While “gelato” is the Italian word for “ice cream,” the two desserts are not one and the same. There are some small, but distinctive, differences between ice cream and gelato. Ice cream is made by churning a base of cream, milk, sugar and sometimes eggs to freeze it and add air. Adding air to the mixture is what keeps ice cream soft, scoopable and helps it to have a good melt on the tongue. It also helps to prevent ice crystals from forming, keeping the texture of the ice cream uniform. Ice cream is regulated by the FDA so that manufacturers can’t just come up with any frozen mixture and call it ice cream. By law, ice creams must contain at least 10% milkfat. Ice creams with additions (like strawberries or cookies ‘n cream) must contain a minimum of 8% milk fat. Some super-premium ice creams have a much higher milk fat percentage, which makes them creamier and smoother.
Gelato is also made with a base of milk, sugar and sometimes eggs, along with a variety of ingredients added for flavoring. Gelato, however, has a lower percentage of butterfat on average, than ice cream. It contains anywhere from 2-8 percent. Also like ice cream, it is also churned to add some air and keep ice crystals from forming in the mixture. Unlike ice cream, gelato is churned more slowly and for a shorter period of time. This introduces less air and keeps the mixture more dense and even more flavorful, as there isn’t as much air hitting the tongue at the end. It is also served at a slightly higher temperature than ice cream, so that the gelato is very soft when you get it and the flavors are at their most intense.