Jargon or Gibberish? - Whats the difference between Ice Cream & Gelato?

After “What’s your favourite ice cream?”, the question we get asked the most as an ice cream equipment suppler is…

“What makes Gelato different from ice cream?”

Napoli_4_300pxHow does Gelato get that soft, elastic texture and slow-to-melt milkiness compared to ice cream’s richer, creamier, firmer body?

It comes down to four main factors: fat, sugar, air and serving temperature.

The more complicated answer? Things aren’t always clear cut; this is food, so individual recipes can blur the lines between the two. But there are some basic differences to keep in mind…

All ice cream is mostly water, and as water freezes, it forms hard, crunchy ice crystals. Besides great flavour, the ultimate goal of high quality ice cream production is to keep those crystals as small as possible through added ingredients and technique. Here’s how ice cream makers fight crystallisation:

  • Emulsifying fat into a base (or using already emulsified ingredients, like cream and milk) sticks fat molecules in between water molecules, literally getting in the way of ice as it freezes.
  • Sugar also forms a physical barrier to crystallisation, just like fat. When dissolved in water, it forms a syrup with a lower freezing point than plain water, and the sweeter a syrup is (i.e. the higher the concentration of sugar), the lower the freezing point becomes. As water starts to freeze in a syrup, the unfrozen water becomes, in effect, a more concentrated syrup. This process continues until you have a bunch of small ice crystals in a sea of syrup so concentrated that it’ll never really freeze.
  • Air is incorporated into ice cream during the churning process. Just like a light, fluffy victoria sponge cake is easier to cut into than a dense fruit cake, a more aerated ice cream is easier to scoop, and has a fluffier, less dense texture.
  • The temperature ice cream is stored at also has an obvious effect: colder ice creams are harder and more solid, while warmer ones are softer, with a looser texture.

Napoli_1_300pxIce Cream vs. Gelato

Fat content… Compared to today’s American-style ice creams and custards, Gelato has less fat in the base and less air churned into it during the freezing process. American ice creams are heavy on the cream, and have a much higher fat content of at least 10% (this is considerably higher in most homemade and many premium versions). Gelato, by comparison, uses more milk than cream, and as a result it doesn’t have nearly as much fat. Additionally, Gelato uses fewer egg yolks, if any at all which is another source of fat in custard-based ice creams.

Air or overrun percentage… American-style ice creams are churned fast and hard to whip in plenty of air (called overrun), which is aided by the high proportion of cream in the base. High-end ice creams have an overrun of 25% or so, which means they’ve increased in volume by 25%; cheaper commercial versions can run from 50% to over 90%, which gives them a light, thin, fast-melting texture that isn’t very flavourful (those bites are a quarter to a half air!). Gelato is churned at a slower speed, which introduces less air into the base, think whipping cream by hand instead of with a mixer. That’s why it tastes denser than ice cream, it usually is.

And what about sugar? Well, sugar levels vary wildly in ice cream and Gelato recipes, so there’s less of a hard difference there.

If you make ice cream at home, you may be wondering about your ice cream machine: does it churn at ice cream speed or gelato speed? The truth is, most of the consumer models on the market churn at about the same speed, none of which are as fast as the commercial machines used to make ice cream. But you can make both ice cream and Gelato in your machine—remember, air is only one of the differences between them.

Napoli_2_300pxAll these differences give Gelato a more dense and milky texture that’s less creamy than ice cream. It’s not thin, but it lacks the plush, buttery fullness of its American cousin. Some say that Gelato has a more intense flavour than ice cream, since it has less of the tongue-coating cold fat that gets in the way of tasting things. But I think it’s more accurate to say that Gelato’s flavours come through direct, hard, and fast, then melt away clean. A good, flavourful ice cream can have just as intense a flavour, but you’ll taste it differently. One isn’t necessarily more flavourful than the other.

Temperature’s the Key…

So if gelato has less fat than ice cream, and less air pumped into it, why is it not as hard as a brick? How does it get that super-soft, almost elastic texture that looks like a swirl of frosting more than a scoop of ice cream? It’s the last big factor: temperature. Ice cream is best served at around -16°C; Gelato cases are set to a warmer temperature. If you freeze Gelato really cold, it’ll turn right into the dense, relatively-low-fat brick it has the potential to be. But when warm, it’s that perfect soft-but-not-soupy consistency. If you stored ice cream at a much warmer temperature, it’d get too soupy: the high fat in water emulsion would melt too fast.

Do you Love Gelato?

Would you like to make your own Gelato (or ice cream) to sell in your business? Join us for a free introductory demonstration to find out just how easy it can be to start making your own.

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