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Gelato (plural: gelati) 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 fat content, typically 3.5% for gelato versus 10-12% for ice-cream. Gelato has a higher sugar content, 24% for gelato versus approximately 14% 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 product 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. Heating the mix to 90°C is essential for chocolate gelato, which is traditionally flavored with cocoa powder. Yellow custard base, which contains egg yolks, is heated to 65°C. 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 in 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. Premium 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.
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.
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 sorbet.
Some people have the misconception that the word "gelato" is related to "gelatin" and that the latter is an ingredient. Traditional gelato recipes do not call for it and most gelato is not made with gelatin. In Italian, "gelato" literally means "frozen."