Custard vs. Ice Cream: What’s the (Delicious) Difference?

Let’s just say, hypothetically, we get into a heated discussion with a friend about the difference between certain frozen desserts. She says frozen custard and ice cream are the same thing; we beg to differ. And while your argument is, uh, not that important in the grand scheme of things, we all need answers. So, in the great custard vs. ice cream debate, let’s break down what separates the two, which one is healthier for you and how they differ from some of the other treats lining the frozen section of your grocery store.

What’s the difference between frozen custard and frozen ice cream?

At its most basic, ice cream is a frozen mixture of dairy—usually a combination of cream and milk—plus sugar. But let’s get technical: According to the FDA, anything labeled “ice cream” must contain at least 10 percent milkfat by weight, or else it can’t be called ice cream. (Without that 10 percent milkfat, you’re venturing into “frozen dairy dessert” territory.)

Per the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), there are all sorts of additional distinctions within the ice-cream world, like superpremium and premium, based on quality of ingredients and amount of additional fat. But the only thing you need to remember is milk + cream + sugar = ice cream.

If you’ve tasted frozen custard, you know it’s a lot like ice cream, but richer, denser and creamier. That ultra-creamy texture is because, in addition to milk, cream and sugar, frozen custard must be made with one key ingredient: egg yolks. 

The IDFA says that to be labeled “frozen custard,” the product must contain a minimum of 10 percent milkfat by weight, plus at least 1.4 percent egg yolk solids by weight.

Aside from that, commercial frozen custard is usually made in a machine called a continuous freezer, Serious Eats explains. Unlike a traditional American ice-cream maker, which paddles the ice-cream base incorporating air, a continuous freezer adds less air to the mixture to keep the custard dense. (More air makes for a fluffier texture.) Frozen custard is typically served at a temperature closer to soft-serve ice cream, enhancing the effect.

Which is healthier, frozen custard or ice cream?

Considering their ingredient makeup is almost identical, you’re not going to see a huge difference in nutritional value between the two treats. Custard will sometimes have more protein from the egg yolks, but per the American Dairy Association Indiana, calorically speaking, they’re about the same.

What about all those other frozen desserts?

Oh, you mean sorbet, sherbet, gelato, frozen yogurt and soft serve? We’re glad you asked. Here’s what the IDFA has to say.

  • Sorbet is dairy-free. It’s made from a liquid (usually fruit juice) combined with a measured amount of simple syrup to make it scoopable after freezing.
  • Sherbet is just like sorbet but contains dairy. But unlike ice cream or frozen custard, it has much less milkfat—typically 1 to 2 percent by weight.
  • Gelato is an Italian ice cream that’s churned very slowly for a denser texture. It’s also usually lower in fat than American ice cream, because it’s made more milk than cream and has little to no eggs.
  • Frozen yogurt contains the same basic ingredients as ice cream, but the dairy has been cultured. (It’s also usually lower in fat than ice cream, but still contains sugar.)
  • Soft serve also contains the same ingredients as ice cream, but it’s frozen in a special machine that adds more air for that fluffy texture. It usually has 3 to 6 percent milkfat, compared to ice cream’s 10 percent.

Wait, why does my homemade ice-cream recipe contain eggs?

Eggs make ice cream extra creamy and rich, which is a plus for home cooks who don’t have access to professional ice-cream makers. And yep, many homemade ice cream recipes count as frozen custard too, since it only takes two or three egg yolks to reach that 1.4 percent.

Want to taste the difference yourself? Try making this raspberry ice cream (which is similar to frozen custard but doesn’t require a machine) alongside this no-churn mint chocolate chip ice cream. We think you’ll find they’re equally delicious…in very different ways.

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Senior Food Editor

Katherine Gillen is PureWow’s senior food editor. She’s a writer, recipe developer and food stylist with a degree in culinary arts and professional experience in New York City...