Since the time that Marco Polo brought back from the Far East the original recipe for ice cream, it has remained one of the culinary treats of Italy. This Italian frozen dessert may use some of the same ingredients as American-style ice cream but the final product is different. So what is gelato exactly?
Origins of gelato
Gelato is the Italian word for ice cream. Rumor has it that after Marco Polo returned with a sorbet-like recipe, it made its way to Florence. There, Cosimo Ruggieri invented a new-fangled creation called gelato for Catherine de Medici, before taking the recipe with her to France as the wife of Henry II in the 1500’s.
After that the next biggie was 16th century ice cream innovator, Bernardo Buontalenti who mixed in some milk and eggs and made it a bit creamier and it was off and running.
With Catherine’s help and that of the late 17th century, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, a Sicilian ice cream maker who opened Café Procope in Paris, gelato and ice cream was introduced to the rest of the Europe and then onto the United States in the 19th century when immigrants from around the world poured into the country.
Now it is beloved almost everywhere, from Northern Italy to Southern Italy!
How is gelato different from ice cream
Superficially gelato and traditional ice cream are pretty similar. The main ingredients are the same: cream, fresh milk, and sugar.
One main difference is that Italian ice cream is made with more whole milk and less cream, while ice cream uses more cream, so it has less butterfat. There are two ways to make American style ice cream: Philly-style with cream, milk, sugar, and flavorings and frozen custard which has a custard base of milk and egg yolks.
Generally authentic gelato is prepared without eggs, although a few homemade gelato recipes ca call for egg yolks to achieve a smoother texture without a machine and for natural emulsification.
How gelato is made
Apart from the different ingredients and proportions, both ice cream and gelato need to be churned to make it creamy and scoopable.. The dairy and sugar are combined, mixed evenly, and pasteurized. This is followed by blending in the flavorings and any additional ingredients.
The real difference lies in the speed of churning and the resulting amount of air that gets incorporated.
Gelato churning happens at a slower speed and it is made to freeze slowly for a dense, creamy texture. It usually contains 25 – 30% air. However, ice cream churning is done more quickly to fold in more air, resulting in a fluffy, light texture with at least 50% air. This also causes the volume to increase by a large percentage.
Air is a crucial ingredient in the making of ice cream. If it seems hard to believe that if a cup of ice cream melts and a cup of gelato melts separately; you’ll see there’s more gelato left than ice cream.
Texture and flavors
Italian gelato is warmer and slightly denser than ice cream, giving it a smoother, silkier consistency and a creamy texture than ice cream with its much higher fat content. The flavors are also more intense and come through more. Natural ingredients (like fresh fruit) are used in gelato recipes that bring in the flavors.
Unlike gelato, ice cream’s higher air content gives it a light and softer texture, while its higher butterfat content makes it less flavorful. This is because the butterfat coats your tongue first, taking your taste buds longer to detect the flavor.
Gelato is stored and served at a slightly warmer temperature (almost 10 – 15 degrees warmer) that isn’t completely frozen to keep its soft, creamier texture and bold flavors.
Gelato is usually eaten with a square spoon, smaller than the traditional round spoon used for ice creams. It can be served in a small dish, cone, or as an affogato in a cup (like a scoop of gelato flavored with espresso).
Have you visited an authentic Italian gelato shop and noticed how they scoop gelato? They use a flat spatula called a spade instead of a scoop.
There are tons of delicious gelato flavors, especially when you include their sorbet flavors as well. The traditional flavors vary from city to city, but you will always find Chocolate, Fior di Latte (the Italian version of vanilla), and a myriad of fruit flavors.
Where to get gelato
Thanks to the popularity of gelato worldwide, you can find it pretty much any grocery store. It’s usually small batch so look for it between the more commercial ice creams. If you live in a big city, like New York, London or Cape Town, gelato makers may have set up shop near you.
Even more FAQ about ice cream!
Is gelato gluten-free?
It depends on the recipe and the ingredients used. Traditional gelato made with milk, sugar, and fruit or nut flavorings is typically gluten-free. However, some gelato recipes may contain gluten-containing ingredients such as cookies or cake pieces.
Gelato brands to choose from
The cherry on top!
Regardless of the differences, ice cream and gelato are equally enjoyable sweet treats on any hot summer day. Go for some gelato if you want to feel Italian!
Where you can find gelato near you
Try ice cream in these places: