No matter where you are from, you probably enjoy a delicious, sweet, frozen treat from time to time. Every variety of frozen treat offers a cool, delicious, indulgent experience that can help you escape from the banality of everyday life. That said, every region has a frozen treat of choice. For many, the choice is creamy, traditional ice cream. For others, gelato may be preferable. Both offer a wide variety of flavors, both are frozen, and both words mean basically the same thing. In fact, gelato is the Italian word for ice cream. Despite these similarities, gelato and ice cream are not the same thing. There are quite a few differences between the two.
How Frozen Treats Are Made
Both ice cream and gelato are technically made using the same process. As much as its name begs to differ, ice cream is actually mostly water. When water freezes, it becomes hardened crystals of ice that are crunchy. If you want to make ice cream smooth and creamy, you need to keep the ice crystals (on the molecular level) as small as possible. This is accomplished by using a combination of both technique and additional ingredients. These details are what distinguishes ice cream and gelato from snow cones. Four essential ingredients keep the ice cream from becoming snow cone material:
- Air – In order to make ice cream or gelato, air needs to be incorporated into the mixture as it is being churned. In the absence of air, the mixture becomes dense and lacks the fluff associated with the best ice creams and gelatos.
- Fat – In ice cream and gelato, fat is added in the form of milk and cream. The fat acts as a barrier between the water molecules, which helps to create a finer, softer, frozen mixture.
- Sugar – Much like fat, sugar acts to prevent the water molecules from freezing together. When sugar is mixed with water, a syrup is formed. This makes the freezing point of the water much lower. As the water freezes, the syrup continues to become more concentrated. As the syrup becomes more concentrated, the freezing point lowers to the point where the ice cream will not freeze. This sugar sticks in between the ice molecules.
- Temperature – While not technically an ingredient, storage temperature impacts the texture of ice cream significantly. The colder the storage temperature, the more solid the ice cream becomes. At warmer temperatures, ice cream has a looser, softer texture.
There are a few other, secondary ingredients that can impact the texture of ice cream and gelato as well. Alcohol, proteins, starches, and natural stabilizers can all help keep ice cream soft and creamy.
Differences of Gelato vs. Ice Cream
So, which of the above ingredients are key in making gelato different from ice cream? The simple answer is all of them.
- Gelato contains much less fat in the ice cream base and relies less on churning air into the mixture during the process of freezing it. While ice cream relies on large amounts of cream and has a fat content of at least 10%, gelato makers prefer to use milk.
- Ice cream makers rely on quick, heavy churning, which results in a greater amount of air being added to the mixture. The fat in the mixture helps to make this possible. In general, the churning process for ice cream adds 50% more volume, on average, to the mixture. This high air content results in a thin, light (density wise) ice cream. Gelato, on the other hand, is slow churned and has significantly less air mix in. This means that each bite has more actual gelato, as opposed to added air.
- Gelato is generally served at a temperature slightly higher than ice cream. This prevents it from feeling hard like ice cream. Ice cream can be served at a colder temperature because the high fat and air content keep it from hardening too much. If ice cream were served at the same temperature as gelato, it would quickly melt.
These differences do not necessarily make one better than the other. They are both excellent treats to enjoy on a hot summer day, and both can be made with any variety of flavors and mix-ins to fit the tastes of anyone.