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What is the difference between ice cream and gelato?

Gelato vs. Ice Cream
Like ice cream, gelato comes in many flavors, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients.
Like ice cream, gelato comes in many flavors, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients.
© AmalliaEka/iStock/Thinkstock

Many of us take our ice cream seriously, but you might not know that there are actually stringent guidelines about what does and what doesn't qualify to be called ice cream. Ice cream must contain a minimum of 10 percent fat. Some of those artisan and premium flavors you like may contain as much as 14 percent or more, though. More fat is OK in the world of ice creams, but if it has less fat than the minimum, it's just not the real thing. Gelato, on the other hand, doesn't rely upon fat for richness.

Most recipes for making ice cream use custard bases which contain cream, milk and eggs. Italians make their version of ice cream with a base made mostly of milk. Sicilians, who have been making gelato and other frozen desserts for centuries, are known for using a base called a crema rinforzata, which is milk, sugar and corn starch. The starch acts as a stabilizer to lower the risk of the gelato developing ice crystals. It also sponges up water, making the gelato rich and creamy. Because gelato is made with a whole milk base, it naturally contains less fat -- sometimes as much as 70 percent less than ice cream [source: Paciugo]. As it turns out, the lower the fat content in your food, the more the flavor-receptors in your brain fire up. That's good news for intensely flavored, milk-based gelato.

The ideal temperature for serving gelato also differs from what's ideal for ice cream. While ice cream is best when it's served at 10 degrees Fahrenheit (-12.2 Celsius), that temperature is too cold for gelato. The perfect gelato scoop is served at roughly 25 degrees Fahrenheit (-3.9 Celsius), which helps keep its flavor and texture at their peak [source: Food Republic]. When we don't respect those temperatures, we end up with gooey, grainy or hard frozen desserts that are more likely to taste like the freezer than their intended flavor.