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Ask Paul: What is the Difference Between Ice Cream and Gelato?

No, gelato is not just the Italian word for ice cream.
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Published Apr. 27, 2021.

Valerie asks: The freezer at the supermarket has pints of ice cream and pints of gelato. I read that gelato has less fat—but I also read that gelato has more fat. Is there really a difference?

You’re in Italy. You go to a gelateria. A glass display case holds a few dozen pastel-colored flavors ready to be spooned out. Easily spooned out with a flat paddle, you notice. That’s because the cooler runs at a modest 12°F; cold, but at least 10 degrees warmer than home or supermarket pint freezers.

Serving at such a mild temperature means gelato melts right away in the mouth, releasing its intense flavor quickly. It’s also typically made no more than a couple of days in advance; fast turnover and simple ingredients give it a fresh, refreshing appeal.

American ice cream is different in several ways: It’s churned until it as much as doubles in volume, turning airy and fluffy. It’s also typically served a fair bit colder, stiff enough to stand up on a cone, and requires some warm-up time in the mouth before it melts in its luxurious, creamy way. The flavor it imparts is thus richer, more gradual to emerge, and longer-lingering.

To that end, ice cream formulations contain more of the ingredients that keep a dessert soft at roughly zero-degree freezer temperatures: fat and sugar. To qualify for the name “ice cream,” a frozen treat must contain a minimum of 10 percent fat, and some brands have twice that. And, because sugar tastes less sweet at colder temperatures, ice cream often contains more sugar than classic Italian gelato.

But we’re not in Italy; we’re in your grocer’s freezer, and the conditions are different. The temperature is at or below 0°F, and gelateria-style gelato, with its lower proportion of fat, would be as hard as an ice cube. So gelato that’s sold in pints is formulated differently, with more fat and sugar so it’s scoopable straight from the freezer – that is to say, formulated more like ice cream. Thus, the distinction becomes a little less clear, and the products overlap a bit.

To assess a pint you’ve bought, regardless of what it says on the label, set a scoop of it in a bowl on the counter. If it slowly subsides into a creamy soup, it’s definitely ice cream. If it quickly slumps into a thin milk, it’s on the gelato end of the spectrum. (Unfortunately, this test destroys the dessert.)

There’s homemade ice cream hanging out in my freezer most of the time. But when I want gelato instead, I prepare the liquid base (milk, a little cream, fruit puree or other flavor, sugar) and keep it handy in the refrigerator for up to a week. Then, when the occasion or the mood strikes, I can have gelato with no more than 30 minutes notice: I churn just enough of that cool base to serve, and I serve it straight out of the canister, or after no more than a couple of hours in the freezer to firm up.

Ask Paul Adams, senior science research editor, about culinary ambiguities, terms of art, and useful distinctions: paul@americastestkitchen.com.

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