Monday, November 25, 2013

What's The Difference Between Ice Cream And Gelato?

[Photographs: Robyn Lee, unless otherwise noted]
After "what's your favorite ice cream?", the question I get asked the most as an ice cream maker is "what makes gelato different from ice cream?" How does gelato get that soft, elastic texture and slow-to-melt milkiness compared to ice cream's richer, creamier body?
It comes down to three factors: fat, air, and serving temperature. The more complicated answer? Things aren't always clear cut: this is food, not phylogeny, so individual recipes can blur the lines between the two. But there are some basic differences to keep in mind.

How Ice Cream Works

Gelato fresh from the churn at Il Laboratorio del Gelato, NYC. [Photograph: Laura Togut]
All ice cream is mostly water, and as water freezes, it forms hard, crunchy ice crystals. Besides great flavor, the ultimate goal of ice cream making is to keep those crystals as small as possible through added ingredients and technique. Here's how ice cream makers fight crystallization:
  • 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 crystallization, 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 angel food 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.
There are some other tricks to keep ice cream soft, such as alcohol, starch, protein (in egg and milk), and natural stabilizers like guar gum and carageenan, but the top four above are the big factors at play.

Ice Cream vs. Gelato

Coffee ice cream at Ample Hills Creamery, NYC. Rich and creamy, but with noticeable fluff and body compared to gelato.
Compared to today's American-style ice cream (that's one made with egg yolks, as is basically the new standard in home recipes and commercial products), 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 fat content, by American labeling law, of at least 10% (considerably higher in most homemade and many premium versions). Gelato, by comparison, uses more milk than cream, so it doesn't have nearly as much fat. Additionally, it usually—but not always—uses fewer (to the point of none) egg yolks, another source of fat in custard-based ice creams.
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. The most 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 flavorful (those bites are a quarter to a half air!). Gelato is churned at a much slower speed, which introduces less air into the base—think whipping cream by hand instead of with a stand mixer. That's why it tastes more dense than ice cream—it is.
And what about sugar? Well, sugar levels vary wildly in ice cream andgelato 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 American-style ice cream. But you can make both ice cream and gelato in your machine—remember, air is only one of the differences between them.
Soft, dense gelato at L'arte del Gelato, NYC.
All 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 flavor 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 flavors come through direct, hard, and fast, then melt away clean. A good, flavorful ice cream can have just as intense a flavor, but you'll taste it differently. One isn't necessarily more flavorful 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 10°F; 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.

A Scoop by Any Other Name

The real ice cream question: 1 scoop, 2, or 20?
I've been following the common naming convention in this post, calling American-style ice cream "ice cream" and Italian-style "gelato." But here's the thing: gelato's just the Italian word for ice cream. Though it does stick to the tendencies I've pointed out above, individual recipes do vary. Some call for cornstarch, others for egg yolks; some use higher amounts of sugar and others use less.
But it's all ice cream, just how soft serve is just warmer, freshly churned ice cream, and frozen yogurt is just soft serve made with yogurt as the dairy base. Sure, we can quibble over names and definitions, but at the end of the day, it's all one happy frozen, creamy family. We can argue about differences, or we can sit down and dig in to a pint together? I know which I'd rather do.


The Italian word “gelato” is derived from a similar Italian word “congelato” which literally translates to English as ”frozen”. In Italy, the word “gelato” is used to describe any type of sweet iced confection.
However, gelato as it is made and presented in our gelaterias is what the Italians would refer to as “gelato artiganale” - artisan style gelato.
Artisan style gelato (or simply, artisan gelato) differs from commercially produced ice cream in the following ways:
AIR CONTENT: Air content of ice-cream (referred to as “overrun”) is usually much higher than that of good artisan gelato, which is around 20%. Whilst some air in the product is needed for structure and scoopability, too much air will leave it without flavour and body. Translation: less air = more intense flavour and value for money!
FAT CONTENT: Generally fat content of ice-cream is much higher than artisan gelato. This is usually due to a much higher cream content. Gelato includes dairy flavours, with around 7-8% fat content, as well as non-dairy flavours (generally referred to as “sorbets”), with zero fat content.
TEXTURE: Texture of good artisan gelato will always be much softer and smoother than traditional ice-cream.
SERVING TEMPERATURE: The serving temperature of artisan gelato is generally around -15°C or +5°F whereas the serving temperature of traditional ice cream is generally around -20°C or -4°F.
SERVING METHOD: Artisan gelato to take away is traditionally served with a spatula (one for each flavour), as opposed to a scooper which is the traditional take away ice-cream serving implement. This is to prevent cross-contamination of flavours as well as to prevent water droplets from forming in the gelato (a scooper needs to be washed between scoops).
PRODUCTION METHOD: Artisan gelato is made fresh on site in a small batch freezer whereas commercially produced ice cream is made in a central manufacturing facility in a large continuous freezer, stored and then shipped.

Let's be clear: we're not endorsing one or the other here. Whether you're enjoying ice cream on a roadside farm in the cow-speckled hills of Vermont, or a gelato on a cobbled street in Rome, you're doing pretty well. Both are significant achievements in dairy history and should be appreciated in their own way, so let's keep the which-is-better war at bay and debunk the technical distinctions. 
The difference depends upon three factors: fat, air and temperature. While ice cream is made with cream and must have at least a 10% fat content, gelato is made with mostly milk, so it's lower in fat. Ice cream also calls for egg yolks while gelato uses considerably fewer, if any at all.
Perhaps the most noticeable distinction between your cone of Moose Tracks and cup ofstracciatella is the difference in texture. This is due to the churning process and the amount of air whipped in. Ice cream is churned fast to let in air and pump up the volume, lending it a light, fluffy quality. Gelato is slow-churned, which causes it to be denser, milkier and slower to melt.
This bring us to temperature. Ice cream is served around 10 degrees F — any warmer and it will melt more quickly than you can keep up. But because gelato has less fat and air, it's served about 15 degrees cooler than its American cousin. If you're attempting to impress that attractive Italian don/donna you met on the street with this knowledge, just remember theFahrenheit/Celsius conversion to avoid confusion.
Question: What's the difference between gelato and ice cream?
Gelato is just the Italian word for ice cream, right? Is there really any difference between gelato and ice cream?
If you've ever visited Italy, you probably experienced creamy, delicious gelato. And maybe you assumed that the only reason it seemed richer and more intensely flavored than American ice cream back home was because you were enjoying it on the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome, rather than on your couch back home.
But there are actually a few main differences between gelato and ice cream. To find out, I asked Alon Balshan, owner of Alon's Bakery and Market in Atlanta, whose own gelato is quickly becoming a favorite among frozen-treat connoisseurs there.
Alon explained to me that while ice cream legally has a minimum of 10 percent fat, gelato is made with a greater proportion of whole milk to cream, so it contains more like five to seven percent fat.
But don't expect to be able to get Italian gelateria-style results by making a gelato recipe in your home ice cream machine: Alon also said that gelato is churned at a slower speed than ice cream, so it's denser because not as much air is whipped into the mixture. (Gelato contains about 25 to 30 percent air, while ice cream can contain as much as 50 percent air) Finally, while ice cream is typically served frozen, gelato is typically stored and served at a slightly warmer temperature, so it's not quite completely frozen.
As for that amazing, rich flavor, Alon says, "Since there's not as much fat in gelato, it doesn't coat the mouth in the same way. So the flavors are more intense."
But one thing ice cream and gelato do have in common: you won't be able to resist just one more scoop!


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