The difference between gelato and ice cream
We are often asked "what is the difference between gelato and ice cream?"
Gelato is the Italian word for ice cream, so you could argue that gelato and ice cream are the same. However we all know that there’s a big difference between the soft, smooth texture and clean taste of gelato compared to American-style ice cream's heavier, richer texture?
So why the difference? It comes down to these factors: fat, sugar, air and serving temperature.
Firstly, let us explain how all ice cream/gelato is made. All ice cream is mostly water, and as we all know as water freezes it forms hard, crunchy ice crystals. The goal of ice cream making is keeping those crystals as small as possible through added ingredients and technique (and of course creating great flavour!). Ice cream makers manage this crystallisation in the following ways:
Fat - If fat (ie milk or cream) is emulsified into the base mix it becomes mixed in between the water molecules and literally gets in the way of ice as it freezes.
Sugar - This also forms a physical barrier to the crystallisation process. When sugar is dissolved into water it forms a syrup which has a lower freezing point than plain water and the higher the concentration of sugar the lower the freezing point becomes. As water starts to freeze in a syrup the unfrozen water becomes a more concentrated syrup. With reducing temperatures this process continues until eventually you have small ice crystals in a syrup so concentrated it will never freeze
Air - This is incorporated into ice cream during the churning process. A more aerated ice cream has a fluffier, less dense texture.
The temperature ice cream is stored at also has effect: colder ice creams are harder and more solid, while warmer ones are softer, with a looser texture. We’ll talk about this more later on.
There are some other tricks to keep ice cream soft, such as alcohol, starch, protein (in egg and milk), and natural stabilisers like guar gum and carageenan, but the top four above are the main factors for all ice creams.
The difference between ice cream and gelato
Compared to today's American-style ice cream gelato has less fat in the base and less air churned into it during the freezing process.
American-style ice creams are generally heavy on cream, and have a fat content of at least 10% (which can be considerably higher in most homemade and many premium versions).
Gelato uses more milk than cream, so it doesn't have nearly as much fat.
American-style ice creams are churned quickly to whip in plenty of air (called overrun) which is helped by the high proportion of cream in the base. Most luxury ice creams have an overrun of around 25% which means they've increased the mix in volume by 25%. Cheaper commercial versions can run from 50% to over 90%, which gives them a light, thin, fast-melting texture with less flavour as in reality you are eating mostly air!
Gelato is churned at a much slower speed, which introduces less air into the base. So, you get more pleasure per mouthful with gelato!
All these differences give gelato a dense, milky texture that's less creamy than the fat heavy American-style ice creams.
Gelato has a more intense flavour than ice cream, since it has less cold fat that coats the tongue and gets in the way of tasting things. Gelato's flavours come through directly and quickly then melt away, leaving a clean mouth.
So if gelato has less fat and air than ice cream, you may wonder why it isn’t hard? It's because of the last big factor; temperature.
Gelato is best served at a slightly higher temperature than ice cream. If you freeze gelato really cold, it will become very hard. However, when it is ‘warmer’ it has a perfect soft consistency. If you stored ice cream at the same warmer temperature, it would melt and become watery as the high fat in water emulsion would melt too fast.
That’s why we recommend that our gelato is best eaten in store, as it is freshly made and held and served at the correct temperature. If you do wish to take away a litre of our ice cream to enjoy at home, we suggest you let the gelato stand for 30 minutes after removing from the freezer in order for it to ‘warm up’ to the correct serving temperature.