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What's the Difference Between Ice Cream and Gelato?

A frozen dessert is the perfect way to indulge during the hot days of summer, but in an icy landscape that runs from ice cream and gelato to sherbets, sorbets, and granitas, where do you start?

Ice cream multiple scoops by Meredith

Ice cream is only one option for frozen treats. Photo by Meredith

What's the Difference Between Ice Cream and Gelato?

Gelato hails from Italy and has a soft, elastic texture and slow-to-melt milkiness. Ice cream is thought to have originated in the mountains of China (using snow as a base) and is known for its rich, creamier body. Here is a run down on the key differences between ice cream and gelato. Consider this your perfect primer for a sweeter summer.

Gelato photo by Meredith

Photo by Meredith

Butterfat and Dairy

You’ve probably heard that gelato contains fewer calories and is therefore better for you, but why? Both ice cream and gelato are made with dairy products and both contain milk fat (called butterfat). Ice cream is made with a significantly higher ratio of cream to milk. The more significant fat content of ice cream is in large part credited for making gelato seem "healthier," and it’s also responsible for ice cream's firmer consistency and thick, luscious mouthfeel. All of that fat feels creamy and holds flavors in your mouth. Gelato, on the other hand, is made predominantly with milk, and lacks a high percentage of butterfat.

The Science of Creaminess

This excessive fat content is also responsible for holding air in a frozen dessert. Higher-fat ice creams seem light and fluffy, because the fat acts as a binding agent with the water molecules found in the milk, and creates a lighter density. This lightness allows for air to be present. Think about making homemade whip cream – cream turns into fluffy whipped mounds pretty quickly. If you tried to do the same with whole milk, you’d make very little progress. This texture makes ice cream feel deceptively less caloric, even though ice cream will typically contain a higher percentage of fat.

Because it has less fat to bind with water molecules, gelato is naturally denser. The dense weight and texture of gelato allows it to seem really rich when in reality, gelato has a lower butterfat content.

As a universally accepted rule of thumb, air is the primary differentiator between ice cream and gelato. Spoon to spoon, ice cream holds more air than its Italian counterpart.

Serving Temperature

The difference of densities, and therefore air, really show up in the serving. The air in ice cream means it can be frozen nearly solid and still be easy enough to scoop. Gelato, with its lower fat content, must be kept at a warmer temperature and served soft. If gelato were stored at the same low temps used to freeze ice cream, it would become an impenetrable block.

Flavors that Linger

So what does this all mean in terms of flavor? I put that question to a man who spends every day making ice cream, gelatos, and other frozen treats. “Because gelato doesn’t have much fat, (the flavor) washes away more quickly,” says Tyler Malek, head ice cream maker at the popular national ice cream company Salt & Straw. He opts for churning a gelato when using delicate flavors like fruit. “More fruity flavor comes through because it is not competing with the fat,” says Malek. Additionally, the density of gelato allows for more fruit flavor per spoonful. Conversely, ice cream is best for flavors you want to linger. “I love ice cream for holding strong, aromatic and richly flavored ingredients, because the extra fat helps carry the flavor through and hold it on your tongue for longer.”

Get Started Tasting! We have a world of frozen-treat recipes to explore.

 Salted Pecan Maple Ice Cream

This 5-star-rated recipe uses half and half, but some people substitute heavy cream for a more luscious mouthfeel.

Salted Pecan Maple Ice Cream by Deb C

Photo by Deb C


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Basic Gelato Recipe

Use this recipe as a base, then add vanilla, shaved chocolate, or your favorite fruits.

Gelato by lutzflcat

Photo by lutzflcat


Sorbets, Granitas, and Sherbets

If you're working with beautiful or delicate fruit, a sorbet might be in order. Sorbets are essentially made from just two ingredients: fruit and sugar. Same recipe for granitas, but instead of using an ice-cream machine, granitas are typically frozen in sheet pans, then scraped up in layers for a flaked-ice consistency.

To this mixture, add dairy (heavy cream or milk) and gelatin and you've arrived at sherbet (not "sherbert!"), a treat that's creamier than sorbet but still less dense than ice cream.

Watermelon Sherbet

An excellent way to make use of a mealy or overripe watermelon. "The lemon juice gives it just the right kick."

Watermelon Sherbet by Seattle2Sydney

Photo by Seattle2Sydney

Pineapple Orange Sorbet

Easy to make -- and fat free.

Pineapple Orange Sorbet by Amanda May

Photo by Amanda May


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About Amy Pennington