Gelato is Italy's regional variant of ice cream. As such, gelato is made with some of the same ingredients as most other frozen dairy desserts. Milk, cream, various sugars, flavoring including fruit and nut purees are the main ingredients.
Gelato differs from ice cream in that it has a lower butterfat content, typically gelato contains 4-8% versus 14% for ice cream. Gelato generally has slightly lower sugar content, averaging between 16-22% versus approximately 21% for ice cream. Non-fat milk is added as a solid. The sugar content in gelato is precisely balanced with the water content to act as an anti-freeze, that is, to prevent the gelato from freezing solid. The types of sugar used are sucrose and dextrose and invert sugar to control the apparent sweetness. Typically, gelato and Italian sorbet contain a stabilizing base. Egg yolks are used in yellow custard-based gelato flavors, including zabaione and creme caramel.
The mixture for gelato is typically made using a hot process, which includes pasteurization. White base is heated to 85°C (185°F). Heating the mix to 90°C (194°F) is essential for chocolate gelato, which is traditionally flavored with cocoa powder. Yellow custard base, which contains egg yolks, is heated to 65°C (149°F). The gelato mix needs to age for several hours after pasteurization is complete in order for the milk proteins to hydrate or bind with the water in the mix. This hydration reduces the size of the ice crystals making a smoother texture in the final product. A non-traditional cold mix process is popular among some gelato makers in the United States.
Unlike commercial ice cream in the United States which is frozen with a continuous assembly line freezer, gelato is frozen very quickly in individual small batches in a batch freezer. The batch freezer incorporates air or overage into the mix as it freezes. Unlike American-style ice cream which can have an overage of up to 50%, gelato generally has between 20% and 35% overage. This results in a denser product with more intense flavor than U.S. style ice cream. U.S. style ice cream, with a higher fat content, can be stored in a freezer for months. High-quality artisan gelato holds its peak flavor and texture (from delicate ice crystals) for only several days, even when it is stored carefully at the proper temperature. This is why gelaterias typically make their own gelato on the premises or nearby.
The history of gelato dates back to frozen desserts served in ancient Rome and Egypt made from ice and snow brought down from mountain tops and preserved below ground. More recently gelato appeared during banquets at the Medici court in Florence. In fact the Florentine cook Bernardo Buontalenti is said to have invented modern ice creams in 1565, as he presented his recipe and his innovative refrigerating techniques to Caterina de' Medici. She in turn brought the novelty to France, where in 1686 the Sicilian fisherman Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli perfected the first ice cream machine. The popularity of gelato among larger shares of the population however only increased in the 1920's-1930's as in the northern Italian city of Varese, where the first mobile gelato cart was developed.
Gelato Italiano, with a fresh waffle biscuit.
Gelato is typically flavored with fresh fruit purees, cocoa and/or nut pastes. If other ingredients such as chocolate flakes, nuts, small confections, cookies, or biscuits are added, they are added after the gelato is frozen. Gelato made with fresh fruit, sugar, and water and without dairy ingredients is known as sorbetto - a form of sorbet.
A misconception is possible that the word "gelato" could be related to "gelatin" and that the latter might be an ingredient. In Italian, "gelato" literally and only means "frozen". Traditional gelato recipes do not call for gelatin and the bulk of modern gelato is made mainly with milk, cream, sugar, sometimes eggs, and a flavoring, barring some novel concoction or experiment by a particular gelateria or chef.