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 they're the same, I'd wager they've never tasted the two next to each other. Both the recipes and the churning process for ice cream and gelato are distinct, and the result is two frozen desserts that have their own unique qualities.

Ice cream and gelato both include milk and sugar in their bases, but that's where the similarity in recipes stops. The liquid components for 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 ice cream a higher fat content and a distinct custardy richness that comes from the yolks. Ice cream machines also churn the base quickly and in a manner that incorporates air that gets caught in the freezing structure of liquid. Thus, ice cream is richer in fat and airier in texture.

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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. Gelato is churned at a much slower speed so less air is incorporated into the freezing mix, making gelato more dense 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.

The differences in fat and temperature are the two factors that most affect the difference in taste. When fat coats our tongues, it makes it harder for our taste buds to detect nuances in flavor. Similarly, our palates are inhibited from detecting flavor in foods that are very cold. 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 that will not be lost on our tongues.

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