Gelato is Italian for ice cream, right? Well, not exactly. True, they are both dairy, they are both cold, and they are both desserts, but the similarities end there.
For starters, they look different, with true gelato resembling something more like frozen yogurt than ice cream, and in many displays, it looks like flavored whipped cream. Here’s some more detailed, delicious insight into the two treasured desserts:
American vs. Italian Ice Cream
American ice cream, we all know, has a pretty high milk fat content. Legally in the United States, a product must have 10% fat to use the label “ice cream.” Higher quality brands of ice cream have about 18% fat, which makes for a delicious ice cream, but a pretty pathetic gelato.
Gelato has a much higher milk to cream ratio. This means that the milk fat content is much, much lower, usually in the vicinity of 4% or so. The fat content difference influences the taste as well as your waistline. The fat in ice cream coats the tongue and saturates the taste buds, while gelato does not coat the taste buds as much, which allows the flavors to be stronger with a great depth of flavor.
Another key difference is the amount of incorporated air during churning. Ice cream can have 50% or so, while gelato only has about 25% trapped air. This is mostly due to the speed of the churning process, as gelato is churned slower, and this density has a decided impact on the texture and the flavor of the product.
Differences in Flavor and Texture
Regarding the flavor and texture, gelato should not be grainy. Ever. It should have a creamy texture that invites the flavor to develop and dance on the tongue. Usually this means that the mixture should have a chance to rest, allowing for the maximum development of flavor.
Ice cream is served frozen and gelato should be served slightly warmer. This allows the fats to mingle with the water, but not to freeze, which enhances the flavors. In fruit flavors, this can be a challenge.
Sadly, as home it is not possible to create gelateria-style gelato in an ice cream maker by just changing the ingredients. This is where the use of gelato makers come in. Gelato makers are different because they are designed to mix the ingredients at a speed which needs to be slower, so as not to incorporate too much air.
Northern vs. Southern Italy
Northern Italian gelato is predominantly milk and cream-based, while in Southern Italy, water-based fruit flavored gelatos are more common. This difference has been around for a few centuries and is nothing new. Fruit gelato offers the intense fruit flavors associated with sorbet, but the delightful creamy goodness of frozen yogurt–only much better.
Using Fresh Fruit in Gelato
When making gelato traditionally, it is important to use real fresh fruit and not fruit flavoring or syrup. If there is no time to chop the fruit up, simply pop it in a food processor for a fast way to prepare the fruit. There are some fruits that do work better than others in gelato; fruits that puree easily work the best, while others such as coconut can be considerably harder.
Using real fruit is a classic example of the importance of quality food in Italian cooking. The basic recipes are usually very simple but require high quality ingredients to yield the best results. This goes along with a great many other Italian dishes, such as pasta or panna cotta–simple to make but can either be breathtakingly amazing when done properly or a dismal failure.
While Americans in general love ice cream, if gelato was more well-known here, it would probably outpace the demand for ice cream in the summer. I know that personally, as much as I enjoy the ice cream truck trundling down my street with frozen confections, I would much prefer the Italian version: a gelato cart. That would be truly amazing. Relaxing at home and enjoying a skillfully-made gelato on a summer day–indeed–it would be a slice of heaven.
To use a common quote, “What is better than ice cream? Gelato!” and it really is very true.
Photo by missyjane20