What Is Gelato—and How's It Different From Ice Cream?

Updated 01/09/18
what is gelato
Fashion Me Now

Whether you’re strolling through your local high-end fashion mall or finishing off a meal at your favorite Italian ristorante, there’s nothing like an ice-cold bowl of gelato to satisfy your sweet tooth and make you feel as though you’re kicking back in some historic Roman piazza. Okay, maybe that’s stretching it a bit, but you get the idea. There’s something special about gelato. It’s nothing like the run-of-the-mill chocolate, strawberry, rocky road, or other assorted ice creams that are hastily scooped out of cold trays at your local sweet shop.

It’s something else entirely. But what is it? What gives gelato its signature firmness and sweetness that can’t be found in any other dessert? And more importantly, is it actually ice cream at all?

Read on to discover the surprising truths about everyone’s favorite Italian indulgence.

Gelato: A History

You may have assumed that gelato originated in Italy, but its origins are a bit more complicated than that. Human beings have been crafting desserts made from snow, ice, and fruit for centuries, and so it’s hard to pinpoint an exact origin. Gelato as we understand it is generally traced back to 1686. That’s when Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, an Italian chef and restaurateur, invented the first fully operational ice cream machine.

But while Procopio was in fact from Sicily, he was living in France when he popularized the treat. Adapting a technology that was started by his grandfather, he devised a method for combining snow with honey and fruit juices. His gelato became a huge sensation. The modern gelato craze started around the 1920s, when the first gelato cart was established in the Italian city of Varese. Today, there are thousands of gelato stands and parlors all across the world.

How's Gelato Different From Ice Cream?

It’s one thing to know where it came from, but how does gelato actually differ from conventional ice cream? For starters, gelato is served at a warmer temperature than ice cream. Despite this, it remains colder longer because it has less fat and it’s churned with less air. Ice cream is churned rapidly, which gives it that smooth, creamy texture. It also means that ice cream melts faster. Gelato is churned slowly, so it has only 25% air compared to American ice cream’s 40% to 50%.

Taste-wise, gelato is less creamy but more milky and firm. The flavor tends to be bolder since there’s less air and more density. In terms of sweetness, it really depends on the supplier. Though gelato is lower in fat (typically five to seven percent compared to 10% in conventional ice cream), the sugar content depends on the recipe. Some gelato makers like to run wild with the sugar, while others prefer a more subtle sweetness. Regardless of how you like it, we can all agree that gelato is in a class of its own.

Ice cream is great on the go, but if you’re looking to make your own ice cream at home, see how to make it from scratch.

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