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Gelato vs. Ice Cream

July 21, 2008

Many manufacturers will make their own version of Italian gelato and slap a label on the box claiming its authenticity, but in reality, the majority of these “gelato” producers are only perpetuating the misunderstanding that ice cream and the term gelato can be used interchangeably. True gelato is unique from ice cream, not only in how it is made but also in its flavor and texture.

Gelato in an Italian gelateria

Gelato in an Italian gelateria

Gelato literally means frozen, but it isn’t frozen like ice cream, as gelato uses a forced air freezer, holding the temperature a constant 0-6°F (a good 10-15°F warmer than American ice cream), which keeps it at a semi-frozen consistency as opposed to being too frozen. This allows the gelato to maintain a creamier texture than the more solid ice cream. Machines used to make gelato churn very slowly (usually in an up and down motion while the container with the gelato turns this needs to move up higher per note above), keeping a significant amount of air out of the finished product. Gelato typically has 35 percent less air than ice cream, creating a denser and creamier texture. By adding air to their product, American, and non-Italian European, ice cream producers get nearly double the quantity but at the cost of quality. Gelato is made with whole cow’s milk, containing only 4 to 8 percent butterfat (significantly lower than American ice creams’ 18 to 26 percent). Less fat allows the flavorings of chocolate, hazelnut, or coffee to shine through. Since gelato ingredients are not homogenized together and it uses less butterfat, it melts quicker than ice cream.

Ice cream

Ice cream

Gelato is markedly different depending on the region in Italy. In northern Italy, the gelato is typically made with egg yolk, making it extremely rich and creamy. Northern Italian gelato makers are famous for their hazelnut and chocolate flavors. Gelato in southern Italy is typically made with water instead of dairy products, with a lighter final product. This is called sorbetto and is usually found in citrus fruit flavors which mix best with water.

Since even the best American gelato can’t compare to Italian gelato, we can conclude that in order to have true gelato, you must have the perfect combination of technique and ingredients—something the Italians mastered centuries ago and is not soon to be duplicated, in spite of our greatest efforts. Come with me as I look for the best American gelato in the Bay Area. And, if you have any suggestions of places I should check out, leave me a note, and I’ll be sure to add it to my list.

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