Gelato is Italian ice cream. It is commonly described as being denser and lower in fat than American ice cream. As a result gelati are said to have more intense, less fatty tasting flavors. Let’s look at this a little more closely.
The amount of air churned into an ice cream mix while freezing plays a big part in how dense it ends up being. American ice cream has considerably more air than gelato. It is not uncommon to find supermarket ice creams that are double the volume of their pre-aerated mix. Next time you are in a super- market pick up a quart of premium ice cream in one hand and the least expensive brand in the other. The premium brand better be noticeably heavier and therefore more dense than the cheaper brand. Density is dictated by the style of churning paddle used and/or the speed it turns while churning. Traditionally commercial gelato makers churn more slowly than ice cream makers.
The amount of fat. Ice Cream has to have over 10% fat to be legally called ice cream in the US. Gelato traditionally uses more milk instead of or in a higher proportion to heavy cream than ice cream. Therefore it can be lower in butterfat. However many gelato recipes use large quantities of egg yolks. Often 10 or more per quart. Gelato with a lot of egg yolks glistens in a way most ice creams do not. Needless to say egg yolks are loaded with fat and cholesterol. I am sure this lower fat myth was invented by Italian Gelatiari to offer tourists completely unneeded encouragement and help them feel good about, the insane quantities of ice cream, excuse me gelati, they eat while on vacation in Italy. Not that I would personally know anything about this.
The reality is that the mix and proportions of ingredients in recipes that call themselves either ice cream or gelato are indistinguishable. Also as most home ice cream makers don’t come with multiple speed settings and special air minimizing paddles it is difficult, if not impossible, to make at home the kind of gelato you can eat while sitting on the Grand Canal in Venice, not that there isn’t plenty of fake gelato for sale there either. Dont get hung up on this. There are plenty of recipes that you can make and serve as gelato with a clear conscience and a straight face.
For the purposes of my own recipes on this website I’m going to define gelato as having roughly a proportion of two to one, milk to cream and at least four egg yolks per quart. Ice cream will have two cups of cream to one cup of milk or a one to one proportion between the two, and no eggs. Frozen custard will have a two to one cream to milk proportion and at least 4 egg yolks per quart. Understand thes are totally arbitrary rules of thumb that I’m going to use and probably ignore just as frequently.
A last note regarding texture. I think that the texture of gelato should be all about silky-smoothness. It should have a glossy surface and be served slightly warmer and softer than ice cream. Ice cream should be smooth but have a slight chew to its texture, encouraging you to bite into it. Serve it hard enough so that a scoop retains its shape. Like gelato, frozen yogurt should be smooth and served even softer.