What’s The Difference: Sorbetes vs. Ice Cream Vs. Gelato

These icy desserts are all different.

Manong sorbetero ringing his bell was the signal for the afternoon merienda, sometimes serving the different flavors of sorbetes in a cone as a light treat or stuffed in sweet mini buns for a heartier snack. 

Some claim that the first sorbetes was served as part of the banquet menu on September 29, 1898 in Malolos, Bulacan, when the Philippine Declaration of Independence, signed on June 12, was ratified. However, there are other reports that the Americans introduced the concept of the ice-cold dessert to the Filipino. 

No matter when the first ice cream was first served, the sorbetes is a homegrown icy treat that many of us grew up eating and enjoying. If you’re wondering how the local sorbetes is different from the American ice cream and the Italian gelato, here is what you need to know: 

Sorbetes was originally made with carabao‘s milk. Ice cream and gelato are made with cow’s milk. 

All three start similarly, as custard composed of egg yolks and milk, but what kind of milk the custard is made from is what makes these three icy desserts different. 

Traditionally, sorbetes was made with carabao or water buffalo milk and sometimes coconut milk. It was usually simply flavored with any of these classic local flavors: mantecado or a caramel-vanilla flavor, ube, queso, mangga, pinipig, and langka or jackfruit. These resulted in the iconic colorful cones topped with icy mounds of off-white (mantecado or pinipig), lavender (ube), and yellow (queso, mangga, or langka). It would be later when a light brown-colored sorbetes for chocolate was introduced.  

Ice cream and gelato are both made from cow’s milk. The difference between these two mixtures is the amount of cream in the milk. Ice cream contains more milkfat (also known as butterfat) in its cream. It cannot contain less than 10 percent milkfat according to the Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and may have as much as 20% for the homemade versions. That’s why it’s called ice cream because it’s so creamy.

Meanwhile, gelato contains less butterfat in its milk, needing only 3.5% butterfat. However, it’s the amount of milkfat in gelato that makes it more flavorful than ice cream.  

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Sorbetes is lighter in texture than ice cream or gelato. 

It’s not the amount of butterfat however that makes ice cream taste different from gelato or even sorbetes. 

Sorbetes is light because the amount of butterfat in carabao milk, about 6 to 8 percent butterfat, makes it taste light. Butterfat coats the tongue much like butter would, so it may reduce the amount of flavor you’re tasting but makes it feel creamier, richer. However, while gelato may also taste richer and creamier than sorbetes, it’s still different from ice cream for one big reason. 

Photo by Manila Creamery

3 Gelato tastes richer, creamier than ice cream and sorbetes.  

Gelato may be the richer tasting of the three kinds of icy desserts. It has a few things going for it to make it taste so good: 

  1. 1 It has less butterfat than ice cream, so you taste the flavors better than ice cream. 
  2. 2 It has less air churned into it than ice cream so it tastes richer. 

Less butterfat not only means it tastes more like the flavors you add to it, but it also means air isn’t whipped into the mixture as much as it would with creamier ice cream. Since sorbetes is less churned than commercially-made ice cream, the flavors added to the mix are more enhanced, too. You taste the flavors added, such as avocado or mangga, than you would the carabao milk. 

This means that ice cream flavors need to work harder and may even contain more of these flavoring ingredients than in gelato or in sorbetes. 


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4 Gelato and ice cream are commonly served on wafer or sugar cones but sorbetes can also be served in bread. 

The sorbetero is a genius when he offers to stuff your sorbetes in dinner rolls. It’s delicious and filling! Plus, it removes the need for utensils that you would otherwise need if you were eating ice cream or gelato as a brownie ala mode, as a sundae, or even on waffles. 

Are you Team Sorbetes, Team Ice Cream, or Team Gelato? 

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