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Never Be Confused About the Difference Between Gelato and Ice Cream Again

Both are sweet and delicious, but there is something that separates the two.

When you have a hankering for something cold and sweet, do you opt for gelato or ice cream? If your eyes just did a double take as you're thinking, "Aren't they the same?" you're not alone. Gelato and ice cream often get confused as the same sweet treat, but there is, in fact, a distinguishing feature between gelato and ice cream. So yes, they are rather different when you get down to the facts. But before we delve into the secret that separates the two, let's explore the history of both.

Ice cream with chocolate syrup

What came first: gelato or ice cream?

Gelato came first. As you probably already know, modern gelato has roots in Italy dating back to 16th century Florence. To this day, it remains a highly regarded dessert in Europe. In 2016, gelato producers in Italy produced roughly 157 million gallons of the creamy sweet stuff, which is equivalent to about 6.8 billion scoops, according to Bloomberg. However, there's evidence that indicates China may be the true place where the creamy cold stuff we know today was born.

Some historians believe that around 4,000 years ago, China created the first version of the sweet, iced treat. According to L'Italo-Americano, "the Chinese would freeze, in snow, a concoction of overcooked rice, spices, and milk, the first variety of historically attested gelato." This initial batch prompted more creative experimentation with iced fruit juices — did somebody say fruity gelato? The frozen treat was sold to the public in Beijing via street carts. Side note: Many believe that Marco Polo was the man who introduced gelato to Italy in the 11th century, but it was the ancient Moors that are credited for creating sherbet (or sorbet) in Sicily.

The iced treat did not debut in the United States until the year 1744, reports the International Dairy Foods Association, but it was a treat only enjoyed by the elite up until the late 19th century. Today, the ice cream business contributes nearly $40 billion to the U.S. economy.

Vanilla ice cream

OK got it, now what exactly is the difference between gelato and ice cream?

To understand the difference between the two treats, we turned to Claudia Sidoti, head chef and recipe developer at healthy meal-kit company HelloFresh. Sidoti informed us that ice cream is made of milk, cream, sugar, and egg yolks. "The ingredients in ice cream are first mixed into a custard," says Sidoti. "After the custard cools, it's churned at high speed to ensure air traps and increases its size." Ice cream is served at a cold temperature to ensure that the scoops hold up. She describes the texture of ice cream as both smooth and creamy.

Gelato, on the other hand, is made a bit differently, even though its name is the Italian word for ice cream. Sidoti says that gelato, "starts out with a similar custard base as ice cream, but has a larger amount of milk and a smaller amount of cream and eggs. Sometimes there are no eggs at all. It is churned much slower with less air, which results in a denser texture." She also informs us that gelato is served at warmer temperatures and that the finished product is much smoother and softer than ice cream. Sidoti also emphasizes how important it is to eat gelato while it's fresh.

"It's ideal to eat gelato fresh because the components that make up gelato are meant to be consumed within 24 hours. If you don't eat it fresh, it likely won't have the same flavor the next day and thereafter," says Sidoti.

To review?

The key differences between gelato and ice cream — although very alike in appearance — is the ratio of ingredients, the speed at which it's churned, the texture, and the time in which it can be enjoyed after its made. They're both still equally delicious, though, wouldn't you agree?

Cheyenne Buckingham
Cheyenne Buckingham is the former news editor of Eat This, Not That! Read more about Cheyenne
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