Italian Ice Cream: What is Gelato?

what is gelato

what is gelatoQuestion: What is cold, creamy, and delicious—but not ice cream?

Answer: gelato.

So, what is gelato? Sometimes called Italian ice cream, gelato is a frozen dessert often considered a lower fat alternative to ice cream. Although gelato has many of the same ingredients as ice cream, the proportions and process for making gelato are different.

Let’s take a quick look at the key differences between these two dessert treats.

Gelato vs ice cream

Basically, ice cream and gelato share the same foundation—emulsifying cream or fat, sugar, flavors, and stabilizers. But while whipped air gives ice cream its firm drifts and dollops, gelato has much less air churned into it—giving it a mouthwatering creaminess that is hard to beat.

To carry the label “ice cream” in the United States, the product must contain a minimum of 10 percent milkfat. Gelato is often made with less cream or with whole milk—significantly reducing the fat content of gelato to three or four percent.

Served with a spatula or spade, instead of a scoop, gelato forms at a higher temperature than other frozen desserts, giving it a pliable, buttery texture that meets your taste buds with intense flavor. Sorbets, sherbets and other products numb taste buds on contact—not so gelato.

Gelato—a new tradition

what is gelato 2The first gelato establishment in the United States opened in San Francisco in 1976. Competing with custard and frozen yogurt shops, gelato continues to challenge the American love affair with ice cream.

While it is undisputed that gelato is of Italian origin, its invention is not as clear. Flavored ices were popular throughout the ancient world. Snow or ice dappled with the juices of fruit were considered luxe. Italy, Egypt, and China can all claim concoctions made from frozen products combined with flavors.

But a Sicilian restaurateur by the name of Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli is usually credited with the creation of Italian ice cream in the late 1600’s. Today, Italian treats such as grattachecca – an ice and flavor treat similar to the American snow cone — grow in popularity as the world continues to explore artisanal flavors and desserts from Italy.

Interested in Italian ice cream? Here are some quick answers to common questions about gelato:

  • Is gelato less fattening than ice cream? In most cases, gelato is a lower fat product than ice cream and thus less fattening. However, if you eat twice as much gelato because of its delicious taste, you have made up the difference.
  • Is gelato gluten free? Some types of gelato are manufactured to be gluten free—but it is not guaranteed. Be sure to check labels or ask questions if you are gluten-sensitive or intolerant.
  • What if I am lactose intolerant? Most gelato is made with milk. Check around for brands or cafés that serve lactose-free or dairy-free products.
  • How about egg or nut allergies? While Italian ice cream is typically not made with eggs, like custard, you should not rule out the possibility of egg contamination—the same goes with nuts. Basically, the same rules apply if you have a food allergy or sensitivity of any kind—check it out before you order. Check out Epicurious’ egg-free chocolate gelato recipe!
  • What about pasteurization? Most gelato products are made from pasteurized dairy products in the U.S. In some places in the States, traveling abroad, or in Italy, you may find gelato made from raw milk products. If you are pregnant—be sure to pass on any non-pasteurized food to avoid listeria.
  • Does gelato come in different flavors? You bet! Vanilla bean, chocolate, sea salt caramel, your choice of fruit… try them all!

Italian ice cream—it’s in the crystals

If a quart of ice cream has ever overstayed its welcome in your freezer, you may have noticed large ice crystals formed on the surface of the ice cream. Ice crystals make a big difference when it comes to gelato.

The process of freezing quickly at higher temperatures gives gelato its small crystal, frosting-like texture. It also means gelato is not a good bet for storing at home as an occasional late-night snack. Gelato is best enjoyed fresh.

Is there Italian ice cream in your future? With gelato sales rising around the country—the answer is probably “yes.”

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