How to Make Sherbet Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How to Make Sherbet

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In the UK, sherbet is a toothsome powdered treat (usually packaged as a Sherbet Fountain) that ranks right up there with humbugs, aniseed balls and candy cigarettes as a reminder of our tooth-rotting, sepia-tinted youth. Many an English schoolchild spent his weekly pocket-money on bright yellow cardboard tubes with a length of bright black liquorice sticking out of the end. Sherbet Fountain? They looked more like sticks of dynamite than sugary water-features!

Was there ever a confectionery as inconvenient as the sherbet fountain? The tube always went soggy, the sticky black liquorice always clogged up after the first suck, and the whole thing left you wreathed in clouds of dust. You always ended up eating the straw and then slugging the fizzy powder straight from the tube. All this got you was a nose full of the dust that made you sneeze and a mouth full of fizz that made you cough, yet still you went back for more.

Ready to go Back for More Now?

Sherbet is a surprisingly easy sweet to make, with only three ingredients and no cooking involved. To make your own sherbet, you will need:

  • Sugar, usually caster or icing sugar
  • Bicarbonate of soda (aka sodium hydrogen carbonate, aka 'bicarb')
  • Powdered or crystalline citric acid1

The manufacturing process is quite simple: mix the ingredients together. Just make sure your equipment and ingredients are dry (this is really important). The citric acid usually comes as dry crystals or powder. If they offer you a liquid form (a solution), just say no! The sherbet begins to dissolve and fizz as soon as it comes in contact with liquid, so it must stay dry until it touches the tongue.

The hard part is getting the taste right. You change the taste by changing the proportions of the three ingredients. A good place to start is with two teaspoons of sugar, one teaspoon of citric acid, and half a teaspoon of bicarb.

How Sherbet Works

To get your recipe perfect, you need to know how sherbet works. The sugar, obviously, is there to make it sweet, and the acid is there to make it tart. The proportion of sugar to acid is, therefore, governed by your personal tastes.

The acid has a second function, though. With the bicarb, it provides the fizzing sensation on your tongue. When the two powders dissolve in the saliva on your tongue, they begin to react:

Citric acid + bicarbonate of soda

sodium citrate + water + carbon dioxide

It is the carbon dioxide that gives the fizz, forming bubbles directly on your tongue. Changing the proportion of acid to bicarb will change the amount of fizz.

There is another surprise hiding in that simple equation: endothermy2. It may sound cold and clinical, but the upshot is a pleasant cooling sensation mixed in with the fizzing sensation.

The permutations are, therefore, almost endless, so make sure you record how you make each batch, and note down what you plan to do next time to improve it. There is more you can do to your sherbet, though.

Sherbet with a Twist

Changing the ingredients can give your sherbet that 'certain something'. Trying different types of sugar can change how fast the sweet part of the flavour forms on your tongue, or even change the actual flavour altogether (Demerara sherbet, anybody?). Part of the flavour is down to the acid as well, and some sherbet makers use a mixture of citric acid and tartaric acid3. Adding flavourings also helps, but this is slightly more difficult.

The majority of flavourings available to the home baker are in liquid form, mainly dissolved in water. If you add these to your sherbet, it stops being a powder and starts to fizz straight away. You need to add dry flavourings. You could add crushed Parma Violets, or powdered cinnamon or other spices. Be creative. Do you like sugar in your coffee? How about adding instant coffee to your sugar4?

There are also ways of flavouring the sugar itself. Vanilla pods, slices of root ginger, lemon grass and mint can all be stored in a jar of sugar for several days to impart their flavours to the sugar itself5. Skilful blending of such flavours could prove to be a delight to your friends and acquaintances.

The Element of Surprise

When tasting your sherbet at the developmental stage, it is best to use a dry teaspoon to pour a little onto the tongue, but, to get the full effect of the finished flavour6, sherbet is best served the traditional way; sucked quickly through a straw. The mouth is filled instantly with both flavour and fizz, bringing a nostalgic tear to the eye.

It is at this point that a sense of mischief can set in. Can you imagine the look on somebody's face as they try your chilli sherbet? The temptation for such practical jokes is strong, but be cautious. Do it too often, and nobody will try your proper food. Get careless, and you may inflict genuine pain or distress on somebody, especially if they have an allergy to your secret ingredients. If you must try chilli sherbet on your friends, make sure you have a glass of milk handy to calm their burning tongues.

In short, sherbet is a quick confection that can be made be made with the kids as a treat at the weekends, as a sophisticated gift for your host when invited to a meal, or as an 'hilarious' gag on your mates down the pub.


1Available from brewing suppliers and good baking outlets; you must use a dry form.2Chemical reactions also involve energy changes. Sometimes the change is obvious (such as burning releasing heat, or fireflies' bottoms releasing light), other times it is less so. The sherbet fizz is endothermic; it absorbs energy in the form of heat, and uses it to split the acid and bicarb molecules into fragments that can rearrange to form a salt (the citrate), water and carbon dioxide.3This researcher has never tried tartaric acid, mainly because of a lack of tartaric acid in the local supermarket.4Something else this researcher has yet to try, this time because he's convinced it would taste bad!5In fact, sugar has a terrible habit of picking up just about any flavour you leave lying around (never store sugar and household chemicals in the same cupboard!)6Try saying that five times, very quickly!

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