Gelato is defined as a rich, soft ice cream that contains little or no air. The richness that is associated with gelato is caused by the fact that very little air is introduced during the churning process while gelato is made.
Literally, the word gelato itself is Italian for “frozen.” Gelato is frozen quickly in individual small batches, using a batch freezer; in contrast, most commercial ice cream brands in the United States are frozen using a continuous assembly-line freezer. A batch freezer incorporates air (or overrun) into the gelato mixture as it freezes, generally between 20 and 35 percent overrun. Compared to the 50 percent overrun in American-style ice cream (manufacturers add air because it almost doubles the quantity of the product), gelato’s lower overrun makes it a denser product with more intense flavors.
Before being frozen, the gelato mixture undergoes pasteurization followed by aging for several hours. It is aged so that the milk proteins will bind with the water in the mixture. The binding (or hydration) reduces the size of the ice crystals and gives the final product a smooth texture.
Unlike commercial ice cream, which can be kept in the freezer for months, artisanal gelato retains peak flavor and texture for several days only, even with proper storage. This is the reason that a gelateria must make its own gelato on its premises or nearby.
A gelato is typically made with reduced-fat milk rather than cream, like many kinds of ice cream are. Its butterfat content is usually around 4 to 8 percent, whereas ice cream, by definition, should have at least 10 percent butterfat. Premium commercial ice cream brands can easily have twice as much butterfat, and many of the popular brands have around 14 percent butterfat.
Gelato flavorings include fruit purees, nut pastes, and cocoa. Other ingredients like cookies, chocolate flakes, or small confections may be added after the gelato is frozen. When a gelato is made with fruit, sugar, water, and no dairy ingredients, it is called a sorbetto. Both sorbetto and gelato usually contain a stabilizing base, like egg yolks.
Gelato is also served at a slightly warmer temperature than ice cream. According to Caffé Gelato, it is served about 10 to 15 degrees warmer than ice cream; both gelato and ice cream are served at well below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, though. Because gelato is less frozen than ice cream, you can taste its flavors better as it melts in your mouth.
If you are looking for a delicious treat you can have for the holidays, why not try a gelato with zabaione (or zabaglione) flavor? In Venezuela, a dessert drink related to this custard-based flavor is consumed almost exclusively during Christmas season.