Grid of 6 photos of a hand holding an ice cream cone

Issue No. 139: What’s the difference between gelato and ice cream?

To start, let’s get one thing straight—gelato is just the Italian word for ice cream. Although there are differences between American ice cream and Italian-style gelato, they have a whole lot in common. Both begin as a base mixture of milk, cream, and sugar, sometimes with eggs. They are churned as the mixture is chilled. Churning incorporates air, which increases the volume and makes the texture creamy and scoopable, rather than a block of hard, icy dairy like you’d get if you put a gallon of milk straight into the freezer. Natural stabilizers like gums and carrageenan are often added to maintain that light, creamy texture over time. Without them, the ice cream would be icier and melt quicker.

What distinguishes ice cream and gelato?

Differing churning methods and proportions of ingredients create different textures. Ice cream is fluffier and lighter. Gelato is richer and denser.

Ice cream has more cream than milk. Legally, ice cream must have at least 10% fat from milk. (The milk fat is important—other, non-ice cream frozen desserts may get their fats from oils or artificial fillers, which are less flavorful and may create sticky or tacky textures.) Ice cream is churned at a high speed, incorporating lots of air—so much air, in fact, that some ice creams contain as much air as ingredients. In other words, half a tub of ice cream can be air. In the ice cream industry, the air included is called “overrun.” The technical way to say an ice cream has as much air as ingredients is that the overrun is 100%. Since air is cheaper than cream or sugar, ice creams with higher overrun tend to cost less—but also to be less flavorful. Higher quality ice creams tend to have overrun under 50%. Since they include more ingredients, they generally cost more—and have more flavor and a richer texture.

Gelato has more milk than cream, making it lower in fat than ice cream. Gelato is churned at a slower speed so less air is incorporated into the mixture, resulting in about 20-30% overrun. With less fat and air, gelato is dense straight out of the freezer and may take a little longer to warm up enough for easy scooping. It’s worth the wait—good gelato is rich, soft, and silky.

There are no rules to keep gelato from veering into ice cream territory or vice versa. Instead, the line between the two may be blurred depending on the maker’s goal for how the frozen treat should taste. For example, Rob Hess, the founder of Go! Ice Cream in Ypsilanti, Michigan, uses less heavy cream than the standard in his chocolate peanut butter ice cream to allow the deep dark chocolate flavor to really stand out.

What to look for when shopping for ice cream or gelato.

When shopping the frozen aisle, your best bet for finding a great pint of gelato or ice cream is to look at the ingredient list. In general, the shorter the list and the more recognizable the ingredients, the better. The ingredient list won’t call out how much air was mixed in, but you may be able to feel the difference between pints if you pick up two and compare the weight. If you notice that one kind of ice cream costs twice as much as another, it could be that the less expensive one has a lot more air—and a lot less of the actual ingredients.

Want a handy quick reference? Here’s a frozen treat cheat sheet.

Sorbet: Made with water, fruit, and sugar, but no dairy (0% fat from milk). Churned with minimal overrun.

Sherbet: Made with water, fruit, sugar, and a small amount of milk or cream (1-2% fat from milk). Churned with overrun of 25-50%

Frozen yogurt: Made with yogurt (2-6% fat from milk). Churned with overrun of 30%-60%.

Gelato: Made with more milk than heavy cream (4-9% fat from milk). Churned slowly with overrun of 20-30%.

Ice cream: Made with more heavy cream than milk (10+% fat from milk). Churned at a higher speed with overrun of 30-100%.