What’s the fuss? Gelato or Ice Cream, same same or different?

Growing up, even at the age when I could barely walk, “ice cream” would have been the highlight of pretty much any day. That doesn’t mean that I had a sad boring childhood, but so big was my love of “ice cream”. No… I wasn’t some fat kid constantly looking for the next sugar fix either.

Back in the day during my childhood, including the formative years of my upbringing, despite being a fussy eater, I didn’t make much of a differentiation between ice cream, gelato or any other frozen dessert. It was all “ice cream”. I either liked it or I didn’t, but back then it mainly depended on the flavour.
Nowadays I’m not such a picky eater anymore, but when it comes to “ice cream”, or also coffee (which is another story), I’m everything but easy to please and rather on the picky side. If an “ice cream” isn’t up to par it’s thrown out, as easy as that. Eating ice cream, or better yet gelato, should be an enjoyable experience, an experience to indulge in, and as some people know, an experience I can easily draw out and make it seem I had a serving triple the size of anyone else.

With turning into a bit of a snob when it comes to gelato and coffee, I have learned to differentiate between what’s out there, even if depending who I’m talking to I might still just use the generic term “ice cream”. To help others on the path of enlightenment, here’s a brief glossary of the terminology of frozen desserts. And yes, back to the title, there are some clear differences between ice cream and gelato!

Ice Cream
Looking at the name, it’s not too surprising that ice cream is a frozen food product containing cream. Milk is also often a key ingredient along with other sweeteners and flavourings. Up to 60% of the volume of a container of ice cream one buys is air. This means that if you buy one litre of ice cream, you could actually be buying up to 600ml of air! The light fluffy texture of ice cream is thanks to this air that is absorbed during the mixing process. In the U.S., based on the milk fat contained, ice cream is split into sub-categories, which I will not bore you with.

Despite gelato being the Italian word for ice cream it’s not the same thing. I will go into the differences between ice cream and gelato more later, but the key difference is that while ice cream contains up to 60% of air, the amount of air whipped into gelato is only 20%! A more intensely flavoured, denser and (arguably) more delicious dessert is the result.

Unlike ice cream and gelato, sorbet contains no milk or cream. It’s a frozen dessert typically made using puréed fruit, but increasingly more places also offer other sorbets such as coffee or chocolate. I’d expect in large parts, thanks to the vegan and lactose intolerant movements.

Very similar to sorbet, but granita is not whipped and ice crystals are allowed to form. It has a more granular appearance and a crunchy texture.

Like a sorbet this is a fruit based product, but milk is added for creaminess. But by law it can contain no more than 2% milk fat.

Frozen Yoghurt
Frozen yoghurt is a frozen dessert made with yoghurt and sometimes other dairy products. Due to using milk instead of cream frozen yoghurt has a lower fat content than ice cream.

Gelato vs Ice Cream
Slightly similar to the way artisanal coffee has become so popular, it’s gelato, ice cream’s handsome Italian stepbrother that has been making waves in more countries than just Italy. While I was in London (2004 – 2010) for example, there were barely any gelaterias to speak of and for me Scoop (2007) clearly stood out. However now watching from afar, I believe the gelateria density in London has increased significantly. Partly, the growing popularity of gelato is because it’s novel. And, in line with the foodie movement, people think of gelato as something special made by artisans in a small boutique kitchen or lab, and strictly in small batches.
Without becoming too scientific and hypothesizing about things such as different forms of sugar, here are six secrets (not so secret really) on how to differentiate between gelato and ice cream.

gelato-v-ice-cream1) Fat. With more cream comes more milk fat. Most ice cream tends to have a fat content between 14 and 25%. On the other hand Italian gelato only has approx. 4 – 8% fat.

2) Gelato is creamier, softer, smoother and denser than ice cream. Despite having less fat, the reason for gelato being creamier is that it has significantly less air whipped in during a slower churning process than ice cream. Due to having less milk fat, gelato is lighter and therefore requires less air.

3) Recipe & ingredients. Gelato and ice cream both contain cream, milk and sugar. While these ingredients are the same, ice cream tends to contain a lot more cream. Gelato uses more milk than cream. To hold the ice cream mixture together egg yolks are used a lot more than with gelato, where they often aren’t used at all. Gelato is also more likely to have “real” ingredients such as fresh fruit and nut purees.

4) Temperature. Typically if served correctly, fresh from your local artisan gelateria, the serving temperature of gelato is higher than that of ice cream. If gelato is frozen really cold in a conventional freezer, it becomes rock hard. Gelato is typically frozen at around -10C, giving it a lovely soft consistency. Ice cream is frozen closer to -20C. This also has an impact on the flavour. Ice cream tends to have a less intense flavour as the cold fat coats the tongue and blocks the taste. Gelato melts more quickly allowing the flavour to come through directly and far more intense.

5) Serving style: spatula vs scoop. The serving style is a result of some of the factors mentioned above. Gelato, being served at a warmer temperature, is usually served with a spatula. Ice cream being thicker and heavier due to the higher milk fat content, can easily be served as nice, round and firm scoops.

6) Shelf life. Gelato should be consumed as fresh as possible, ideally within a few days. On the other side, it’s common that ice cream lasts for a few months.

Thanks to Cape Town’s Moro Gelato for highlighting the key differences between gelato and ice cream in a more visually pleasing manner.

Reading between the lines, it’s probably easy to see who’s my favourite. Who do your place your money on? Gelato, ice cream or an outsider?


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