Although similar, these popular frozen treats have a different taste and texture.
Whether piled on a waffle cone or packaged in a pint, ice cream and gelato don’t seem so different. But even though the two frozen treats share many similarities (the word gelato even translates to “ice cream” in Italian), they are actually very different products. And if you’re wondering what sets them apart, you’re not alone.
“We get this question all the time, more than you might imagine,” says Bryce Licht, co-founder and CEO of Gelato Boy, a Denver-based ice cream company that sells its pints nationwide. “At one level the differences are quite fundamental, but they end up creating entirely different products. What we usually tell people is that the process of making ice cream and gelato is very similar – it can often be run on the same equipment – but the recipe is very different.
What is ice cream?
Gelato is an Italian word for ice cream and made with a custard base that traditionally includes more milk and less eggs than ice cream. Some recipes do not contain any eggs. The resulting dessert is creamier, denser and richer than traditional American ice cream.
What is ice cream?
Ice cream is made from milk, cream, sugar and eggs. Often, ingredients are first cooked and then churned to create a creamy, fluffy dessert. Churning incorporates air into the dessert, which helps lighten the texture.
How are ice cream and gelato different?
Read on to learn the differences between gelato and gelato, including their differences in ingredients, taste, texture, and temperature.
Ice cream and gelato start with a similar custard base: they’re both made with milk, cream, and sugar, but they’re made with different proportions of these ingredients. Ice cream is made with a larger amount of cream, while gelato is made with more milk. “The typical ice cream recipe is mostly cream with a little milk, and ice cream actually does the exact opposite ratio,” Licht says. “We’re going to use mostly milk and then a little cream.”
Because it uses a greater amount of cream, ice cream has a higher fat content than ice cream. Ice cream is typically around 15-20% fat (and should be at least 10% fat), while traditional ice cream is around 5-8% fat. And although ice cream, especially ice cream, sometimes contains egg yolks, as a general rule, ice cream does not. “In ice cream, we will only use eggs if we want to taste eggy,” says Licht. “Sometimes you’ll see an ice cream parlor offering vanilla egg yolk because they’re complementary flavors, or often it’ll be in flavors that have nuts in them. A pistachio or hazelnut can add egg yolks because the extra fat in nuts sometimes needs that extra emulsification that eggs can give.
Ice cream is churned at a much slower speed than ice cream and therefore contains less air. Ice cream typically contains about 15-30% overflow (the percentage of air incorporated into the product during the freezing process), making it denser than ice cream. Many say this makes the flavor more intense.
“Because it has a lower fat content and incorporates less air, the product ends up being denser, which also means it’s simply more flavorful,” Licht says of the ice. “One of the selling points of ice cream is that the flavors are purer and more intense, because without all that fat, your mouth won’t be covered in dairy fat, which doesn’t have much flavor. The coffee will taste more like coffee and the pistachio will taste more like pistachio, both because there is less fat to disguise the flavor and because you actually get more of the product in each bite because it is denser.
Ice cream, on the other hand, contains more air than gelato, although the amount can vary greatly. Some commercial ice cream brands can contain up to 100% overflow (meaning the product is 50% air), but Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams founder Jeni Britton says most brands of High-end ice creams have much lower amounts of air, closer to the level of ice cream. .
“You can’t run out of air: if you just froze cream and sugar, you’d get a brick,” she says. “You have to have that churning process, and the air makes it creamier.”
Because it contains higher levels of cream and air, ice cream is creamier and fluffier than gelato. On the other hand, ice cream is known for its silky smooth texture.
“What’s interesting is that many people assume that gelato has more fat or more cream than ice cream because its perceived creaminess is a little higher,” Licht says. “Because it is very dense, it doesn’t contain many air pockets, which also eliminates a lot of the potential for ice crystal growth. It’s a slightly silkier, more velvety texture, which can be perceived as creamier even if there is less cream.
Ice cream also has such a silky texture because it is served at a warmer temperature than ice cream, usually between 5°F and 10°F, while ice cream is served at around 0°F or lower. Because ice cream is served at a warmer temperature, it is softer, which is why it is often served with a paddle rather than a spoon. And because they are served and stored at different temperatures, ice cream and gelato are also usually stored in different types of freezers.
“Ice cream is served in a blast freezer, with air circulation, while American ice cream is served in a gravity freezer,” says Britton. “American ice cream is served hard, and what happens when you harden ice cream is that ingredients, like cinnamon, bloom into the fat.”
Our Favorite Ice Cream and Gelato Recipes
Ready to try your hand at making ice cream or gelato? Start with our classic vanilla ice cream or this easy basic recipe for no-churn ice cream, or try this decadent Banana Foster ice cream if you’re going for ice cream. Don’t want to create your own? Use a quart of your favorite store-bought pistachio ice cream to make these decadent pistachio ice cream brownie bars.
Remember that while ice cream and ice cream have their differences, they also have one major thing in common.
“They’re both delicious,” Britton says. “Both bring communities together: waiting in line, whether at the ice cream parlor or ice cream parlor, is part of the fun of the whole experience.”
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