How to tell the difference between Italy’s iconic dessert and America’s favorite frozen treat.

By Mary Tomlinson
June 25, 2019
Gelato and Ice Cream
Sungjae Cho / EyeEm / Getty; Bill Diodato / Getty

At the end of a delicious seaside meal, there’s nothing quite like a scoop (or two!) of a creamy frozen dessert. Gelato, the decadent export from Italy, and ice cream, an American summertime classic, are high on the list of go-to frozen goodies—but what is the difference between the two desserts?

The Differences Between Gelato and Ice Cream Are ...

Here we’ll explain the key distinctions in ingredients, churning method, taste, texture, and serving style of these two delectable treats.

The Ingredients

Both gelato and ice cream contain cream, milk, and sugar—the fundamentals of any good creamy frozen dessert. But gelato typically uses few eggs yolks or none at all, as is the case with Sicilian gelato. It also uses a lower proportion of cream, which means less butterfat (fat from cream and milk) in the mixture. The FDA requires ice cream to contain at least 10% butterfat by weight, climbing to as high as 25%. By using less cream, gelato reaches only 4% to 9% butterfat.

The Churning Method

Churning is required to make both frozen desserts. Ice cream is churned at high speeds, infusing large amounts of whipped air into the product. Additionally, the high butterfat content of ice cream allows it to absorb more air. By the end of the process, ice cream is up to 50% air and has doubled in volume. This increase in volume is called “overrun.” Gelato is churned more slowly and has less butterfat, so less air is absorbed—the overrun reaches about 25% to 30% during churning.

Serving Gelato vs. Ice Cream
Nico De Pasquale Photography / Getty; segray / Getty

The Serving Style

At their respective shops, ice cream and gelato are served in slightly different ways. Ice cream is stored at a brisk 0 to -10 degrees Fahrenheit, the ideal temperature where it’s scoopable but still holds a nice spherical shape atop a cone. Gelato is served warmer—10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit—so it remains soft and creamy. Ice cream is served with the classic scoop we know and love, while traditional gelato is best served with a spade.

The Taste and Texture

All those tweaks in ingredients and method lead to major differences in the taste and texture of what ends up on your spoon. When you eat ice cream, all that cold butterfat actually coats your tongue and slightly dulls your ability to sense flavor. Gelato’s lower butterfat percentage means you can taste the flavors more readily—thus the increased richness associated with gelato. The differences in whipped air also affect texture: gelato has a dense consistency, whereas ice cream’s texture feels light and fluffy.

Our Favorite Frozen Dessert Recipes

With all this talk of ice cream and gelato, who’s ready for a sweet treat? We recommend cooling off after a long day at the beach with these crowd-pleasing frozen desserts.

Photographer: Jennifer Davick

The Best Ice Cream Sandwich Ever
Sure, you can use basic store-bought cookies for this dessert—but we prefer pairing our extra-chocolatery, extra-rich recipe with your favorite ice cream flavor for an unmatched decadent dessert.

Photo: Levi Brown; Recipe: Julia Rutland

Nut-Crusted Key Lime Ice Cream Cupcake
It’s hard to improve upon the coastal classic Key lime pie, but these scrumptious ice cream concoctions really take the (cup)cake.

Photo: Jennifer Causey; Prop Styling: Mindi Shapiro Levine; Food Styling: Chelsea Zimmer; Recipe: Adam Dolge and Karen Rankin

Strawberry, Mango, and Pistachio Macaron Ice Cream Sandwiches
Think of these as a grown-up ice cream sandwich. We paired ice creams in pretty pastel shades with airy macaron cookies—a match made in sandwich heaven.

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