Gelato vs Ice Cream vs Sorbet – What’s the Difference?

Last Updated on May 13, 2024 by Jo Fitzsimons

Whether you’re wandering the streets of Italy or at the beach on a hot day, there’s nothing better than a blended, frozen dessert. Ice cream, gelato and sorbet are three of the most popular summery treats all across the world. But if you’ve ever found yourself wondering what’s the difference between gelato and ice cream and sorbet, you’re not alone. Yes, they’re all well-loved frozen desserts made from variations of dairy or fruit and sugar. But that’s where the similarities end.

In this article, we’ll give you the full scoop (geddit!?) on gelato vs ice cream vs sorbet, including the key differences between the them, and which is healthier. And because we’re all about Italian food and drink, we’ll give you the low-down on our favorite gelato flavors that you should try at least once. Ideally when you’re in Italy – Venice, perhaps.

strawberry and vanilla double scoop ice creams in a cone

What is Gelato?

Gelato is a frozen dairy-based Italian dessert made by combining cream, milk, sugar, and air. Despite containing the same basic ingredients as ice cream, gelato is actually much richer and denser than its close cousin. 

It’s impossible to visit Italy without stumbling across countless gelaterias (Italian gelato shops) serving the tasty sweet treat. And in recent years, gelato has increased in popularity in many other countries all across the world too.

What is Ice Cream?

Ice cream is also a frozen dairy-based dessert with uncertain historical origins i.e. nobody quite knows where or when it was invented – possibly China or Japan or Persia. Like gelato, ice cream is made using cream, milk, sugar and air. So, it’s easy to see why many people are confused into thinking gelato and ice cream are the same. However, when you look a little closer at how ice cream is made versus gelato, you’ll start to see that the two are more different that you think.

What is the Difference Between Gelato and Ice Cream?

Gelato is the Italian word for ice cream. So, you wouldn’t be completely misguided in assuming that the two are the same. However, while these creamy, frozen desserts are certainly very similar, gelato and ice cream do actually have some distinct differences. 

How is gelato different from ice cream?

Ingredients

Perhaps the most significant difference between gelato and ice cream is the ingredients. Both use a base of cream, milk, and sugar. However, these ingredients are used in different proportions to create the two desserts. As suggested by the name, ice cream contains more cream than milk, while gelato is made with a higher ratio of milk to cream. Ice cream also typically uses egg yolks to add fat and act as a natural stabilizer, while gelato rarely will.

Production – churn & air

Gelato and ice cream are also produced slightly differently. Both desserts must be churned to create the creamy texture we’ve all come to love. But the speed at which each is churned varies. Ice cream is churched at a higher speed to incorporate more air into the mixture and create a lighter consistency. Gelato is churched slower to integrate less air, making it denser

Texture – fluffy vs elastic

The higher levels of cream and incorporated air in ice cream give the dessert a lighter and creamier texture. Gelato, on the other hand, has a richer and silkier consistency. Some describe ice cream as fluffy in texture, while gelato is more elastic.

Freezing temperature

Another key difference between ice cream and gelato is the temperature at which the two are stored and served at. The ideal serving temperature for scooping ice cream is between -14°C and -12°C (6°F and 10°F). Gelato is served slightly warmer, between -12°C to -6°C (10°F and 22°F).

Taste

Finally, the most important factor is taste. All of the above – ingredients, air, texture and temperature – contribute to the slightly different flavors of gelato vs ice cream. Ice cream’s higher butterfat content coats the taste buds, while the colder temperature numbs the tongue, causing the flavors to be less pronounced. Gelato has a lower fat ratio and is warmer and denser, allowing the flavors to shine through more intensely.

Like Italian food culture? You might also like our guides: How To Eat Italian Breakfast Like A Local and Italian Aperitivo – Everything You Need To Know.

Is Gelato Healthier than Ice Cream?

fruit and nut topped gelato trays in italy

Due to the higher ratio of cream and additional egg yolks, ice cream tends to have more fat and therefore calories than gelato. Ice cream legally must contain at least 10% calories from fat, although many brands increase this to as much as 25%. 

Gelato is generally only around 5-7% butterfat and has fewer calories than ice cream. However, it can contain more sugar to offer richer flavors, make the dessert softer and more scoopable.

While every ice cream and gelato is likely to be different, as a general rule, one scoop of vanilla gelato contains around 90 calories vs 125 calories for vanilla ice cream. The fat levels will be around 3g of fat for gelato vs 7g of fat for ice cream. The sugar levels will be around 10g for gelato and 14g for ice cream.

