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  • Writer's pictureNathaniel Mellor

What is Gelato?

One of Italy's greatest contributions to humankind), which is much higher in fat content.


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Every year, millions of people flock to Italy to see the Duomo in Florence, the Colosseum in Rome, the beaches of the Amalfi Coast, and, for many of them, to taste gelato. While gelato might seem like an afterthought for many tourists, and nowhere near as important as a great pizza or a plate of cacio e pepe, it can still make (or break) a culinary experience.

A neon sign that reads "gelateria"

So, what is gelato?


Cream, milk, and sugar. These are the only ingredients required to make gelato, and for many artisanal gelaterie (gelato shops), they are the only ones used in the “gelato base”, or, the foundation from which the rest of their gelato is made.

Gelato will typically have anywhere between 5-20% cream and 60-80% milk. When looking into the technical specifics of making gelato, most gelato makers use the terms "fat" and "water" as these are more specific, and fat content in milk can vary from breed to breed, but also animal to animal, since some gelaterie use water buffalo milk (latte di bufala), which is much higher in fat conent.

In addition to milk and cream, the other important component is air; gelato is slow-churned, having anywhere between 20% and a maximum of 45% air. The sugar ratio will vary from gelaterie to gelaterie, flavor to flavor.


Ice cream, by comparison, has a higher fat content, less milk, and is fast-churned—creating a creamier and lighter mixture. This is also why you might pick up a quart of ice cream and find that it's incredibly light—that's all the air. But a high fat content (or oil, as is sometimes substituted in lower-quality brands) will still make the ice cream feel rich.


Pro Tip: If you're in the States, compare the weight of a quart of Breyer's to something like Costco-brand ice cream, or Alden's Organic to feel the weight difference.


Is sorbetto the same thing as gelato?


Sorbet, or sorbetto in Italian, is offered next to gelato in gelateria, but it’s not the same thing. Sorbetto is water, sugar, and usually one fruit such as: lemon, strawberry, blackberry, watermelon, etc. Don't be deceived by the simple ingredients. Because there are fewer ingredients, the gelateria has to use the best of the best—fresh spring water, seasonal fruit, premium sugar—or it'll be easier to tell.


Does "artisanal gelato" mean anything?


When walking the streets of Italy, you might come across a gelateria that has "artiginale" (Italian for artisanal) in the name. Or somewhere near the name.

Some products are protected in Italy, usually with DOC or DOCG labels, and sometimes a place can use "artisanal" if they use heirloom ways to make a product—much like how France has protected the use of "artisanal" when it comes to bakeries.

But when it comes to gelaterie, the label "artiginale" means nothing, and is no guarantee of being a good gelateria.


Is there anything else I should know?

Yes, there is. Tons.

Luckily, I wrote an article on it!

You can find it on Matador, or here on Only A Bag.



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