The Difference Between Gelato and Ice Cream
There's a lot of confusion as to the differences between ice cream and gelato, lets try to clear up some of these misconceptions. What we need to realize is that the Italian word "gelato" simply translates as "ice cream." Gelato, the original ice cream, was produced in a very crude manner, in a tub with ice and salt, stirred by hand. As this mixture froze with a slow-stirring motion, air wasn't likely to be whipped into the product.
So where did the process change?
We can trace the changes back to the American Industrial Revolution when machines were developed for the sole purpose of profit. At this time the continuous-freezer was developed. It could be set to whip up to 60% air into the frozen finished product. This is how America's Ice cream is produced today.
Most American brands of bulk ice cream and consumer-packed ice cream range from 60 to 120% overrun. (Overrun is the trade term for the amount of air whipped into the product. 100% overrun is 50% air.) While the most of the European-made machines for ice cream production haven't changed from the old-world churn style with a slow mixing speed.
Why is this important? It leads us to a discussion about dipping Loss and another difference between the two processes.
Because of its high air content, ice cream must be stored at a very cold temperature, usually around -8 degrees Fahrenheit, cold and hard, crucial to prevent the ice cream from shrinking onto itself. When the ice cream is this cold it forces the server to press down when making a scoop, and in doing so, this compresses out the air which is called, Dipping Loss.
Traditional Gelato on the other hand, should be under 20% overrun.
This low air-content and density has many benefits. Gelato can be scooped at a softer state, usually around +8 degrees Fahrenheit. The ease of scooping with little or no dipping loss makes the yield difference tremendous.
For example a 3 gallon tub of regular bulk ice cream will give you 50 4-ounce scoops, while a 2.5 gallon tub of gelato will yield 80 4-ounce scoops, almost 1 gallon more, even though the pack size is ½ gallon less.
By being so dense, gelato can achieve its creamy texture without the addition of high butterfat creams.
Let's talk about butterfat, another misconception between the two processes. The old school way of thinking, is that the higher the butterfat, the better the quality of ice cream.
This marketing technique was born when there was a new demand for a higher-quality ice cream. The pitch was to sell ice cream by the butterfat content knowing that consumers would pay up to three different price levels. Under 6% butterfat on the low end, 12 to 14% on a mid-range and 18 to 22% on the high end. Neglecting to address the air that's being whipped into the product to maximize profits!
The truth of the matter is that the creamy texture can come from taking steps to not allow air to be whipped into it. As a matter of fact the dense gelato provides a taste as creamy to the mouth at 8% butterfat as its high-air and high-butterfat cousin.
There are no guidelines on what can and can't be labeled as gelato.
Gelato should be under 20% overrun and keeping with tradition, it should be flavored from actual ingredients like strawberries or nuts, not from flavorings. As the gelato industry grows, we are seeing many misconceptions.
One is that gelato is fat-free. I find this one really silly since it is after all, frozen dairy. Why is this misconception out there? There are a few large companies selling Italian-exported gelato mixes (powdered mixes that are shelf-stable that will be reconstituted with milk.) Years ago these mixes DID contain dairy solids. Until the American Dairy Counsel lobbied to protect the American farmers by placing an unfriendly tariff on all dairy coming into America from Canada and Europe.
This led to a replacement of dairy solids with starches, vegetable oil solids and even gelatin. These companies changed their selling points to match the trends here in America boasting a fat-free ice cream.
I have even seen frozen products shipped from Italy labeled as gelato that actually contain no dairy in them at all. These oil and starch-based gelatos have a very short shelf-life, their oils and starches start to brake down in about 7-10 days. In retrospect the butterfats in the dairy-based gelato are sticky, unlike oil-solids and hold for up to 4-6 months depending on the flavor.
Again, gelato is simply ice cream...
Ice cream before the American Industrial Revolution blew it full of air and artificially flavored it. Gelato's butterfat should range from 4%-14% if it's made the Artisan way, fresh from the true raw ingredients.
On a simple flavor like vanilla, the butterfat should be the same as the content in the dairy being used. However, a flavor made with a few pounds of strawberries will draw down the finished butterfat content because of the water in the fruit, and a flavor made with mascarpone cheese would increase the finished butterfat.
So let's not focus on butterfat to be the deciding factor in your ice cream choice, instead consider the air content. Not only will you enjoy a higher yield and creamier texture, but also a longer shelf life and most importantly an ease of use.
Gelato pulled from a -10 freezer can safely sit on the counter (in a hot kitchen) for 30 minutes before having to worry about its integrity. This allows you the pastry chefs to mold it into different desserts without the fear of it melting. As far as I'm concerned as long as creativity and fresh ingredients are used, you will have wonderful gelato.