Please note: An earlier version of this article stated that gelato is usually served at a colder temperature than ice cream. It has since been corrected.
Let’s be clear: we’re not endorsing one or the other here. Whether you’re enjoying ice cream on a roadside farm in the cow-speckled hills of Vermont, or a gelato on a cobbled street in Rome, you’re doing pretty well. Both are significant achievements in dairy history and should be appreciated in their own way, so let’s keep the which-is-better war at bay and debunk the technical distinctions.
The difference depends upon three factors: fat, air and temperature. While ice cream is made with cream and must have at least a 10% fat content, gelato is made with mostly milk, so it’s lower in fat. Ice cream also calls for egg yolks while gelato uses considerably fewer, if any at all.
Perhaps the most noticeable distinction between your cone of Moose Tracks and cup of stracciatella is the difference in texture. This is due to the churning process and the amount of air whipped in. Ice cream is churned fast to let in air and pump up the volume, lending it a light, fluffy quality. Gelato is slow-churned, which causes it to be denser, milkier and slower to melt.
This bring us to temperature. Ice cream is served around 10 degrees F — any warmer and it will melt more quickly than you can keep up. But because gelato has less fat and air, it’s served about 10-15 degrees warmer than its American cousin. If you’re attempting to impress that attractive Italian don/donna you met on the street with this knowledge, just remember the Fahrenheit/Celsius conversion to avoid confusion.
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