Gelato Is Definitely Something More
It's summertime. Temperatures are in the 90s around here and folks are actively seeking ways to cool off. Air conditioners and swimming pools are the order of the day, and so is ice cream. I'm fortunate enough to have a little ice cream stand within walking distance. But, alas, as refreshing as a scoop of good ol' classic rocky road ice cream might be, it still pales in comparison to Italian gelato.
“Now wait a minute,” you say. “I thought 'gelato' was just the Italian word for 'ice cream.'” Ah, not so. You have much to learn, young Padawan.
Ice cream and gelato share one thing in common – they're both frozen. Beyond that, there are a lot of differences. Oh sure, they'll both cool you off, but so will a glass of ice water. No, you want something more out of your frozen confection, and gelato is definitely something more: more creamy, more smooth and silky, and more flavorful. Why? Glad you asked.
Scientifically speaking, any frozen confection – whether ice cream, gelato, sorbet, custard, or yogurt – is a mixture of water molecules and fat molecules. Doesn't that sound cool and refreshing? Freezing these molecules causes crystals to form. The longer you freeze the mixture, the bigger the crystals get. And then you factor in air, which is introduced through the churning process. The more air you pump into the mixture, the softer and fluffier the mixture becomes. American ice cream producers call this “overrun” and American ice cream can contain as much as fifty percent air. Gelato, on the other hand, contains only twenty to thirty percent air.
Both ice cream and gelato contain cream, milk and sugar. But the ratios are quite different. Ice cream goes heavy on the cream and also uses egg yolks as a binder. Gelato is more milk than cream and it rarely, if ever, uses eggs. Because ice cream uses more cream, it also produces more butterfat. In order to qualify as ice cream, a product has to contain at least ten percent butterfat. Most American ice creams weigh in at anywhere between fourteen and twenty-five percent. Gelato, on the other hand, is only four to nine percent fat.
Less air means a denser, creamier texture and less fat makes for a lighter mixture. And since fat tends to coat the palate, gelato's lower fat content allows more flavor to come through.
One more technical factor: temperature. Gelato is usually served slightly warmer than ice cream; about ten to fifteen degrees warmer. Colder ice cream actually numbs your tongue and inhibits flavor intensity. Warmer gelato brings out the full flavor potential of the confection.
It used to be you'd have to hop a plane to Florence or Rome in order to find gelato. Not so anymore. Sales of the frozen treat are blazing hot in the US, where gelato sales rose from $11 million in 2009 to an estimated $214 million in 2014. Industry analysts projected gelato would garner a 32 percent share of America's $14.3 billion ice cream market by the end of 2016.
Gelaterie (that's the proper Italian plural for gelateria; you don't just add an “s” to make things plural in Italian) are popping up all over the country. Sure, you'd expect them in places with large Italian populations; cities like New York or Chicago. But I was pleasantly surprised to find a great gelateria in downtown Austin, Texas and a chocolatier who served delicious gelato in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The real inroads, however, are being made in the supermarket, where increasing shelf space in the freezer case is being given over to a product that was a niche market curiosity just a decade or so ago. Talenti is the largest producer of gelato in America. Headquartered in Minneapolis and named as a tribute to Bernardo Buontalenti, the Florentine artist credited with inventing gelato, Talenti products are probably the easiest to find in most American supermarkets, but Breyer's and other ice cream makers are also jumping on the gelato bandwagon in a big way. And while that's good from a product recognition standpoint, it's not always so good from a product quality standpoint. A lot of what's being marketed as “gelato” these days is nothing more than thinly disguised ice cream with a fancy label and a fancier price tag.
So how do you find good gelato? To begin with, you're probably not going to find it in a supermarket. For one thing, it's all thrown in the freezer with the ice cream. Remember what I said about gelato being served at a warmer temperature? So that means seeking out a gelateria or at least an ice cream joint that offers gelato. Many of them do. But what should you look for?
One of the first things is color. Good quality gelato is made up primarily of natural ingredients. There are no artificial preservatives, additives, or dyes. So any neon-colored gelato you encounter is likely not very high quality. I saw some bright green “pistachio” gelato in an ice cream shop. Sorry, but natural pistachios are brownish in color and pistachio gelato should be too. Although brightly colored berry gelati are pretty to look at, they should really be more muted in color. Natural fruits are seldom as brilliant as their artificial counterparts. And while you're looking at the gelato, take note of whether or not it looks shiny. It shouldn't. Shiny gelato either has too many sugars in it or it has oxidized, a sign of age.
Check out the selection of flavors. Simple, natural flavors are always best. Plain, for instance, or what Italians call fior di latte or fior di panna. This is just gelato with the natural flavor of milk or cream. Maybe vanilla, but be careful that the producer isn't trying to mask inferior milk or cream with vanilla flavoring. Chocolate is good, as are seasonal fruit flavors. Italian gelatiers introduced Parmesan gelato at a festival in Rimini a couple of years ago. Goofy novelty flavors like bubblegum and tutti fruitti are usually loaded with artificial ingredients. Whatever the flavor, tasting it should be a very forward experience. The flavor is up front in a quality gelato. It should grab you by the taste buds. If you can't quite figure out what you're eating, it's probably not very good quality.
There should be a marked textural difference between gelato and ice cream. Gelato is smooth, silky, and dense. If what you put in your mouth is light and airy with noticeable crystals, you've either got poor quality gelato or you've got ice cream.
Finally, look at the container from which the gelato is served. Is the product piled high in fluffy mounds? If so, it probably contains a lot of fat and/or emulsifiers. Is it being served from a plastic tub? That's pretty much a no-no when it comes to good gelato, which is usually served from a metal tub or tray. And because gelato is denser than ice cream, a flat metal spade is a better serving implement than a round metal (or plastic) scoop.
Summertime, and the livin' is.......sticky. Cool off today with some delicious gelato. It's way more than “ice cream.”