What is the difference between sorbet and granita?
Brycia James/Getty Images
On a really hot day, we crave a refreshing scoop of something light, bright and purely delicious. But in the world of frozen desserts, there are as many variations in shape as there are flavors in the freezer case: Sorbet, granita, gelato, ice cream, frozen yogurt, paletas… not to mention those made with alternative dairy products. We all know and love them. The most refreshing of the pack are the sorbet and the granita, but how do we define them and what is the main difference between these two treats?
Related: The scoop on making the best homemade ice cream
Sorbet and granita are sweet, frozen mixtures of fruit (and sometimes other flavors) and water (sometimes with added alcohol). Both are vegan by nature. Both are light, with a single dominant flavor. Granita is traditionally made and served in Sicily, and although sorbet (sorbetto in Italian) sounds French, its origins date back to ancient Persia.
The main difference between granita and sorbet lies in their manufacture. Sorbet, like ice cream, sherbet, and gelato, is stirred in a machine, which constantly freezes the ingredients while bending slightly in the air. More importantly, churning prevents the formation of ice crystals. Granita, on the other hand, is everything on ice crystals. The manufacturing process is closer to that of shaved ice: a more liquid syrup or fruit puree is poured into a shallow dish and frozen in stages. By scraping it methodically with a fork or whisking it, the unique texture of grainy shards or crystals is formed.
It makes sense that granita is a specialty of Sicily, where the summers are extremely hot. “I to like granita,” says Laurel Evans, a food writer who moved to Italy more than 20 years ago and is the author of Liguria, The Cookbook: Recipes from the Italian Riviera. “I’m from small town Texas and grew up on snow cones, so when I got my first real slushy made with real fruit, I was blown away.”
There are many shiny fruits granite (plural) that use juicy seasonal fruits, such as strawberries, lemons, and melons, for maximum effect. A regional flavor in Sicily is mulberry, or gelso. Although she loves these fruit ice creams, when Evans started exploring local flavors, it was something different that attracted her: “My favorite is almond, followed closely by coffee, then mint .”
Coffee granita is often served in cafes with a dollop of whipped cream on top and is enjoyed early in the day. “You don’t see it much in northern Italy; Granita is traditionally a Sicilian treat, and you’ll find it everywhere there,” says Evans. “It’s something you find at the beach or at the gelateria. Sicilians even eat it for breakfast in a brioche bun.”
Sorbetto (aka sherbet) is another story. Here in America, where we enjoy it as a dessert in restaurants or as an afternoon treat and can even buy it in the supermarket, sorbet flavors are quite common. In Italy, the spectrum is wider. Evans says she was surprised to find that most gelaterias make chocolate sorbet, which is dark chocolate, water and sugar, but no milk. “I discovered this at a time when I was avoiding dairy and I was so excited,” Evans said. “I also like a good lemon sorbet when I’m in the mood for something refreshing. Often trattorias in Italy offer you one at the end of the meal, mixed with a little vodka until it’s is melting, drinkable and just enough watered down.”