2016 UPDATE: This How to Make Gelato post, originally published in 2010, was in dire need of an overhaul. It now features more detailed instructions and better pictures. I hope you like it!
Click here to access the Cherry and Raspberry Ripple Gelato recipe that used to accompany this post.
If you’ve ever been to Italy or dreamed of travelling there, chances are you’ve heard of gelato, the delightful icy treat made über-famous by Eat, Pray, Love. But what is gelato? Is it just a fancy name for ice cream?
Before going to Italy for the first time many years ago, I had heard about the awesomeness of gelato. Everyone who had tasted it seemed possessed by the memory of its taste, telling me about its smooth creaminess and intense flavor. No one seemed to know whether it was ice cream, sorbet, or something else, but they knew it was heavenly. I ended up eating it almost every day while I was there, and I tried all the fruity flavors, which are my favorites. Gelato’s taste is very intense and pure, its color is vivid, and its texture is clean. I thought it tasted like sorbet but without the egg-white, frothy texture. Because of the saturated colors, I thought it might not contain dairy.
After I came back, I researched gelato to find out what it is, how it’s made, and what makes it so delightful. After immersing myself in some excellent books (see my recommendations at the bottom of this post), I discovered what makes gelato different from ice cream.
- Gelato contains less fat than ice cream. Ice cream’s main ingredient is cream, whereas gelato is made mainly from milk. Some gelato recipes use a small quantity of cream, and some use only milk. Gelato also usually uses less egg yolks than does custard-based ice cream, although that depends on the recipe. Fat coats the tongue in a lovely, silky way, but it also tends to mute flavors. Gelato’s lower fat content could explain why people tend to find its taste brighter and more intense. The flavors come through more directly then when they’re blended with heavy cream.
- Gelato has a denser texture than ice cream. Gelato is churned at a lower speed than ice cream, which means that the finished product contains less air than ice cream, creating the dense texture of gelato.
- Gelato is served at warmer temperatures than ice cream. Storing gelato at warmer temperatures makes it softer, providing its signature silky texture. Ice-cold treats numb the tongue, but because gelato is served soft, you feel like you’re having a richer treat than its fat content indicates. The warmer serving temperature also allows the flavors to come through better.
How do you make gelato at home? You start with the right recipe, of course. There is no single recipe for gelato, and like many culinary specialties in Italy, each region makes it slightly differently. Over the years, I’ve adopted two recipes for basic vanilla-bean gelato.
The first is a classic recipe. Its base is an egg yolk-rich custard that gives it a creamy texture, which I find closer to that of classic ice cream, and a slight yellow tinge.
The second is a Sicilian variation that uses cornstarch, a thickening agent that allows you to use less egg yolks, making a bright white gelato and a delightfully silky, mouth-coating texture. I discovered the Sicilian cornstarch trick fairly recently, and it has quickly become my favorite way of making gelato. Click here for the recipe to make Sicilian-Style Vanilla Bean Gelato.
To discover your favorite, you’ll need to try both methods. Pictured below: Top is Classic Vanilla Bean Gelato, and bottom is Sicilian-Style Vanilla Bean Gelato.
Do you need an ice cream maker? To get the best texture, you need an ice cream maker. An ice cream maker freezes the custard slowly while continually mixing it, creating a super-fine texture free of ice crystals or harder chunks. Some companies now offer specialty appliances labelled as gelato makers, but all ice cream makers on the market churn at a much lower speed than commercial ice cream makers, which make them perfectly suited for making gelato.
If you don’t own an ice cream maker and you don’t want to buy one, check out ice cream expert David Lebovitz’s tricks to make no-churn ice cream. You can also use his tips to make gelato.
About the ingredients: The best gelati are made with the best ingredients. Use super-fresh eggs, whole milk, and cream as well as top-quality flavorings, such as vanilla beans, pure vanilla extract, and cocoa powder. If you’re making fruit varieties, use seasonally fresh, perfectly ripe fruits or top-quality fruit purees. I don’t recommend using skim or partially skimmed milk because the texture and taste simply won’t be the same.
If you’re lactose intolerant, you can substitute lactose-free milk and cream.
To make a completely dairy-free gelato, choose high-fat ingredients for the best results. Nut milks are generally too lean, and they lead to a weak, watery texture. Soy milk and cream generally work better and coconut cream and milk work great, but be advised that the taste will be slightly affected.
Last but not least, here’s an important serving tip. Because home freezers are set to very low temperatures, make sure you always take your gelato out of the freezer 10 minutes before serving it. That will not only make it easier to serve—gelato’s lower fat content means it freezes rock hard—but also soften it to a consistency closer to what you would enjoy at a gelati bar, waking up the flavors and giving it the luxurious texture that is so easy to fall in love with.
Makes 2 quarts [1.89 L], serves 8 to 10 gelato lovers.
In a saucepan, warm the milk over medium heat until it just starts to bubble around the edge (no need to bring it to a boil). Remove from the heat and reserve.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large mixing bowl if you’re using a hand mixer, beat the egg yolks and sugar together until the mixture is thick and creamy (about 2 minutes at medium speed). With the mixer on low speed, slowly pour in one ladleful of the hot milk into the egg mixture. Slowly pour in the rest of the mixture and beat until the milk is well incorporated.
Pour the milk and egg mixture back into the saucepan, add the vanilla bean, and place over medium-low heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the custard coats the back of a wooden spoon.
Remove from the heat. Let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate for a few hours, or preferably overnight so the vanilla bean infuses fully.
Fish the vanilla bean out of the custard, then pour the custard through a fine mesh strainer into the bowl of an ice cream maker (straining the mixture will ensure a silky smooth gelato). Freeze according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Stop the machine when the gelato is icy but still soft.
Transfer the gelato to an airtight container and freeze until firm, about two hours. The gelato will keep, frozen, for up to two weeks. Always take the gelato out to room temperature 10 to 15 minutes before serving to soften it and make it easier to scoop.
Recipe Credit: Marie Asselin
Here are my favorite books about gelato/ice cream making:
- The Perfect Scoop: Ice Creams, Sorbets, Granitas, and Sweet Accompaniments, by David Lebovitz
- The Ultimate Ice Cream Book: Over 500 Ice Creams, Sorbets, Granitas, Drinks, And More, by Bruce Weinstein
- Italian Cooking School: Ice Cream, by The Silver Spoon Kitchen (Phaidon)
- The Ciao Bella Book of Gelato and Sorbetto: Bold, Fresh Flavors to Make at Home, by F. W. Pearce and Danilo Zecchin
- The Art of Making Gelato: 50 Flavors to Make at Home, by Morgan Morano
- 500 Ice Creams, Sorbets & Gelatos: The Only Ice Cream Compendium You’ll Ever Need, by Alex Barker
- Sweet Cream and Sugar Cones: 90 Recipes for Making Your Own Ice Cream and Frozen Treats from Bi-Rite Creamery, by Kris Hoogerhyde, Anne Walker and Dabney Gough
- Ice Cream Social: 100 Artisanal Recipes for Ice Cream, Sherbet, Granita, and Other Frozen Favorites, by Anthony Tassinello and Mary Jo Thoresen
- Lomelino’s Ice Cream: 79 Ice Creams, Sorbets, and Frozen Treats to Make Any Day Sweet, by Linda Lomelino
- Dairy-Free Ice Cream: 75 Recipes Made Without Eggs, Gluten, Soy, or Refined Sugar, by Kelly V. Brozyna