Some think that “gelato” is just the Italian term for what we Americans know as “ice cream”. While they are both frozen dairy desserts, there are enough differences between them to make a clear culinary distinction from one another. The differences mainly stem from the ingredients and processing methods.
Ice cream includes much more fat (or butterfat) than gelato. By lawful definition, ice cream includes a minimum of 10% fat, and can have up to 18%, defined by its higher cream content. Gelato recipes call for milk (low-fat to whole), and generally use little or no cream, making the fat content between 3% to 8%.
Egg yolks are used in higher quantity in gelato; more so in the custard based variety, such as chocolate or caramel flavors. Eggs aid in thickening the milk base for frozen desserts.
Gelato is typically known for using fresh and high quality ingredients, as opposed to its similar frozen dessert counterpart, in which artificial ingredients, such as syrups, can be found along with other preservatives. This is one of the reasons that gelato is best consumed within a day or two of a freshly made batch.
Sugar content also plays a role in the differences between these frozen desserts. Ordinarily there is less sugar in gelato; as low as 16% in gelato and as much as 21% in ice cream, according to wikipedia.org. Some culinary experts even go as far as to balance the sugar and water content to prevent the gelato from freezing solid to maintain the traditional creamy consistency.
Flavor & Consistency
Gelato is churned at a much slower speed with the goal of introducing as little air as possible into the mix. This creates a density that is associated with creamy rich gelato. Ice cream, on the other hand, aims to be light and fluffy, and incorporates 50% or more air whipped into it by using faster mixing speeds, thus creating a higher volume of the frozen dessert. Special gelato equipment is necessary to create the desired low air infused, or whipped affect. These special machines are usually only available at the professional level and may be the reason why so many gelaterias are popping up all over the country.
While the serving temperatures of both frozen desserts are under the freezing mark, gelato is presented at 5°F and ice cream at -10°F; a 15° difference. The higher temperature is one of the contributing factors in the soft consistency of gelato, which is a lot like soft-serve, causing the melting rate to be much faster than traditional ice cream. The lower fat content of gelato is another reason it melts more quickly than ice cream.
Gelato is gaining popularity among the frozen dessert aficionados due to the richness in flavor that is achieved by using high quality and fresh ingredients and slow-churn processing. Therefore, it is typically made in small artisan batches, as opposed to ice cream, which can easily be made in larger quantities.
Ice cream can be stored frozen for months, while gelato is best consumed within days in order to preserve freshness and its famed creamy consistency. Those with and without trained palates can tell if gelato is past its prime if noticeable ice crystals have formed, or if the intensity of the flavor has diminished to a bland state.
Now that you’re aware of the technical differences between ice cream and gelato, it would be fun to do some real life sampling to put your new knowledge to the test!