What is the difference between ice cream and gelato?

As summer approaches, the gradually warming weather and bright sun makes many of us think about screaming for ice cream. Hot days tempered with cool, creamy, milky, flavorful ice cream…few things could be better. However, these days many more of us are instead “urlando per gelato” which means “screaming for ice cream” in Italian. “Wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “‘Gelato’ literally translates to ‘ice cream’ in Italian? Aren’t they two totally different things?” With the number of corner gelato stores that have popped up all across the country, one would think that gelato is a completely different beast from ice cream—after all, if it’s the same name, shouldn’t it be the same product? But there are a number of differences between American ice cream and Italian gelato, and some of them may surprise you.

chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream cones

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To start, let’s review the basic components of American-style ice cream. At its core, ice cream consists of three main ingredients: cream, sugar, and air. Of course there are variations on the basics, such as the additions of flavorings, stabilizers such as guar gum, and eggs. All the ingredients are churned together quickly and repeatedly at very cold temperatures to add air which makes it light and creamy, and also prevents ice crystals forming when the water content begins to freeze. By law, U.S. ice cream that’s not labeled as low-fat must contain at least 10 percent milkfat—and many contain much more than 10 percent—which is why nobody would ever mistake it for a health food. Also, depending on the style, the air content could be upwards of 50 percent. That means when you eat ice cream, it’s possible that only half of what you put in your mouth are the actual physical ingredients. More premium-quality ice cream should have less air, while basic brands will have more. Just remember, the air content doesn’t mean you can eat an entire pint in one sitting and think it only counts for half a pint. Still not a health food.

different flavors of gelato

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While gelato is made in a similar fashion, its proportions of everything are different. Gelato isn’t subject to the same butterfat requirements, so most gelato uses cream with a higher milk content and lower butterfat content, generally under 10 percent. You’re probably surprised by this: Many think that in an apples-to-apples comparison, gelato is fattier and more caloric because of its thicker, creamier consistency and more intense flavors. You can actually thank the air content for that little trick, though; gelato is churned much more slowly, introducing less air so it’s more dense. Because there’s less fat and, therefore, it is already lighter, lots of additional air isn’t necessary to produce that creamy mouthfeel. Additionally, while ice cream, because of the higher air and milkfat content, has to add more sugar to ensure more expressive flavors, gelato needs less sugar to help the flavors come through. That’s why gelato often seems to have more potent, authentic flavors. Also, gelato is stored and served at a warmer temperature than ice cream, making the texture much softer and creamier. Just think of all the times you’ve pulled a tub of ice cream out of the freezer and let it sit on the counter for five minutes to soften up enough to scoop, while you hover expectantly with your spoon. Gelato needs no such wait time.

Less fat? Less air? More flavors? Less softening time? For some, gelato is a clear winner in the ice cream department. However, personal preference always reigns supreme. If you’ve never tried gelato, go for a traditional flavor such as stracciatella (vanilla with hardened chocolate syrup on top) or pistachio. But nowadays you can find flavors as varied as strawberry, limoncello, and even tiramisu, so you’re bound to find something pleasing to your palate.

If you have an ice cream maker, there is some debate about whether or not you can use it to make truly authentic gelato. It would be a little harder because of the slower churn and the temperature differences. But if you’re looking to try, or to at least have some options on how you can incorporate either ice cream or gelato into everyday recipes, look no further than below, and scream—or “urlare”—away!

Espresso Gelato

espresso gelato

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Espresso? Gelato? Could you get more Italian? This recipe is a great example of make-at-home gelato, which does require an ice cream maker. It’s also a great example of how gelato often gets its intense flavor: not only from the add ins, but the expressive chunks of fruit, cookies, or—as in in this case—espresso beans sprinkled throughout. You’ll need a lot of time to bring this together, but the results mean you get your after-dinner coffee and dessert in one fell swoop. Get our Espresso Gelato recipe.

Toasted Pecan Gelato

toasted pecan gelato

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Don’t want the caffeine high after dinner from the espresso gelato? Try this toasted pecan for a totally different flavor, and fewer steps to get to the end result. Toasted pecan is also a fantastic flavor to add on top of apple pie or with a few cookies. Get our Toasted Pecan Gelato recipe.

Maple Ice Cream

maple ice cream

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Super decadent, maple ice cream will go great on its own with just a spoon, or topped onto waffles instead of maple syrup. Have you read this far and gotten frustrated with not having an ice cream maker? The Chowhound community gives some great hacks and workarounds for those without that gadget in the comments section. Get our Maple Ice Cream recipe.

Chocolate-Dipped Cookies-and-Cream Ice Cream Bars

chocolate-dipped cookies and cream ice cream bars

Chowhound

Want a decadent ice cream treat without having to make the ice cream? Check out these fancy ice cream bars, dipped into luscious chocolate for a hand-held snack. Note the request to use premium ice cream: Remember, the higher the quality, the less air getting in the way of your flavor bomb. Or substitute for a delicious gelato which will automatically have lower air content. Get our Chocolate-Dipped Cookies-and-Cream Ice Cream Bars recipe.

Basic Bananas Foster

bananas Foster

Chowhound

Even easier than the ice cream bars, but with more of a dramatic effect, wow guests at your next dinner party with Bananas Foster flambé. No Bananas Foster recipe is complete without vanilla ice cream, so grab some premium vanilla bean from the local store or use the link to make your own. Get our Basic Bananas Foster recipe.

Mochi Ice Cream

red bean mochi ice cream

Chowhound

Mochi are traditional Japanese rice cakes made out of glutinous rice that’s been formed into a paste. It’s commonly filled with ice cream, and this recipe specifically includes my favorite kind, red bean. Don’t be alarmed by the word “bean” here, it’s even more delicious than vanilla bean. If red bean isn’t your thing, you can use green tea ice cream or really any flavor you want. Get our Mochi Ice Cream recipe.

Drunken Affogato

drunken coffee ice cream affogato

Chowhound

Affogato, which is traditionally ice cream drowned in espresso, gets a grown-up makeover in this recipe by swapping out the espresso with a liqueur. Because the flavor combinations are endless, this is an excellent dish for using an exciting gelato instead of ice cream. Get our Drunken Affogato recipe.

Header image by Chowhound, using images by iShift/Shutterstock and JM Travel Photography/Shutterstock.

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