Ice Cream Vs Gelato


What’s Actually the Difference Between Gelato and Ice Cream?

Here’s the scoop on these beloved dairy desserts — plus where frozen custard fits in.

The difference between gelato and ice cream

A scoop of something creamy and sweet is one of life’s great pleasures. Fans of frozen desserts have plenty of options to satisfy a sweet tooth, including ice cream and gelato. Although these summer staples are both made with a base of milk, cream, and sugar that is churned by hand or machine, they’re not the same. Ice cream typically has a higher fat content than gelato, thanks to a higher ratio of cream to milk. It also has an airier, fluffy texture from the faster speed at which it’s churned. On the flip side, gelato often has more milk than cream in the base and may be described as denser, softer, more intense in flavor, and even elastic.

Note that these are all generalizations (although ice cream does have a legal definition in the U.S. — more on that later). Artisans around the world may make their gelati and ice cream according to different specifications, and if we’re really getting technical, gelato is the Italian word for ice cream.

Here’s everything you need to know when picking between these frozen treats.

What is ice cream? 

Ice cream is generally made with a base of heavy cream, milk, sugar, and sometimes eggs and/or egg yolks. The base is churned in an ice cream maker before mix-ins are added. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), ice cream must contain at least 10% milk fat by weight, though most brands will have a fat percentage of 14 to 25%. (Note that we’re talking about traditional hard ice cream. Soft-serve ice cream contains less milk fat, usually 3 to 6%.)

The style of ice cream itself also varies widely. French-style ice cream incorporates egg yolks into the base, while American or Philadelphia-style ice cream might omit eggs entirely. You’ve also probably seen pints in the aisle with the label “frozen dairy dessert.” These contain less than 10% milk fat by weight or more “overrun” (air pushed into the ice cream during churning) than permitted by the FDA.

What is gelato?

This beloved Italian dessert in fact translates to “ice cream,” but it’s not necessarily the same thing. Gelato has a lower milk fat content than ice cream, usually 4 to 9%, yielding a softer, denser texture and smaller ice crystals. That’s a result of the base, which typically includes less cream and more milk, as well as a slower churning process that introduces less air into the final product. The base generally does not include eggs, but it can. Gelaterias also keep their cases at a warmer temperature than most ice cream shops, which contributes to gelato’s silkier texture. Although there’s no legal standard for gelato in the U.S., the Italian government requires a milk fat content of at least 3%. At home, you can make gelato in an ice cream maker on the slow-churn setting.

But what about frozen custard? 

While many ice cream recipes include eggs in the base, frozen custard must legally include at least 1.4% egg yolks, according to the FDA. Like ice cream, it must also include a minimum of 10% milk fat by weight. At retail shops, however, frozen custard is usually made in a machine that incorporates minimal air, creating a richer, silkier product that is more gelato-like in texture, but with a pronounced custard flavor from the egg yolks.

The main differences between ice cream and gelato

Ice cream and gelato are mostly differentiated by the proportion of ingredients in the base and the rate at which they’re churned. Gelato contains less milk fat than ice cream, is churned at a slower rate, and is typically served at a warmer temperature, introducing less air to the dessert and yielding a softer and denser texture. Frozen custard, meanwhile, is always made with egg yolks, and is most often made in a machine that introduces very little air, resulting in a denser, richer texture.