The Difference Between Gelato And Ice Cream

No, the two are not the same.

Colorful Flavored Ice Cream in Cones
Photo: Seksak Kerdkanno / EyeEm / Getty Images

At first glance, ice cream and gelato don't look all that different. But for anyone who says these desserts are the same, I'd wager they've never tasted the two next to each other. The recipes and churning process for ice cream and gelato are distinct, resulting in two frozen desserts with unique qualities.

Ice cream and gelato both include milk and sugar in their bases, but that's where the similarity in recipes stops. Let's first discuss each of these tasty treats to know the difference between ice cream and gelato.

What is Gelato?

Gelato translates to "ice cream" in Italian, where it is from, but this dessert's texture is denser, smoother, and richer than American ice cream. Like ice cream, gelato uses milk, cream, and sugar, but it differs in proportions. Gelato uses less cream and eggs and more milk than ice cream, typically containing no egg yolks or eggs at all. Gelato is served slightly warmer than American ice cream and is churned at a slower rate, introducing less air and retaining a soft quality, which tends to be less fat-dense.

What is Ice Cream?

Compared to gelato, ice cream uses eggs, egg yolks, milk, cream, and sugar. This combination is churned at a much faster rate, introducing more air into the mixture, which makes a lighter, creamy, and less cold dessert. The ice cream starts as a custard, but after the quick churning process, served cold to help it stay in a "scoop" formation.

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How are Gelato and Ice Cream Different?

Different Liquid Components

The liquid components of ice cream include a large proportion of cream and egg yolks to milk. Gelato recipes occasionally call for a small amount of cream and yolks, but never as much as ice cream—This gives the ice cream a higher fat content and a distinct custardy richness from the yolks.

Different Churn Rate

Ice cream machines also churn the base quickly and in a manner that incorporates air that gets caught in the freezing structure of the liquid. Thus, ice cream is richer in fat and airier in texture. Gelato, churned at a much slower speed, has less air incorporated into the freezing mix, making gelato denser than ice cream. The air interspersed throughout the network of ice crystals and fat in ice cream keeps ice cream colder for longer, meaning that gelato is prone to melt faster.

Different Fat Content

The simplicity of a gelato's base, with less fat and more sugar than ice cream, makes for a mix that will allow the flavorings added to the gelato to be more prominent. The differences in fat and temperature are the factors that most affect the difference in taste. Fat coats our tongues, making it harder for our taste buds to detect nuances in flavor.

Different Temperatures

Similarly, very cold foods inhibit our palates from detecting flavor. Therefore, since ice cream is higher in fat and typically colder than gelato, the flavors added to ice cream are never as prominent as they are in gelato. Ice cream is best for highlighting simple and rich flavors, while gelato can better showcase delicate and complementing flavors, not lost on our tongues.

So, What About Sorbet?

"Water ice" frozen treat without any milk or cream, making it a great dairy-free option. Without milk, eggs, or cream, sorbet is traditionally the lowest in fat-content compared to ice cream and gelato. This water-based treat uses sugar and fruit to make a dense, flavorful frozen dessert. It has less air introduced, adding to its thick texture.

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