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Get the scoop on the difference between gelato vs. ice cream

Graeter's Ice Cream is highlighted in Today Show online article

We may all scream for ice cream, but the frozen dessert’s Italian sister, gelato, is also a wise choice on an oppressively hot summer day. But what exactly is the difference between the two beloved sweet treats? Quite a bit. After all, they both start with a craveworthy base of milk, cream, and sugar, but then venture into production methods and ingredients that make them unique. Get the scoop on their key differences below. 

What is gelato? 

Gelato may translate to “ice cream” in Italian, but there are a few characteristics that set it apart from its American counterpart. 

“The short answer is that Italian ice creams typically are made with less butterfat (more milk, less cream) and less air,” revealed Jon Snyder, owner of NYC-based il laboratorio del gelato.  “That’s a general rule of thumb; however, there are plenty of Italian artisans that use more cream, and plenty of American ones that use less.”  

Additionally, gelato is typically served warmer and is churned at a slower rate, resulting in a denser dessert. 

What is ice cream? 

Ice cream differs from Italian gelato by incorporating eggs and/or egg yolks in addition to milk, cream, and sugar to create a custard-like consistency. It is then churned at a much faster rate than gelato to form a lighter dessert with more air. 

“By federal law, American ice cream must have no less than 10% butterfat and no more than 100% overrun, which is industry-speak that translates to no more than 50% air (or a one to one ratio between ice cream and air),” added Richard Graeter, president and CEO of Cincinnati-based Graeter’s Ice Cream

He advises consumers to be wary of pints labeled as “frozen dessert.” “This is a sure sign that the product is a facsimile of ‘ice cream’ that has less than 10% butterfat or greater than 100% overrun and often both,” he revealed. “Some brands try to tout these such products as ‘better for you’ because they have fewer calories, but in truth, that is only because they are more air than product, along with a load of stabilizers and other non-dairy ingredients necessary to mask the missing dairy fat.” 

What is the difference between gelato and ice cream? 

The primary differences between gelato and ice cream come down to butterfat content and churn rates. 


“Most gelatos have only 6% to 8% butterfat,” said Graeter. “The lower fat allows for a more intense flavor sensation.”

Fat sources stem from cream, milk and egg yolks. And since gelatos generally lack the latter, the taste will inevitably be less heavy on the palate. This typically allows for flavors and ingredients like stone fruit, pistachio and Nutella to shine without the weight of a rich custard. 

Snyder, however, reminds consumers that there are regional styles of gelato and to not abide by hard and fast rules regarding what constitutes a proper scoop of this Italian treat. 

“The heat and less wealth of the South [of Italy] meant that, historically, they were interested in more ‘icier,’ less heavy, refreshing concoctions.” 

“Eggs and cream were expensive and [as a result] harder to use. The North could afford those items,” he added, claiming that he’d still dub an egg-based Italian ice cream as “gelato,” despite globally accepted traditions and definitions. 

Churn rate

“The genius of traditional Italian gelato is the use of slow churning machinery,” raved Snyder. “Less air helps this dessert with a dense, smooth texture and consistency.”

Ice cream, on the other hand, is lighter due to its higher churn rate and increased air content. Graeter, however, argues that no freezer aisle in a major grocery store carries genuine Italian gelato. 

“Pints purporting to be ‘gelato’ are produced in the same high-volume continuous process freezers that produce the other big commercial ice cream brands,” he shares. “The only difference is that the mix has less fat than the regular dairy mix, and they sometimes dial down the air being injected into the finished product.”

Keep this in mind if you’re searching for an authentic gelato, which may only be found in a local ice cream shop and/or in Europe. 

What to look for when buying store-bought ice cream

With so many options to choose from, it can be difficult to find the perfect pint. Graeter breaks down how to shop for ice cream, which he separates into three different categories: 

Value ice cream

These are the bulk frozen desserts and generic grocery store brands that have low butterfat content and higher overrun (more air). 

Premium ice cream

These are the nationally recognized brands that typically sell half gallon-sized containers. They possess higher butterfat and lower overrun. Examples include Breyer’s, Blue Bunny and Tillamook. 

Super-premium pints

These are the specialty pints that contain the highest level of butterfat and lowest level of overrun. They’re thick, creamy and decadent. Examples include Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen-Dazs. 

In an effort to fill a void and introduce a category with an even higher quality ratings, Graeter’s labels its product as craft ice cream, due to the fact that it’s small-batch and manufactured in a traditional French Pot (open containers that spin quickly). It’s also hand-packed because the ice cream is literally too dense to flow through automated filling equipment. 

Food for thought

No matter how you scoop it, gelato and ice cream both make wonderful desserts, especially when the weather climbs to sweat-inducing temperatures. And while they may serve different purposes, either as a pint on the couch while watching Netflix or an afternoon snack while meandering the streets of Rome, one thing is for certain: You can’t go wrong either way.

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