5 Tricks for Making Homemade Gelato

George Washington: founding father, lover of frozen desserts. © Corbis

It's said that George Washington spent huge sums of money on ice cream, and today America still loves a cold scoop. U.S. citizens eat more ice cream per person than in any other country in the world: as many as 48 pints per person, on average, in a single year [source: IDFA, IceCream.com]. Gelato is similar to ice cream, although Americans don't consume as much of it as Italians do -- it's an Italian treat, after all. Gelato is similar to ice cream, but is more dense and creamy.

If your town doesn't have a gelato shop, or you can't fit in a trip to Italy for a scoop of Sicilian pistachio, making your own frozen pint is easy to do at home. Once you've found a good recipe (or several), there are a few tricks you can count on to ensure your homemade gelato will be as good as the best scoop served at stands throughout Italy. Such as? Well, always keep the bowl of your ice cream maker in the freezer so it's ready for gelato-making whenever you are. This is an important step because most of those bowls need about 24 hours to freeze before they can be used. And then consider your ingredients and your method.

Use Milk, Not Cream, and Choose Fresh Ingredients
Fresh fruit that’s very ripe (even overripe) is perfect for gelato. ©udra/iStock/Thinkstock

While ice cream is typically made with cream and sometimes a little milk (hence the name), gelato is best made from whole milk. Because gelato is made from milk, it contains less fat than ice cream, but it's the milk that also allows for the flavors of the other ingredients to really stand out. Use the best-quality ingredients you can find or afford, because whatever the ingredient is, its flavor will be intense. When choosing fruit to flavor your gelato, for example, choose fruits that are a little beyond the point when you'd want to eat them -- overripe fruit has the most concentrated flavor and sugar, and that flavor will be passed along to your gelato.

Be Aware of Proportions
Spirits can add a fun adult element gelato, but use sparingly to avoid tampering with the recipe’s proportions. © igorr1/iStock/Thinkstock

Sweetener and flavoring for gelato are key to creating a tasty dessert, but they are also two of the things that can encourage ice crystals or freezing problems to happen. Use them, but use them wisely.

When it comes to sweeteners, whether you prefer sugar or a liquid sweetener, sweeten in moderation. Ideally, your gelato recipe should call for no more than about 25 to 35 percent sugar; use any more or any less and you'll risk making a gelato that's too hard or that may develop ice crystals as it freezes -- and don't forget that any fruits you add also contain sugars.

Also be careful when adding liqueurs and other spirits to your gelato mixture. Just like when adding sweeteners, a light hand is best when flavoring with alcohol -- not necessarily because the flavor will overwhelm the taste of your dessert, but because alcohol doesn't freeze at home-freezer temperatures; to avoid freezing problems, don't use more than 4 tablespoons per 1 quart of gelato base [source: Baker].

Keep an Eye on Temperatures
You don’t need a fancy kitchen thermometer to make gelato. Just keep a close eye on the base as you bring it to a boil and drop it to a simmer. © eyewave/iStock/Thinkstock

You can't beat a cool scoop of gelato on a warm summer day, but did you know that scoop you're enjoying might be too cold? If gelato's too cold, it's not just a recipe for brain freeze; it won't taste as sweet. Gelato should be served at 20 to 25 degrees Fahrenheit (-6.7 to -3.9 degrees Celsius) whereas ice cream is best served at about 10 degrees Fahrenheit (-12.2 degrees Celsius) [sources: Food Republic, Stainsby].

It's not only how cold you keep your finished gelato that's important; temperature is also important as you make your base. When you're working with the milk base, be careful about your boil. For creamy gelato, it's important to bring the milk (or milk and cream mixture) to a boil slowly, but don't let it boil too long. Just as it reaches a boil, turn the temperature down to bring the milk to simmer before you add another important ingredient: the eggs. There's a trick to those, too.

Temper the Eggs
If you drop your whisked eggs straight into your hot dairy base, you’re more likely to scramble them than incorporate them (gross). © MKucova/iStock/Thinkstock.

