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What is the difference between ice cream and gelato?

Despite their differences, both gelato and ice cream can be served in cones.
Despite their differences, both gelato and ice cream can be served in cones.
©Catherine Philip/iStock/Thinkstock

When looking for a frozen dish on a warm day, most Americans reach for a pint of ice cream. The average American eats 48 pints of ice cream every year -- that's almost a pint per week [source:]. If and when ice cream's not on the menu, most people are open to a cold scoop of sorbet (made from fruit and water), granita (also a dessert that relies on frozen water), or gelato (which is ice cream's Italian cousin). But isn't gelato the same thing as ice cream? As it turns out, no. It's not. There are three major differences between gelato and ice cream: the amount of air that's churned into the dessert, fat content and the ideal serving temperature.

First, let's talk about air.

The main ingredient in ice cream isn't actually listed on its ingredients list. It's not cream or any other dairy product. It's air. Ice cream is fluffier than gelato, and it typically contains more than 50 percent air after it's been churned. But that's not the case when it comes to gelato. For instance, a scoop of chocolate gelato has a minimum of 25 percent (and as much as 90 percent, depending on the brand or recipe) less volume than a scoop of chocolate ice cream -- and that's directly due to how it's churned. Gelato is made in small batches and is churned much more slowly than ice cream [source: Morelli's Gelato, The Huffington Post]. That means the scoop of gelato is denser than its ice cream counterpart, and some people will say that means it's richer and more flavorful.

Fat and temperature are also important. Too much fat and you've got yourself a scoop of ice cream, and too cold of a temperature and you've got, well, ice crystals.