When summer comes, there’s nothing we like better than a sweet ice cream treat. Whether it’s piled high in gelato cups, licked off the waffle cone, sipped up through paper straw, or slowly carried to our mouth with colored spoons, Americans will consume enormous amounts of ice cream this summer. About 90% of the country’s households regularly eat ice cream or some other kind of frozen treats, and in any two week period, 40% of Americans will be eating ice cream. For some of us, the names are all the same. Frozen custard, soft serve, ice cream, gelato: is there really a difference? Does it matter whether were putting it into gelato cups or frozen yogurt cups? The cups may be mostly the same, but what we put in them is not. While some types of frozen dessert are pretty easy to distinguish (ice cream and frozen yogurt are demonstratively different, for example, and most people would never confuse sorbet for gelato) other types of desserts can be more difficult to distinguish. Gelato and ice cream are both sweet, creamy, and rich. Some people can tell the difference between them, but not everyone can. Some shops seem to refer to them as if they were the same thing. Is there a difference, and what is it?
- Is there a taste difference? Some people swear that what they’re spooning up out of gelato cups definitely taste denser and milky than ice cream, but with a very soft texture. Ice cream, meanwhile, feels richer and more creamy. Some people can really discern a taste difference between the two, even though they come in similar flavors, and it turns out they’re probably telling the truth. There are some significant differences.
- Gelato has less fat. Ice cream usually has a fat content of at least 10%. Meanwhile, the fat content of gelato is between 3% and 8%. Gelato also uses fewer egg yolks, or even none, which also helps to lower the overall fat content. This is part of the difference that you’re tasting.
- They are served at different temperatures. Ice cream is typically best when it comes to us out of the freezer at 10°F. Because gelato contains less air and less fat, if they were handing out gelato cups at this temperature the product would be so hard everyone would hate it. It would not have that elastic texture that makes gelato so delicious, so gelato has to be served about 15 to 20° warmer than ice cream. If you tried to serve ice cream at that temperature, it would quickly turn to soup.
- Ice cream has more air than gelato. Ice cream gets churned up faster than gelato, and usually much harder too. The churning process both freezes the cream and also incorporates air, causing it to become lighter and fluffier. Ice cream is at least 25%, and up to 90%, air. Most quality ice creams are about 50% air after the churning process is over. Gelato, on the other hand, is only 25 to 30% air because it’s churned much more slowly. This keeps it feeling dense rather than fluffy and sometimes results in a more flavorful product. That’s not always true, of course.
In the end, it really doesn’t matter whether you are enjoying gelato cups, ice cream sundaes, slurping up a milkshake, or savoring some other kind of frozen treat. The most important thing is that you enjoy what you eat.