What's the Difference Between Ice Cream & Gelato
I celebrated a big birthday at the beginning of the month and my wife invited some friends over including my neighbor who gave me a Cuisinart Commercial Quality Ice Cream & Gelato Maker (ICE-100) as a birthday present. This past weekend, my youngest daughter and I put the kit to use and made strawberry and chocolate macadamia nut gelato. To our delight, both gelati flavors turned out smooth and delicious.
Aside from, “what’s your favorite ice cream flavor?” the first question everyone asks me is, “what is the difference between ice cream and gelato?” If you don’t know the answer to this important life question, you are not alone. I decided to get to the bottom of this dilemma and here’s what I found.
Ice cream and gelato are very similar in both taste and texture. A lot of people say that gelato is just a fancier a word for ice cream. In a way, those people are right. Yet the two creamy treats do have important differences. Gelato and ice cream call for the same ingredients yet use different proportions in their recipes. Also, the way in which the components are combined differ slightly.
The first obvious difference between the two is that gelato hails from Italy, and is closely tied to the region of Dolomite in northern Italy. Gelato is the Italian word for “frozen.” Americans absolutely love frozen sweets of any kind and we have adopted gelato as if were our own creation. We love to treat ourselves to custard, water ice, sorbet, frozen yogurt, the list goes on.
According to Progressive Grocer, Americans spend close to $25 billion on ice cream and ice cream affiliates a year! But Ice cream and its Italian cousin, gelato, seem to be what we crave the most.
The technical differences between these two frozen treats depend on three basic factors: fat content, air, and temperature. Both ice cream and gelato have a specific base and texture that leads to a pleasing mouth feel when eaten. Let’s break this down.
Milk Fat Makes Both Taste So Good
The source of richness in gelato and ice cream comes from their milk fats. When you bite into one of these frozen desserts, milk fats are responsible for the creamy smoothness you taste. Ice cream’s fat content is higher because it is typically made with more cream and less milk. On the other hand, gelato is composed of more milk – making it significantly lower in fat. Also, gelato tends to stay away from egg yokes and if they are ever added, they are added very sparingly.
Churn Baby Churn
The varying textures between a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a scoop of vanilla gelato will tell you that the churning processes differ between these deserts. Commercial Ice cream is churned extremely fast, which adds volume to it and gives the base a light and airy texture. Conversely, Gelato is slowly-churned, making it denser and harder to melt. However, the at-home gelato and ice cream makers usually church at one pace.
How Hot is Your Ice Cream
Lastly, you may never have noticed this, but ice cream and gelato have about a 10-15 degree temperature difference when served. Ice cream is usually served at 10 degrees Fahrenheit, but because gelato has less air and fat consistency, it is served at a warmer temp. If ice cream was served at the warm temperature of gelato, it would quickly turn to soup due to its extremely fluffy texture and high fat content. When we made the gelato this past weekend, we combined the cream and milk to simmer over heat, something you wouldn’t do when making homemade ice cream.
What About Adding Eggs?
To further complicate the world of creamy desserts, there are also ice cream and gelato custards. These recipes use egg yolks to create an ultra-creamy and custardy flavor. Heavy cream and egg content makes custard the highest in fat of all three varieties.
The Bottom Line
Overage: This word simply means the air incorporated into the creamy mixture when produced. Commercial ice cream can have as much as 50% air whipped into its base while gelato has, at most, 30% churned into its’ ingredients.
Fat: Gelato typically contains between 4-6% fat content while ice cream is never commercially sold with anything less than 10% fat. So, if you are concerned about fat content and are choosing between the two, go with Italian gelato.
Cost: On average, gelato costs 30-50% more than ice cream. Ice cream may be cheaper at the register, yet you are saving a few pennies merely to eat a lot of whipped air. Gelato is more densely packed and you will get much more out of it than store-bought American ice cream. Although a pint of gelato will have a bigger price tag on it at the grocery store than regular ice cream, when it comes down to it, you are actually paying the same amount.
Flavor & Texture: Because there is less fat and air in gelato, the flavors are richer than ice cream. Despite its reduced fat content, gelato has a wonderful creamy texture and will melt in your mouth. Ice cream, on the other hand, has an icier and frozen mouth feel to it.
Sugar: You may be wondering about sugar content in the two. The amount of sugar may vary depending on the recipe you are following for either ice cream or gelato. All in all, however, sugar content is not a huge dividing factor.
Regardless of these differences, both ice cream and gelato belong to the same delicious family of creamy treats. Why squabble over differences? Just pick up the spoon and enjoy.
Sarah @ The Woks of Life
What a great article! I always wondered what the difference between the two was...but less fat and a creamier texture? I'll definitely take the gelato over the ice cream any day.
Gelato is definitely a more delicious treat, but make sure the scoop is small. The same size scoop of ice cream, especially non premium, has a lot less calories.
I find that commercial ice cream has a lot more additives in it than commercial gelato. I wonder if this has something to do with the melting temperature since the gelato would be naturally more stable. I do prefer the gelato and a little goes a long way. Now I know why!
Thank you for the info! I just discovered your website when investigating "deglazing"--fantastic clear explanation) . . . I'm delighted that you added info here about differences in sugar content of ice cream and gelato (negligible difference)--very thorough and just what I was wondering about.
The Reluctant Gourmet
Thanks for you comments Ann. Much appreciated.
I've been trying to find out the name and recipe for an ice cream type dessert I had quite a few years ago at a restaurant but have not seen since. It had a denser, richer consistency (than ice cream} and it was a struggle to scoop out a spoonful. It was served in a champagne glass and I believe was flavored with Grand Marnier. Would you happen to know what this dessert is? Thanks!
The frozen desert that you had was probably fiordilotte gelato. Fiordilotte means sweet cream. It is very rich and good with just about everything. It is white in color but has no vanilla in it. It is what most Italians use instead of vanilla. As a hobby I make Italian gelato, so have been trained in Italian gelato schools and have Italian equipment (very expensive). One very important difference between ice cream and gelato is that ice cream is usually frozen in about a half hour. Gelato needs to be frozen in 8 to 10 minutes. This makes the ice crystals in gelato much smaller than those in ice cream. This makes for a much denser and smoother product. The lower fat and higher serving temperature for gelato lets your taste buds see more intense flavor.
G. Stephen Jones
Thank you Walter for this information. Very interesting.