Italian Ice Cream and Gelato

Italian ice cream, or Gelato, is a traditional Italian dessert that is similar to ice cream in the United States with a few key differences. The preparation method and proportions of ingredients are different. Gelato has higher sugar, but lower butterfat content then other ice cream. It contains less overage, or added air, and is therefore unable to be stored for as long. The result—a denser consistency and richer flavor that is unique to gelato, the original ice cream.

Much of the production of this delicious dessert is still handmade at each individual ice cream shop, or gelateria. Gelato is made using the same basic ingredients as other ice cream: milk, cream, and various sugars. Sometimes egg is used. Gelato is typically flavored with fresh fruit purees, cocoa, and nut pastes. The mixture is prepared using a heating process that includes pasteurization. Depending on the type of gelato, the base mixture is heated to different temperatures. Heating the mix to 90 °C (194 °F) is necessary for chocolate gelato. White base is heated to 85 °C (185 °F). Yellow custard base containing egg yolk is heated only to 65 °C (149 °F). After this is complete the mix must sit for several hours for the milk proteins to bind with the water. This hydration reduces the size of the ice crystals giving the final product a smoother texture. Other ingredients such as chocolate flakes, nuts, small confections, cookies, or biscuits are added after the gelato is frozen.

Unlike most ice cream in the United States, which is frozen with a continuous assembly line freezer, gelato is frozen quickly in individual small batches in batch freezers. Churning during the freezing process incorporates air into the mix. The added air, called overage, is lower in gelato at 20-35%, compared to nearly 50% in most commercial ice cream. Lower overage results in a denser product with more intense flavors.

The final product of gelato has other deviating properties from ice cream in the United States as well. It can only be kept for a few days, versus months for ice cream in the United States. Gelato contains 4-8% butterfat, opposed to 14% for most ice cream in the United States. Gelato contains 16-24% sugar, compared to 12-16% for ice cream in the United States. The sugar content in gelato is relatively higher, but accurately balanced with the water content to act as an anti-freeze, preventing the gelato from freezing completely solid. To keep the level of sweetness in check, special types of sugar are used including sucrose, dextrose, and invert sugar.

Gelato has been around for a much longer time than typical ice cream in the United States. It dates back to ancient Rome when frozen desserts made from ice and snow were brought down from mountaintops and preserved below ground. Later, gelato was served during banquets at the Medici court in Florence. Bernardo Buontalenti, a Florentine chef, is credited for inventing modern ice cream in 1565, when he presented his recipe and his refrigerating techniques to the Italian duchess Catherine de' Medici. The popularity of gelato among greater segments of the population did not increase until the first half of the twentieth century. It was during the 1920s that the first mobile gelato cart was developed in the northern Italian city of Varese.

The modern Italian ice cream industry was born in Milan, at the beginning of the 1950's, greatly contributing to the spread and increase of consumption of gelato throughout the world. High-quality artisan gelato holds its peak flavor and smooth texture only for a matter of days. No problem there—it is just too tasty to let sit any longer.


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