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How Is Gelato Different than Ice Cream?

If someone has taken you out for gelato, you know it’s a delicious frozen treat. But other than the tiny shovel-shaped spoons, is it any different than ice cream?

It certainly is. Americans first took notice of the Italian dessert in the late 90s, and it’s recently found new popularity. 

We’ll discover how these two creamy delicacies differ and get to the bottom of this issue. 

Let’s dig in!

What is Gelato?

Gelato is essentially the Italian version of ice cream. It also happens to be the Italian word for frozen. However, it has a much softer texture and has less air in it. And while gelato uses the same ingredients as ice cream, the ratio is different. 

It also stands out for its intense flavors. Like ice cream, gelato starts from a base of milk, cream, and egg yolks. You can find them in familiar flavors like chocolate or vanilla or more traditional flavors like pistachio or custard. 

Sorbetto is a fruit-based version of the velvety dessert, although people use the words interchangeably. 

Woman eating gelato
Cool down from the summer sun with a refreshing gelato.

Where Is Gelato Originally From?

Frozen treats have been around a lot longer than refrigerators. For Romans, eating ice from the local volcanos, Vesuvius and Etna, was a ritual. But turning the Italian ice into a cold cream came a few centuries later. Bernardo Buontalenti, a Renaissance man in every sense, was a 17th-century artist, engineer, and designer. 

The Florence-based artist used salt to lower the melting point of ice and added bergamot and orange for flavor. The sorbet debuted at a Spanish deputation celebration and became a huge hit. 

These days, the mere existence of the dessert is a cause for celebration. The Gelato Festival has tournaments across the world. The showcases pit the best dessert chefs against each other, where they show off brand-new flavors and reimagined classics. 

How Is Gelato Made?

While you can find mass-produced Italian-style ice cream in the grocery store, it’s not the same. The best shops still hand-make their gelato in small batches. First, you start by making the base. With gelato, you mix milk with a bit of cream. Next, you’ll add sugar and mix it evenly. 

Traditionally, some recipes call for raw egg yolk as a stabilizer. It helps prevent ice crystals as it sits in the freezer. However, now chefs will use pasteurized egg mix or create a custard to avoid potential food poisoning. Once the base is ready, you can add flavor. 

You can’t just stick gelato in the freezer, though. It needs to be churned gently by hand or use a machine set to low. After mixing, it’s ready to serve. 

A photo of gelato in to-go cups
The best gelato is made in small batches.

What Is Ice Cream?

Ice cream is a velvety frozen confection made from whole milk and heavy cream. It also has egg yolks and sweeteners for a fluffy texture. Churning transforms the mixture from a liquid to a semi-solid foam. 

One thing that distinguishes ice cream from other frozen sweets is how soft it stays at cold temperatures. Two things make this possible. First, there’s a lot of salt in the ice cream churner. The salt lowers the temperature needed to freeze the water. 

The sugar in the mixture does the same thing. It just tastes a lot better. So even when your freezer is 2 degrees, ice cream isn’t rock hard. 

Where Is Ice Cream Originally From?

One of the earliest versions of ice cream was an ancient Chinese treat suitable for a King. Cheng Tang, the first ruler of the Shang Dynasty, enjoyed a mix of buffalo milk, flour, and ice. 

King Charles I enjoyed a similar dessert made from cow milk and egg yolk. Around the same time, the Quakers brought their recipes to America. Still, it took a lot of work to create. Ice cream wasn’t a common food until technology allowed it. 

In the 19th century, manufacturers could separate cream faster and use refrigeration to make and distribute an affordable version. Then, in 1846, American housewife Nancy Johnson invented the hand-crank ice cream machine. The device saved a lot of time and labor in creating America’s favorite frozen dessert. 

How Is Ice Cream Made?

With ice cream, you have the same ingredients as gelato but in different proportions. For example, you need more heavy cream and less milk. It also uses a lot more egg yolks to get the perfect texture. 

The main difference in the process is the fast churn. Quick churning adds lots of air, similar to whipped cream. As the cream base churns, it grows. The higher milk-fat ratio helps the mixture hold more air and gives it a different mouthfeel. 

Pro Tip: If you’re looking for the perfect spot to enjoy some gelato, make sure to Avoid These Summer RV Destinations.

A photo of various gelato flavors in a refrigerated case. Someone is scooping the espresso flavor for a customer.
While gelato has less fat than ice cream, it is more filling.

The Differences Between Gelato and Ice Cream

As we discussed, the process of making each of these desserts differs. You can also tell the difference after a taste test. While either option will keep a kid happy, some notable things help these goodies stand apart. 

Gelato Is More Filling

Less air means more substance. Weigh the same size scoop of each side by side, and gelato will come out heavier. You don’t even need a cone to be satisfied with this treat.

Maybe that’s why ice cream shops are so focused on toppings. They know their product can’t stand up to the competition without help. 

Gelato Has Less Fat

Ice cream is defined as having at least 10% of calories from fat, although it can be much higher. On the other hand, gelato has a much lower fat content. 

A higher fat content traps more air, which is why there’s a big difference between the textures of the two desserts. If you’ve ever made homemade ice cream, you’ve seen how much it grows after the churning process. 

Gelato Gets Served Warmer

You need warmer temperatures to get the silkier texture. And since it’s not as cold, it doesn’t numb your tongue as quickly, so your taste buds can pick up more flavor. This way, you also avoid the dreaded “brain freeze.”

Ice cream can hold its texture at much lower temperatures. Still, many prefer to let it soften for a few minutes before digging in. 

Ice Cream Uses More Eggs

The eggs combine with the fat to keep the water from forming ice crystals at low temperatures. Of course, this only works if you’ve mixed the liquid base enough. That’s why you may find some crunchy bits if you leave your Ben & Jerry’s out too long before it goes back in the freezer. 

Pro Tip: Love vanilla flavored gelato? Learn more about Where Does Vanilla Flavoring Come From?

Is Gelato Worth Eating?

If you like ice cream, give gelato a fair chance. The Italian dessert is denser, so a little bowl of it can go a long way. A tiny shovelful packs a lot of flavor. It’s also a good choice if you’re counting calories since it has 30% fewer than ice cream. 

Still, some people prefer ice cream’s creamy texture and feel. Either way, they’re both a treat best enjoyed in moderation. Or, enjoy it as needed if you’re going through a rough spell in life. We totally get it!

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