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: IceCream.com]. 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.

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.

Author's Note: What is the difference between ice cream and gelato?

Two bottles of good cream, six egg yolks and a half a pound of sugar; that's the basis for Thomas Jefferson's homemade ice cream recipe, which I came across while researching the differences between ice cream and gelato. It happens to be the first recorded recipe for ice cream made in the U.S., and he also throws in a stick of vanilla.

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Sources

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