If your gelato recipe calls for eggs, the timing of when you add those yolks is important. Once your mixture is simmering, it's go time. But if you add them too quickly or into a mixture that's too hot, you'll end up scrambling those eggs rather than incorporating them into a creamy dessert. To avoid the problem, you need to temper those eggs before adding them into the simmering milk mixture. What does that mean? It's easy -- it's really just a little extra whisking. Place all the yolks your recipe calls for, along with the sugar and salt, in a separate bowl, and while whisking add about 3 to 4 tablespoons of the hot milk mixture to slowly raise the temperature of the eggs. Then, and only then, add the yolk mixture to the hot milk mixture; keep whisking until the milk and yolk mixture reaches about 180 degrees Fahrenheit (82.2 Celsius) [source: Berard].

What'll that look like? You'll want to continue whisking or stirring it until the liquid begins to coat the back of the spoon. This is called a nappe, and it may take anywhere from about five to 10 minutes for your mixture to reach this clingy stage [source: Elizarraras].

Don't Over-churn the Base
Whether you’re using a modern churn or going old school, over-churning can ruin the fruits of your labors. © Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Thinkstock

One of the main differences between gelato and ice cream is its airiness. Gelato contains less air than ice cream, which is why it has such a dense consistency in comparison to its dessert cousin. To achieve the correct amount of air, you need to churn for the correct amount of time.

Gelato -- and ice cream, too -- won't look like the frozen, creamy dessert you're used to when it's done churning. It needs to spend at least two hours in your freezer before that can happen. Churn it only until it looks like a thick custard, not firm ice cream. Store it in a shallow container (and cover with plastic wrap under the lid) for best results.


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Author's Note: 5 Tricks for Making Homemade Gelato

One of the most eye-popping facts I uncovered while researching ice cream and gelato wasn't that vanilla is more popular than chocolate (I don't know who you are anymore), but that Americans eat almost a pint of ice cream every week, give or take a couple weeks (which I like to assume is February).

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More Great Links


  • Baker, Lucy. "10 Tips for Homemade Ice Cream Success." Serious Eats. June 26, 2008. (May 4, 2014) http://sweets.seriouseats.com/2008/06/10-ten-tips-for-making-homemade-ice-cream-success.html?ref=sweets
  • Berard, Adrienne. "10 steps to making gelato like a pro." Fox News. July 22, 2013. (May 4, 2014) http://www.foxnews.com/leisure/2013/07/22/10-steps-to-making-gelato-like-pro/
  • Christensen, Emma. "Best homemade Gelato: 3 Tips from Mario Batali." The Kitchn. (May 4, 2014) http://www.thekitchn.com/best-homemade-gelato-3-tips-fr-123545
  • Elizarraras, Jessica. "Tre's Vanilla Gelato." San Antonio Current. July 31, 2013. (May 4, 2014) http://sacurrent.com/dining/food/tre-s-vanilla-gelato-1.1527752
  • Food Republic. "What's The Difference Between Ice Cream and Gelato?" Aug. 13, 2013. (May 4, 2014) http://www.foodrepublic.com/2013/08/13/whats-difference-between-ice-cream-and-gelato
  • IceCream.com. "The Truth About Ice Cream." (May 4, 2014) http://www.icecream.com/funfacts/funfacts.asp?b=105
  • International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA). "The History of Ice Cream." (May 4, 2014) http://www.idfa.org/news-views/media-kits/ice-cream/the-history-of-ice-cream
  • Kasper, Lynne Rossetto. "Mario Batali: Use over-ripe fruit in gelato for more intense flavor." American Public Media - The Splendid Table. (May 4, 2014) http://www.splendidtable.org/story/mario-batali-use-over-ripe-fruit-in-gelato-for-more-intense-flavor
  • Peterson, James. "Cooking Class: Boiling and Simmering." Cooking Light. (May 4, 2014) http://www.cookinglight.com/cooking-101/techniques/cooking-class-boiling-and-simmering-00400000001032/
  • Stainsby, Mia. "Pastry chef tips on making great gelato and ice cream." Vancouver Sun. Aug. 22, 2010. (May 4, 2014) http://blogs.vancouversun.com/2010/08/22/pastry-chef-tips-on-making-great-gelato-and-ice-cream/