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Defining Gelato and Ice Cream
Both gelato and ice cream are churned when they are initially frozen. This process is what adds air to the desserts and increases volume. It is also a point at which both desserts differ considerably. When prepared traditionally, gelato is churned by hand, and therefore slowly, and contains little air (25-30%) compared to ice cream (usually 50-70%). The smaller percentage of air is what makes gelato so much smoother and denser than ice cream, which is lighter and more textured. However, the industrial production of gelato is becoming more common, which may increase the air content in some brands. Artificial coloring and flavoring have also become more common in modern gelato. Italy is the only country in the world where the majority of gelato is still made by hand.
In the U.S., the FDA requires commercially-produced ice cream to consist of at least 10% milk fat, 20% nonfat milk solids, and less than 1.4% egg yolks (more requires a custard label). It also must weigh at least 4.5lbs per gallon, which effectively limits how much air can be put into a product. Meanwhile, there is no legal standard for gelato in the U.S. In Italy, all gelato must consist of at least 3.5% milk fat, and most gelatis contain 4-8% milk fat. The heavy use of milk, rather than cream, in gelato means it has less fat.
The nutritional content of gelato and ice cream varies depending on a number of factors, such as the type of milk (e.g., skim milk or whole milk), sugar (e.g., honey or sugar), and flavoring (e.g., fruits or artificial flavors) used. Gelato is milk-based instead of cream-based, which makes it much lower in fat and calories than most non-low-fat ice cream, but gelato also uses more sugar to prevent ice crystallization. Both desserts contain roughly 13-15% of the recommended daily intake of calcium.
Gelato may initially seem like the healthier dessert, but this can be deceptive. Because gelato is denser (has less air) than ice cream, a 100g (3.5oz) scoop of gelato contains more of its ingredients than a 100g scoop of ice cream, meaning serving sizes can be especially important when it comes to gelato. It is easier to find reduced fat options in ice creams.
Finding gelato that uses healthy ingredients can be difficult, but coloring goes a long way to revealing the truth. Gelato that uses real, natural ingredients is less likely to be brightly-colored. For example, banana gelato that uses real bananas will appear greyish in color, while artificially-flavored banana gelato will be yellow. Thanks to food labeling regulations on ice cream in the U.S., it is easier to find ice cream that uses healthier ingredients.
Gelato bought in a grocery store is rarely, if ever, made in the traditional way and often contains cream and more milk fat in the same way that ice cream does. Gelato may or may not contain less air in the U.S. since there are no laws regulating gelato ingredients or quality.
While it is possible to find naturally flavored ice cream, ice cream is more likely to use artificial flavors and artificially-flavored candies than gelato is. Vanilla, chocolate, fruit, and nut flavors are popular in both gelato and ice cream. Chunks of chocolate, fruit, and nuts are common in ice cream, while purees are generally used in gelato. In Italy, gelato can be found paired with a wide variety of ingredients, including rice, ricotta cheese, vegetables, liquorice, and herbs and spices.
Regardless of flavor, gelato will taste “heavier” than ice cream. Its density means each bite contains more of its core ingredients. Chocolate gelato, for example, is much richer than chocolate ice cream.
How to Make Gelato and Ice Cream
At home, gelato and ice cream can be made by hand or with the help of a machine. Making gelato and ice cream by hand is time-consuming and has become increasingly rare. Small, affordable kitchen appliances known as gelato makers and ice cream makers can be used to more quickly make gelato and ice cream at home.
Traditionally prepared gelato is intended to be stored above freezing and eaten within days, while ice cream is intended to be stored at or below freezing and can keep for months.
Additional sugar in gelato helps prevent ice crystallization in a freezer, as will covering open containers with plastic wrap along with their lids. Gelato stored in a freezer will be firmer than what might be purchased at a gelateria. For softer gelato and ice cream at home, keep the dessert’s container in the freezer door, rather than in the main freezer compartment.
Both ice cream and gelato are popular dessert choices. Ice cream is perhaps more versatile than gelato, however, and is found in milkshakes, in sundaes, and atop slices of cake or pie. Ice cream parlors and geleterie specialize in serving these desserts, which can be eaten in store, taken out, or bought for home consumption.
Frozen desserts have been popular for thousands of years and date back to ancient Asian, Middle Eastern, and Roman cultures. Fruit juices and purees were poured onto chunks of snow or ice, creating a sort of sorbet. Adding in other ingredients, such as cream, came later, and there is great debate over who did this first.
Gelato entered the scene in Florence, Italy, in the late 1500s, when the Medici family commissioned the famous architect Bernardo Buontalenti to manage a feast for the king of Spain. Buontalenti invented gelato in the process.
Despite ice cream and gelato’s long histories, the terms for these desserts developed relatively recently. Ice cream, as a term, did not exist until the early- to mid-1700s (developing off of the 1600s’ “iced cream”), and though the frozen dessert now known as gelato had its beginnings in the 1500s, it wasn’t until the 1900s that Italians began calling it gelato after the Italian word for “frozen.”
- 12 Things You Never Knew About Italy – Johnny Jet
- Bernardo Buontalenti, first inventor of the gelato – Fantastic Florence
- Gelato Word History – Online Etymology Dictionary
- History – WhyGelato.com
- Ice Cream History Notes – The Food Timeline
- Ice Cream Word History – Online Etymology Dictionary
- Italian Gelato Flavors Decoded – WhyGo Italy
- Requirements for Specific Standardized Frozen Desserts (PDF) – Code of Federal Regulations
- Twenty favourite Italian gelato flavours – PocketCultures
- Wikipedia: Geography of ice cream
- Wikipedia: Gelato
- Wikipedia: Ice cream