Food & Drink

Happy National Ice Cream Day! So What's The Difference Between Ice Cream and Gelato

The Difference Between Ice Cream and Gelato: A Lesson from Experts at Gelotti Ice Cream Credits: John Lee /

PATERSON, N.J. - Time after time customers enter our stores with misconceptions of what gelato is, and what the difference is between gelato and ice cream. Unfortunately the food business can be a tricky thing to navigate, especially in the world of sugar free water, gluten free soda, and fat free products with dangerously high levels of sugar.

The Misconception

Have you ever heard the term in math that all rectangles are squares, but that all squares are not rectangles? Lets compare this to gelato and ice cream. All frozen desserts are gelato, but not all gelato is ice cream.

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The word gelato comes from the Italian word "congelato" or to freeze, in Spanish it is similar in that they call ice cream "helado" and "congelado" is to freeze. The word gelato itself refers more to a product made by freezing, and there are less rules that govern gelato than ice cream. 

Background of the "Rules of Ice Cream"

In the Bronx, Emery Thompson invented the first horizontal ice cream batch freezer in 1903. A batch freezer is basically a large horizontal mixer whose walls are pumped with refrigerant from a compressor. As the ice cream mixes and get incorporated with air, dasher blades are scraping the frozen ice cream off of the walls to the beat of 200 revolutions a minute. 

When Gelotti first opened we started with two Emery Thompson machines back in 1984. Emery's son Steve Thompson sold Gelotti our machines, and continues to serve Gelotti with their latest versions. Fun fact, both Gelotti and Haagen-Daaz started with Emery Thompson machines in the 80's. Contrary to popular belief Haagen-Daaz started in the Bronx just down the road from Thompson's factory, the name was chosen because Swedish products like Ikea and Volvo were hot and catchy.

Thompson began to experiment with making large quantities in his machine and helped facilitate the ice cream crazy in the United States. One of the things that Emery soon came to find, was that whatever amount of ice cream mix he put in the machine, it would double in volume after the freezing cycle. This incorporated air is called "over-run" and gives ice cream the suspension it needs to be smooth, creamy, and keep the product soft enough to scoop from a container.

A politician from South Carolina got word of air being incorporated to ice cream, and in the early 1900's brought Thompson in front of a court because he feared this machine would "deceive" consumers, and people could end up with a cup full of air. Thompson testified before a court that just in the case of a meringue or whipped cream, air was an important part of the recipe. From this hearing the rules of ice cream were born.

When does Gelato become ice cream? What are the rules of Ice Cream?

From this hearing it was established in the United States, certain rules and measures to reinsure consumers were not getting ripped off. So when a gelato has over 10% or more in butterfat, and is 50% air or less, it is considered an ice cream. You may notice some ice cream trucks that use the word "soft-serve" alone without the word ice cream. This is because most trucks use 5% butterfat mix which is cheaper and closer to "ice-milk" so legally they cannot call it ice cream.

Frozen yogurt is another variety that gets around these rules. Today we think of frozen yogurt as a low fat alternative, but back when Gelotti started we used to serve "Columbo" yogurt. Back then when TCBY was huge, it was another way of not using the expensive liquid gold of butterfat.

Let's remember that the butterfat is the most expensive part of this whole equation. To understand let's think of a supermarket. A gallon of whole milk which is 3.5% butterfat is always about the same price as just a pint of heavy cream, which is about 30% butterfat. Those solids are literally what gives ice cream its creaminess.

Is butterfat related to quality?

Yes and no. Some of your favorite ice creams like Gelotti and Haagen-Daaz use 14% and 16% creams, which is on the higher end of ice cream mixes. These products tend to be smoother, more wholesome, warmer to the palette, and denser. Most homemade shops use a 12%, and almost all mass produced brands use 10%. However the percent of cream is like basing how nice jewelry is simply on what karat gold it is, which has nothing to do with the craftsmanship, creativity, or design.

Gelato for example is usually about 5% butterfat, and it it sometimes called "creamier" or "richer", although it contains less cream, and is a cheaper product to begin with. Gelato however uses culinary techniques such as aging mix to intensify flavor, fresh fruit and nut pastes, a slower churning method, and faster freezing. Gelato also uses more sugar, and texture improving agents like dextrose and sorbitol(fruit alcohol) which take the place of the fat.

In Italy gelato can refer to sorbet, vegan products, American ice cream, or anything in the gelato case. Most fruit gelatos are made with water and skim milk, and here in the US we would call that sorbet. To them it is all "frozen", and if you want to know what's in it, just ask the chef. In the US I assume we have more regulations, titles, and guidelines because most parlors do not make their own ice cream, and rather those guidelines are to help them keep their customers safe.

What is custard?

Every person who comes in called our soft-serve ice cream either yogurt, or custard. Both are wrong, and the reason is because some big chains use cute nicknames to make products seems better, or avoid using the word ice cream because they are using a cheaper butterfat product. Custard is supposed to be used in products that contain eggs. Some places do in fact make fresh custards, or use a mix containing eggs. When you see the word always ask especially if you have an allergy.

I want frozen dessert because its hot, should I have ice cream, gelato, yogurt, custard, sherbert, italian ice, sorbet, vegan or what?

Have whatever you like! Restaurants are always looking for ways to make more money, and frequently you will have ice cream served to you for a higher price as gelato, or homemade gelato that just wants to appeal to Americans called ice cream. Just taste, enjoy, pay attention to the difference, and always go to places that make their own because there is a huge difference. As far as calories and sugar, each product fluctuates the two, so no matter what you will be eating a fatty, sugary dessert. Try to stay away from fat free, or sugar free, unless you have a medical condition, and just eat smaller portions.

Life is short, so eat dessert first!

Gelotti of Caldwell 194 Bloomfield Avenue Caldwell NJ 07006 973-403-9968

Gelotti of Montclair 571 Bloomfield Ave Montclair, NJ 07042 973-509-1607


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