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Gelato or ice cream

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Whenever I’m in Italy, I can’t help but notice the difference when it comes to ice cream. Even one bought from the smallest of shops on the most humble of piazzas seems to taste far better than even the most expensive varieties you can find in a typical British supermarket. Why is that? What is the secret ingredient?

First up, a bit of vocabulary. The Italian word for ice cream is ‘gelato’, which is actually the past participle of the verb ‘gelare’, which means ‘to freeze’ or ‘to chill’. So if something is ‘gelato’, it’s chilled or frozen. The noun ‘gelato’ is now used to refer to what we call ice cream in English. However, Italian gelato is not simply ‘ice cream’, but the specific Italian variety of it that is prepared in a certain way. The Italian word for ice cream generally is…gelato. Yes, it’s confusing.

An ice cream (gelato or not) typically has several basic ingredients: milk, cream, sugar, a stabiliser (such as egg yolks or corn starch) and flavourings (vanilla, chocolate, fruits, etc.)

Most British or North American ice cream has a higher proportion of cream to milk than gelato. Gelato is the opposite, with more milk than cream, which also means that it has less fat than ice cream. It also has far less egg yolk, giving it a milkier feel.

I was surprised when I heard this because I’d assumed it would be the other way round. Gelato always appears thicker and creamier, implying that it has more fat. But what actually happens is that the gelato mixture is churned at a far lower speed than ice cream. This means that less air is passed into the mixture, keeping it more dense, which is why it appears thicker. The other happy consequence is that the taste is more intense since the flavourings aren’t spread out by all the air. Finally, gelato is served at a much higher temperature than ice cream, which actually means that it isn’t really ‘frozen’ at all when you eat it. If gelato were served frozen, it would be far too hard to be able to eat.

While on the topic of gelato, a ‘semifreddo’ (half-cold or chilled) is any dessert that has gelato as it’s main ingredient. Other related desserts are the ‘sorbetto’ (sorbet) and the ‘granita’ (semi-frozen fruit juice, water, and sugar).

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