What Are The Differences Between Gelato & Ice Cream?
After “What’s your favourite ice cream flavour?”, the question we get asked the most as an ice cream equipment suppler is…
“What makes Gelato different from ice cream?”
So… What are the differences between Gelato and Ice Cream?
These days, Ice Cream is most commonly thought of as an ‘American Style’ of ice cream which typically has both a high level of butterfat and high overrun (the percentage of air contained within the product). Whereas Gelato is more commonly thought as ‘Italian Style’ ice cream which tends to be slightly sweeter in taste and lower in fat. But, the lines between the two blur a little as the term ‘Gelato’ can cover a wide variety of different products from those which contain dairy to fat free, fruit based products. Ice Cream however has a more specific trading standards definition requiring these products to have a minimum fat content which has been sourced from a dairy product.
What came first Ice Cream or Gelato?
It’s difficult to state which came first ice cream or gelato as they’re two similar products which share the same origins. Historians can show evidence of snow being eaten with milk and honey in China going back to the second century BC and the Romans eating something similar around 50BC.
Over a thousand years later, Marco Polo returned to Italy from the Far East with a recipe that closely resembled what is now called sherbet. Historians estimate that this recipe evolved into ice cream sometime in the 16th century. England seems to have discovered ice cream at the same time, or perhaps even earlier than the Italians. “Cream Ice,” as it was called, appeared regularly at the table of Charles I during the 17th century. France was introduced to similar frozen desserts in 1553 by the Italian Catherine de Medici when she became the wife of Henry II of France. It wasn’t until 1660 that ice cream was made available to the general public. The Sicilian Procopio introduced a recipe blending milk, cream, butter and eggs at Café Procope, the first café in Paris.
Sharing similar origins, the two products have evolved into their own unique products which both have a strong following…
Ice Cream and Gelato explained…
How 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.
Ice Cream vs. Gelato, a bit more technical detail…
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.
All these differences give Gelato a more dense and milky texture that’s less heavy 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.
Is Gelato healthier than Ice Cream?
The mantra behind Gelato is all about it being a ‘cleaner product’ compared to conventional ice creams. This means true Gelato should be made from only the best ingredients possible avoiding anything that’s technically unnecessary and anything which is highly processed or synthesised. Following these principles will automatically lead to a ‘healthier’ product simply from the ingredients being used.
How many calories are there in ice cream vs gelato?
Gelato typically offers fewer calories, less sugar and lower fat content per serving than ice cream. The typical 3.5 oz. serving of vanilla gelato contains approximately 90 calories and 3 grams of fat, compared to around 125 calories and 7 grams of fat in the average vanilla ice cream. However, because this is a fairly dense dessert, those calories can stack up fast. Portion control is a must if you plan on digging into this cool dessert when you’re on a diet.
In regard to added sugar, it’s important to note that gelato varieties are often made using real fruit or fruit juice. Some might consider the addition of natural fruit ingredients to be of nutritional value, but remember that fruit may increase the amount carbohydrates (that’s sugars) per serving.
Can Ice Cream be Lactose Free?
Lactose is a sugar that’s specifically found in dairy products. Historically this would have created a problem for those individuals who have a lactose intolerance as lactose-free dairy products were not commercially available. These days lactose-free milk is widely available, this milk has the same constitution as regular milk but without the Lactose which means it can be turned into either ice cream or gelato in the same way as conventional products. The downside is that lactose-free milk and cream have higher costs associated with them making the finished product more expensive in comparison to regular dairy based products.
‘Gelato’ covers a wide variety of product types so ‘fruit gelato’ would naturally be lactose free anyway.
What’s better? Ice Cream or Gelato?
There isn’t a right or wrong answer to this. It’s purely a matter of personal opinion. If you watch what you eat then the healthier mantra behind gelato could be the choice for you whereas if you look at it as a treat then a more indulgent ice cream could be the best in your opinion. It boils down to one thing… taste! If you like the taste and texture of it and you think that the product is great then who cares whether it’s ice cream or gelato! Both products are supposed to be fun, make you happy and put a smile on your face, if it does that then you’re on to a winner…