In America, ice cream is as quintessential as hot dogs and apple pie. But if someone says “gelato,” we are suddenly riding a Vespa through cobblestone streets in Rome, dipping our toes in the Trevi Fountain. Gelato is a uniquely Italian treat, but is it really that much different from the ice cream we have come to love in the United States?
What is Ice Cream?
Even though ice cream is insanely popular in the United States—the average American eats about 4 gallons of ice cream a year—it has a long and storied history throughout Europe. References to ice cream date back as far back as the 17th century in places like France and England. Ice cream was introduced to the Americas by immigrating Quakers and quickly became a big hit. It was so popular, in fact, that George Washington dropped a whopping $200 in 1790 money for an entire summer’s worth of ice cream (that’s over $6,000).
At its core, ice cream is a frozen dessert of milk or cream, sugar, and some kind of flavoring. Today, many producers use liquid nitrogen to freeze their ice creams and some ice creams contain stabilizing agents for a firmer structure.
What is Gelato?
The creation of gelato is often credited to alchemist Cosimo Ruggieri, a Florentine alchemist, astrologer, and purported practitioner of black magic. He entered his fior di latte (milk-flavored, essentially) gelato into a competition hosted by Catherine de’ Medici called The Most Unique Dish That’s Ever Been Seen. And he won. From these mystic beginnings, gelato proliferated throughout Italy and into France.
Gelato has the same primary ingredients as ice cream: milk, sugar, and flavoring. It also has a wide variety of add-ins, though they tend to be simpler than ice cream. Classic gelato flavors include stracciatella (chocolate chip), vanilla, chocolate, hazelnut, and pistachio, or fruity flavors like raspberry, strawberry, and lemon.
So, what is the difference between gelato and ice cream?
While very similar, there are a few core differences between ice cream and gelato. Gelato uses more milk than cream, while ice cream has a higher cream content. Not surprisingly, this results in ice cream having a creamier taste than its Italian counterpart.
There’s also a difference in the two desserts’ butterfat content. The milk/cream mixture of ice cream has to contain at least 10% butterfat, and can be as high as 25% in certain brands. Gelato has less than 10% butterfat, sometimes as low as 4%. The higher fats in ice cream tend to dilute the added flavors so, by comparison, gelato flavors seem richer and more intense.
Gelato also has much less air in it than ice cream, which makes it far more dense. In addition, gelato is served at a higher temperature, which enhances the taste—the warmer the food, the better our tongues are able to taste it.
One big different in how you serve the two frozen treats is you are NEVER supposed to scoop gelato. It is always served with a spade. If you try to scoop it, the dark spirit of Cosimo Ruggieri will haunt you forever.