Whether you’re a fior di latte fanatic or are more partial to pistacchio, there’s no doubt that savouring some authentic gelato is a quintessential Italian experience. But is gelato just ice cream in a different setting? Or is there something intrinsically different about Italy’s favourite frozen treat?
The difference between gelato and ice cream
Plenty of people will have you believe that the main difference between gelato and ice cream is one of semantics; that gelato is simply the Italian word for ice cream. But that’s not quite true.
Gelato – which actually means ‘frozen’ in Italian – differs from ice cream in several key ways. From the ingredients, to the production process and even how it's stored and served, here’s the lowdown on the difference between gelato and ice cream.
The basic base for dairy-based gelato and ice cream contains a very similar set of ingredients – milk, cream, egg yolks and sugar – but the quantities used in the two recipes differ significantly.
Gelato contains more milk, but much less cream and fewer egg yolks than ice cream. In fact, in southern Italian regions like Campania and Sicily, gelato often contains no egg yolks at all, instead relying on a mixture of sweetened whole milk thickened with carob flour. Ice cream (as the name suggests) contains much more cream, plus more egg yolks.
All this means that dairy-based gelato has a much lower fat content than ice cream.
How it’s made
Whilst both ice cream and gelato are churned to turn the base mixture into something more substantial, they aren’t churned in the same way.
Standard ice cream machines churn the mixture at a high speed to whip lots of air into the mixture. In contrast, the paddles in gelato machines move very slowly as they churn, incorporating much less air into the mixture.
The result is that gelato is much denser and thicker than fluffy, aerated ice cream.
With a lower fat content and much less air in it than ice cream, you might expect gelato to turn into a solid brick when it’s frozen. Instead, gelato is softer and silkier than ice cream, but how?
The key is the temperature the gelato mixture is frozen and stored at. Gelato is typically frozen, stored and served around 10°C warmer than ice cream, which is normally frozen at around -18°C.
This gentler freezing process means that gelato is softer than harder, scoopable ice cream. This is why nearly all gelaterie in Italy use a flat spatula to slather their gelato into tubs or cones – gelato just isn’t served cold enough to scoop in the same way as ice cream.
It also means that gelato doesn’t travel well; it’s best when freshly made and sold shortly after, typically within 48 to 96 hours.
The taste test
So gelato contains less fat, less air and is served at a lower temperature than ice cream. But what does this do to the texture and taste once you (finally) get to savour your favourite flavour?
Texture-wise, gelato has a silky mouthfeel that’s less creamy than ice cream. This textural difference actually has an impact on how you taste it; colder, higher-fat ice cream both coats and numbs the tongue, obscuring some of its intended main flavour. Warmer, lower-fat gelato is much more direct; the main flavour comes through with more intensity and then melts away quickly.This goes some way to explaining why your gelato – whether pistachio, chocolate, or simple fior di latte – seems to sing of its main flavour in a way that similar flavours of ice cream can’t compete with.