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What is Gelato?

By Cathy Rogers
Updated May 16, 2024
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Gelato is an Italian frozen dessert, similar to ice cream. Its ingredients include milk and sugar, often combined with flavorings and fruit, chocolate, liquor, spices, or nuts. Unlike true ice cream, gelato often does not contain cream, and traditionally has a much lower fat content. The name is also sometimes used to refer to similar frozen desserts that are prepared in with a similar method. It is often compared to ice milk rather than ice cream.

Its semi-frozen consistency means that gelato melts faster than ice cream. It is stored in a forced air freezer, different than those freezers that store American style ice cream. Some versions of gelato are lower in fat and calories than traditional ice cream.

Once combined, the gelato ingredients are cooled; the resulting product contains little air, which results in a denser, more flavorful dessert. A form made with water and no milk or soy milk is called sorbetto. Gelato is best served fresh.

Northern Italy is famous for the dairy form of gelato, and Southern Italy and Sicily take credit for the sorbetto version. Popular flavors include chocolate, hazelnut, pistachio, strawberry, lemon, and combinations of vanilla, chocolate, and nuts. Some recipes that include this frozen dessert are ice cream cake and spumoni.

Gelato spazzacamino contains ice cream, scotch, and espresso coffee beans. Gelato truffles are small balls coated with coconut or other toppings. One American peach gelato recipe contains fresh peaches, peeled and pitted; sugar; and mascarpone, crème fraiche, or yogurt.

Traditionally, gelato recipes included eggs, but now they are not as commonly used, being replaced by other stabilizers. The name itself derives from an Italian word, gelare, which means to freeze. An ice cream parlor in Italy is known as a gelateria. A gelateria may be a combination of a bar and a frozen dessert shop, or even of a bar and a dessert and pastry shop.

Because of its softer texture, gelato can be more easily swirled or molded with a spatula than can ice cream. It cannot be classified in the United States as an ice cream because it does not contain a minimum of 10% butterfat, which the US Food and Drug Administration requires of ice cream.

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Discussion Comments
By recapitulate — On Apr 17, 2011

I loved trying authentic gelato when I was in Florence and Rome, especially Rome. There I went to an excellent (and really well known) gelateria called Giolitti. If you go to Rome, I highly recommend it- it's near the Pantheon and has lots of great flavors.

By panda2006 — On Apr 16, 2011

While they might have slightly fewer calories than some ice creams, gelato varieties are not any better for you. While they are delicious, they are still very rich- and in many parts of Italy, when you buy it at a gelato shop the cone will be heaping with your choice of 2 or even 3 flavors, followed by a rich cream. So no, definitely not any better for you,though very delicious.

By anon121602 — On Oct 25, 2010

i love this site! ice cream makers are not the best solution to eat amazing ice cream! i can tell you that gelato is is one of my favorites. just try it!

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