Updated: Mar 23
I am frequently asked to describe the difference between gelato and ice cream. This often happens sitting around our dining table when I’m serving gelato for dessert. Gelato and ice cream are both frozen, dairy-based sweets and that’s just about where the similarity ends.
In an effort to find an easy answer, I’ve heard people say that gelato has less fat than ice cream, or more sugar or less air. While often true, none of these statements marks a consistent difference between the two.
Gelato can have more fat than mass-market “supermarket” ice cream, and it almost certainly has less air. If you’ve ever allowed a container of mass-market ice cream to melt completely, you’ll see just how little liquid there is. The rest of the volume is air. I’ll bet you cannot find a container of mass-market ice cream that lists the weight of the contents. That would give away just how much air you’re buying.
However, the amount of air incorporated into super-premium ice cream is often similar to the amount of air in gelato, but super-premium ice cream almost always has more fat than gelato. As for sugar, there is an overlap between the amount of sugar in gelato and in ice cream.
Artisan gelato and super-premium ice cream are made from much the same ingredients, though the ice cream can contain some emulsifiers, stabilizers, colorants, and flavorings that aren’t natural and, therefore, would not be acceptable ingredients in artisan gelato.
Compared to ice cream, gelato is designed to be served at a warmer temperature, approximately –13°C (approximately 9°F). At that temperature, gelato should be smooth, creamy, dense, and somewhat soft. Because gelato is served at a warmer temperature than ice cream, the flavors are often more intense, as cold dulls the sense of taste. To the extent that gelato has less fat than ice cream (which, as I have noted, is often but not always true) flavors will be more intense still, as fat tends to “coat” the taste buds, thereby dulling flavors.
Super-premium ice cream is designed to be served at standard deep-freezer temperature, approximately -18°C (0°F). This is largely possible because the amount of fat keeps ice cream scoopable at a lower temperature. Even so, it’s not as creamy as gelato and the combined effects of more fat and a colder temperature tamp-down the flavor.
For me, the essence of gelato, and thus the difference between gelato and ice cream, comes down to the sensory experience: the consistency, the texture, the temperature, the appearance, and the intensity of flavor. Although they are made from similar ingredients, the experience of eating gelato is quite different from that of eating ice cream. Gelato is warmer, creamier, softer, and often more flavorful than ice cream.
Oh, and if you’re getting your “gelato” out of the freezer case at a supermarket or grocery store, it won’t be gelato in the Italian style. It’s just ice cream with a foreign name.