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Gelato vs Ice Cream: What's the Difference?

Posted: in Gelato


Gelato has become increasingly popular as a treat in America. One taste and you’ll know why. As recent as ten years ago, a majority of Americans asked probably wouldn’t have known what gelato was. Now the secret is out. Although its popularity in America has been rapidly building momentum in recent years, many people still ask – What is Gelato?   

We discussed what gelato is in our article What is Gelato?: Everything You Need to Know. But what is the difference between gelato and ice cream, you ask? While there are similarities between ice cream and gelato, there are also many characteristics separating the two. We'll be covering the following for a detailed comparison of gelato versus ice cream:

  • So What is the Difference Between Gelato and Ice Cream?
  • Ingredients
  • Flavoring
  • Taste
  • Texture
  • Density and Air Content
  • Appearance
  • Nutrition
  • Serving Temperature
  • Cost
  • Side by Side Gelato vs. Ice Cream Comparison Chart

What is the Difference Between Gelato and Ice Cream?

Many believe that gelato is just a spiffy way of saying ice cream. The Italian word “gelato” indeed translates to "ice cream" in English, and the two desserts do look comparable. Although they resemble each other in appearance and share similar ingredients, the differences between gelato and ice cream add up to gelato being superior, with better quality, taste, texture, and nutrition.  

Think of ice cream as gelato's lazy relative that's always looking for a way to save a buck. Let's dive in.

The Ingredients

Fresh, Natural Ingredients, Like Berries, Are Used In Gelato

The makeup of both gelato and ice cream is very similar. Both ice cream and gelato use milk and/or cream, sugars, flavoring (natural or artificial), and air (yes, air), although each uses a different combination of ingredients.  

Ice cream commonly uses eggs, and gelato generally does not. Gelato uses milk and little to no cream, while ice cream uses mostly heavy cream.   

Sorbetto, which is the dairy-free version of gelato, uses water instead of milk.

Did You Know? Gelato can also be made dairy-free by using soy, almond, and coconut milk.

The Flavoring Used

Authentic Gelato makers use natural flavors such as real lemons, vanilla beans, etc., giving the end product the highest quality taste. Commercial ice cream manufacturers often use powders and mixes with artificial additives.  

For the most part, you can add any flavors imaginable into either product to develop more varieties than you can shake a popsicle stick at. It's not uncommon to find more flavor varieties of gelato than ice cream out there because most gelato is made in small batches by artisans who enjoy creating unique flavors.

Difference in Taste

Here is one of the most significant differences between gelato and ice cream. Gelato has a notably more intense flavor than ice cream.

  • It typically has more flavoring mixed in than ice cream.
  • It's denser, allowing more flavor to contact taste buds. 
  • It's served at a higher temperature, resulting in less taste bud numbness, whereas ice cream's colder serving temperature decreases taste buds' sensitivity.
  • It has a smoother texture, which enhances the flavor.
  • It has less fat than ice cream. Milkfat coats the palate, and too much could block some of that incredible flavor from getting through.

Texture of Gelato vs Ice Cream

Gelato is more elastic, smoother, stickier, and softer than ice cream. 

These characteristics enhance the flavor and enjoyability, especially when served at a higher temperature. Ice cream tends to be fluffier, stiffer, and lighter.

Density and Air Content

Gelato Churning Slow, For Dense, Creamy Feel

Air is a vital ingredient incorporated into both gelato and ice cream. It's necessary to keep both products from becoming too hard (think popsicle hard) and increase volume. The raw ingredients mixture has air introduced during the churning and freezing process. The method and mixing speed of both ice cream and gelato affect how much air is incorporated, thus determining its density.  

  • Ice cream churns faster, incorporating more air into its mixture. More air makes ice cream fluffier and lighter while increasing the volume, making it cheaper to produce. Increased air and fat in ice cream keep it soft enough to scoop at lower temperatures.
  • Handcrafted gelato churns slower, introducing less air into its mixture. Less air makes it denser, smoother, heavier, less porous, more flavorful. The denser, lower in fat gelato can withstand higher temperatures before melting.

Gelato incorporates 30-35% air, while ice cream can introduce as much as 100% air into the mixture, meaning that ice cream can have as much as 2-3 times the air mixed in to give the appearance of greater volume. If you filled the same size containers with both gelato and ice cream, the gelato container would weigh more. It's why gelato is more filling when eaten and explains why gelato always appears to be served as a smaller portion when purchased.

Did You Know? Cheaper ice cream brands will often incorporate more air to create more volume, giving the appearance of more product purchased.

Their Appearance

Gelato and ice cream are similar in appearance. Because of its higher density, gelato has a smoother, creamier look, while ice cream usually has a fluffier look. 

Italian gelaterias will usually top their creations with the raw, natural flavors found in the gelato. Ice cream shops, on the other hand, will usually serve from tubs or soft serve machines.  

Gelato Is Decorated With It's Ingredients For A Show-stopping Display

There’s just something about gelato that makes you want to gobble it up.

Nutrition of Ice Cream and Gelato

In a nutshell, when comparing gelato vs. ice cream, gelato is healthier. Due to the higher concentration of milk and little to no cream, gelato has less fat and calories than ice cream. Both ice cream and gelato are an excellent source of calcium. Ice cream may contain egg yolks, whereas gelato most likely doesn’t.

The fat content of ice cream ranges widely between brands and can have 3-4 times (or more) fat than gelato. American ice cream typically has 15-20% milkfat (it can vary from 10-25%), while gelato usually has 3-9% milkfat. In fact, the USDA requires ice cream to have at least 10% milkfat

Did You Know? Butterfat and milkfat are the same things.

The Serving Temperature

Due to its higher air content, ice cream melts at a lower temperature than gelato. Since gelato is denser, it has the advantage of being served at a higher temperature, kicking its flavor into high gear. With the higher serving temperature, the high elasticity and stickiness bonus enhances the taste and eating enjoyment.  

The higher serving temperature of gelato means less numbing of the tastebuds, allowing it to taste much better. Gelato is excellent served at 10-15 degrees F, while it's common to have ice cream at around 0 degrees F.

American style ice cream is served at colder temperatures for at least two reasons:

  • It's stored at lower temps.
  • It quickly melts as it’s eaten.  

How many times have you fought to finish an ice cream cone because the ice cream suddenly begins turning into a drippy mess? Due to the higher density of gelato, if it's served at the same low temp. as ice cream, it could be harder than ice cream.

Cost Difference of Ice Cream and Gelato

Gelato costs more than ice cream on a volume by volume basis(cup, pint, etc.).  

  • Ingredient costs are higher because more product is in a cup of gelato vs. ice cream as it is denser and heavier.  
  • Artisans generally make gelato in smaller batches.  
  • American ice cream companies keep costs down by introducing more air into the mix, giving the appearance of more volume.   

Gelato vs Ice Cream- Side By Side Comparison Chart

Click To Zoom
Comparison Table of Gelato and Ice Cream


And that’s that. So the next time someone asks what the difference is between gelato and ice cream, you’ll be the aficionado.

About Our Company:
Saucy Joe's Italian Food and Gelato Trucks Parked at PartySaucy Joe's Italian Food Truck & Good Vibrations Gelato Truck have been serving up Metro Detroit's finest Italian fare, in a fun and casual way, for over 14 years. We're out to prove that you don't need a fancy-schmancy restaurant to experience quality, gourmet food. Family owned and locally operated, we concentrate on revamping favorite, old-school Italian dishes, such as handcrafted pasta, meatballs, panini sandwiches, and gelato.


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