With the high sugar and fat content, neither gelato or ice cream are considered ‘healthy’ foods. But when eaten in moderation, they’re both delicious treats that can be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet. And if you’re really focused on micronutrients, gelato is a bit healthier than ice cream. That’s especially true if you’re ordering a gelato that comes topped with something healthy like natural fruit and nuts. (Nutrition source).

Gelato vs. Ice Cream: Which to Choose?

Now you know the difference between gelato and ice cream, which one should you go for? 

When it comes to gelato vs ice cream, it completely depends on your personal preference. If you’re looking for a cold and creamy treat to enjoy on a hot day, ice cream may be the way to go, especially as it will take longer to melt given its colder storage temperature. But for a silky dessert with richer flavors, opt for gelato. Either way, we’re sure that you won’t be disappointed.

Related: Ultimate Prosecco Food and Wine Pairing Guide | 14 Types of Italian Cheese Everyone Needs To Know

Ice Cream vs Gelato vs Sorbet

What about sorbet? How is it any different from gelato and ice cream?

Ice cream and gelato are much more closely related than sorbet and gelato or ice cream. While gelato and ice cream are both creamy, dairy-based desserts, sorbet is completely dairy-free. 

This is a common question – does gelato have dairy. The answer is yes. If you’re looking for a non-dairy alternative, order sorbet.

Instead of cream and milk, sorbet uses fruit juice, fruit purée, and water to create a denser and more refreshing frozen treat. This makes it a great option for people who are vegan or lactose intolerant. Sorbet is also lower in fat and calories than gelato and ice cream, making it the healthier choice out of the three.

Sorbet vs Granita

lime and mint frozen dessert in a glass

Just to bend your mind one last bit (then you can have a gelato or ice cream or sorbet, we promise), where does granita fit in? If you’re not familiar with it, granita is a non-dairy icy dessert similar to sorbet, i.e. it’s a blend of ice, sugar and fruit flavors. It originated in Sicily and is most commonly found in southern Italy. What’s the difference between sorbet vs granita? The answer is texture. Sorbet is heavily blended to give a smooth, creamy (but dairy-free) texture. Granita, on the other hand, has a more rough texture that is closer to a shave ice. Mulberry (typical in Sicily), Lemon (typical in Amalfi coast and Naples) and coffee are popular granita flavors.

Related: Prosecco vs Champagne: What’s The Difference?


Best Gelato Flavors To Try

Proper Italian gelato is more likely to feature simple and natural flavors than ice cream’s many experimental varieties. Authentic gelaterias in Italy serve mostly classic flavors, such as fresh fruits, nuts, and rich chocolate. And that’s what we recommend if you’re searching for a gelato flavor.

Below are some of the most popular Italian gelato flavors you can find in Italy – see if you can find them in your local supermarket or gelato shop:

  • Chocolate
  • Stracciatella
  • Pistachio
  • Hazelnut
  • Tiramisu
  • Fior di Latte (vanilla)
  • Strawberry
  • Lemon

In Italy, gelato is usually eaten on its own in a cup or cone – rather than in the form of more elaborate ice cream sundaes or floats. However, the frozen treat is also used in several tasty Italian desserts, including tartufo, zuccotto, and affogato.

Did you know? Treviso is where the Italian dessert Tiramisu was invented and you can try it in the original restaurant.

Related: 11 Best Italian Pastries (With Recipes)

Did you know Italy’s Prosecco wine region is only 1hr from Venice? Find out more about the Prosecco Region and check out our Prosecco Wine Tours here.


What is affogato?

We couldn’t finish this article without mentioning one of our absolute favorite gelato-based desserts – affogato.

Affogato is a popular Italian dessert that consists of a scoop of frozen vanilla gelato topped with a shot of hot espresso. The name literally translates to ‘drowned’ in English, denoting the action of drowning the gelato in coffee

You can also add a shot of Italian liqueur such as amaretto to an affogato to create a boozy twist on the classic dessert. Nope, it won’t win any health or low-calorie awards, but sometimes we all deserve a little indulgence and an affogato is worth it. It’s a nice indulgent change to fruity Prosecco cocktails.

Related: 15 Fun Drinking Games for Couples | How to Ease Your Hangover in 7 Simple Steps | 15 Best Hangover Foods (and Foods to Avoid)

So, that’s our guide to the difference between gelato vs ice cream vs sorbet. Got any questions or suggestions? Let us know in the comments below.

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