Gelato vs. Ice Cream: What’s the Difference?

Gelato vs Ice Cream

At first glance, it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between gelato and ice cream. Both frozen desserts are made from a base of dairy and sugar and are served in similar manners. However, gelato and ice cream are not one and the same. What truly makes each one unique comes down to ingredients, processing, and tradition.

Let’s start with where they came from 

If you’re traveling anywhere through Italy, you’re bound to pass a gelato shop or two while exploring the historical sites. The dessert is ingrained into the Italian culture and is a staple for tourists and locals alike who enjoy it year-round. 

While gelato certainly originated in Italy, it’s not exactly clear where. Some believe it originated in Sicily as far back as the Middle Ages, while other evidence points to Florence as gelato’s birthplace. 

Ice cream has an equally fascinating backstory. While it’s a key feature of Western culture and Americana, the first ice cream actually appeared in ancient China. It’s said that King Tang of Shang enjoyed a dessert made from a mixture of buffalo milk, flour, and ice. The dessert later evolved to include fruit, juice, and honey and was sometimes served over fresh snow. 

Throughout most of its life, ice cream was a treat reserved for wealthy elites. This changed with the onset of the industrial revolution, which saw technological advances in the dairy industry and refrigeration that allowed the dessert to be produced more rapidly and stored more easily. The first ice cream machine was invented shortly after in 1846. 

What are ice cream and gelato made from? 

Both gelato and ice cream are made from dairy and sugar but in different proportions. To make either dessert, milk or cream and sugar are combined and then pasteurized, after which any natural or artificial flavorings are added to the mix. Once all the ingredients are mixed, air is added to the mixture through a churning process. 

Gelato and ice cream differ in their overrun, which is the amount of air incorporated into each. Gelato has a low overrun, making it denser and smoother, while ice cream has a much higher overrun, giving it a light and fluffy texture. Ice cream is churned rapidly to incorporate a large amount of air, drastically increasing the mix’s volume during the process. After the churning process, the mixture is frozen.