, which is why sorbets containing wine need a less dense syrup to achieve the same slushy texture.

In sherbet recipes, milk provides some water for the basic mixture. It also adds small amounts of lactose, protein, and fat, giving a slightly different texture and a creamier flavor. However, sherbet is usually a very lowfat product. Sherbets and sorbets feel colder in the mouth than ordinary ice cream. This is partly because of the lack of fat (which helps to make ordinary ice creams smoother on the tongue), and partly because of their high sugar content, which makes the mixture both freeze and melt at lower temperatures.

A granita has an even lower syrup density (910° Baumé), and is always still-frozen, allowing relatively large ice crystals to form in the mixture. Minimal stirring keeps these evenly distributed and of a regular size, giving a characteristic grainy texture.

How do the iced desserts of North America relate to the sherbet candies and drinks to the east of the Atlantic? A clue lies in the derivation of the words sherbet and sorbet. Ultimately they can be traced back to a medieval Arabic root sharâb. This originally meant a sweetened drink (the word syrup shares a similar derivation), but was later applied to beverages containing alcohol. It gave eighteenth-century English the term shrub for an alcoholic punch. A slightly altered Arabic form, shabât, emerged to denote sweetened, nonalcoholic drinks. This passed into Turkish as sherbet, a word which diffused into European languages. However, the Turkish pronunciation only seems to have survived in English. Southern European languages dropped the h, following the Italian form which emerged as sorbetto (Spanish, sorbete ; French, sorbet ).

The sherbet mixtures of Arabia, Turkey, and Persia have always been flavored syrups that are diluted with water and served chilled, a welcome refreshment in hot weather. In the past, ice or snow was stored in winter for summer use with these drinks. Sometimes the syrup was boiled to the point at which it formed a solid candy. A version of this is still to be found in Turkey under the name gul sekeri (literally "rose sugar," although it is actually flavored with cinnamon). Popular flavors include lemon, pomegranate, flowers such as rose or violet, and herbs such as liquorice or mint. The importance of sherbet in the Middle East is apparent from evocative descriptions given by Roden (1970) and Shaida (1992).

In seventeenth-century Italy, sorbetto came to mean a flavored syrup frozen to a point at which the texture was obviously iced but not hard. In the past, these cooling ices were considered medicinal. In Italy, sorbetti were given to people suffering from fevers and malaria, a custom also recorded in Persia. It was the iced aspect of these drinks that became important for sorbets. Although they seem to have remained liquid throughout the eighteenth century, in nineteenth-century in France, sorbets became chilled confections with a texture somewhere between a drink and a modern water ice, sometimes with added alcohol. As the century progressed, sorbets were served colder and colder, and at some point they became solid enough to be eaten with a spoon. The culinary ascendancy of the French during the nineteenth century must have led to the adoption of sorbet as a standard term in restaurant cookery, giving it a relatively fixed definition.

In English, the word "sherbet" retained the sense of a sweet drink throughout the centuries. It was made from fresh lemons, or perhaps mixed from chunks of flavored sugar candy which were already being imported in the seventeenth century. The drink aspect continued to be important throughout the eighteenth century. In London in the 1820s, a street seller of sherbet and soft drinks devised a powder of sugar, bicarbonate of soda, tartaric acid, and lemon flavoring. When mixed with water, this made a sweetened lemon flavored "sherbet" which effervesced as the soda and acid reacted to give off bubbles of carbon dioxide. By the early twentieth century, sherbet and lemonade powder had become synonymous, and candy manufacturers began to incorporate it into their products. Sherbet in Britain is now seen purely as this particular type of candycheap, usually lemon flavored, and always effervescent. Sorbet has retained the sense of a water ice.

In North America, sherbet developed down the iced dessert route. The sultry summer climate of the eastern United States, together with the commercial exploitation of lake ice stored for summer use, must have stimulated demand for such refreshments. During the mid-nineteenth century, sherbet and sorbet seem to have been synonymous, both words indicating frozen syrup, often served with wine or another alcoholic drink poured over. The habit for serving them between courses at dinner is also recorded. How sherbet came to acquire the meaning of an iced dessert which included milk is obscure. Recipes past and present do not make matters any clearer. Household recipes from the early twentieth century use the word to describe anything from a coarse crystal water ice (similar to a granita) through a standard sorbet, to mixtures containing milk. Later sherbet recipes sometimes contain buttermilk or milk and cream.

By the mid-twentieth century, ice-cream companies were producing sherbets flavored with lemon, lime, orange, or raspberry. Orange sherbet seems to be the one which stands out in childhood memories. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a renewed interest in sorbets. The idea of serving them between courses in restaurants enjoyed a revival, but most compelling was the fact that they offer a dessert with no fat or dairy produce involved. Flavors have gone beyond the traditional lemon, lime or champagne into vanilla or chocolate, perhaps so that the products compete more overtly with conventional icecreams. Sherbet, on the other hand, seems to have slipped into a slightly old-fashioned, declassé niche. Neither product offers a serious challenge to premium quality ice creams in the affections of the American public.

Nutritionally, sherbets and sorbets do offer low-fat alternatives to ice creams. Their principal contribution to the diet is energy, and their syrup bases give them a relatively high sugar content and higher calorie count than dieters might suspect. The milk in sherbet makes a small, but not a significant contribution of protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. Fruit-based sorbets and sherbets, provided the fruit has not been heated or processed for a long time, contain a little ascorbic acid (vitamin C), but large quantities would have to be consumed to make them a significant source. The role of these items in the diet is principally one of a pleasant refreshment and light dessert.

See also Candy and Confections ; Dairy Products ; Ice Cream ; Syrups .


David, Elizabeth. Harvest of the Cold Months. London: Penguin Books, 1996.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Liddel, Caroline, and Robin Weir. Ices: The Definitive Guide. London: Grub Street, 1995.

McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking. New York: Scribners, 1984.

Mason, Laura. Sugar Plums and Sherbet. Totnes, Devon, U.K.: Prospect Books, 1998.

Roden, Claudia. A Book of Middle Eastern Food. London: Penguin Books, 1970.

Shaida, Margaret. The Legendary Cuisine of Persia. Henley-on-Thames, U.K.: Lieuse Publications, 1992.

Laura Mason