Gelato (Italian pronunciation: [dʒeˈlaːto]; plural: gelati) is the Italian word for ice cream, derived from the Latin word "gelātus" (meaning frozen). In American English this word commonly refers to varieties of ice cream made in a traditional Italian style. Gelato is made with milk, cream, various sugars, and flavoring such as fresh fruit and nutpurees.
Gelato is a type of soft ice cream containing a relatively small amount of air. By statute, gelato in Italy must have at least 3.5% butterfat, with no upper limit established.
The sugar content in homemade gelato, as in traditional ice cream, is balanced with the water content to act as an anti-freeze to prevent it from freezing solid. Types of sugar used include sucrose, dextrose, and inverted sugar to control apparent sweetness. Typically, gelato—like any other ice cream—needs a stabilizing base. Egg yolks are used in yellow custard-based gelato flavors, including zabaione and creme caramel, and non-fat milk solids are also added to gelato to stabilize the base. Starches and gums, especially corn starch, are sometimes also used to thicken and stabilize the mix.
In the United States there is no standard of definition for gelato set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as there is for ice cream. Whereas ice cream in the U.S. is defined by the Federal Code both by its ingredients, which includes milk fat (also known as butterfat) of 10% or more, gelato in the U.S. covers a wide range of products including frozen desserts eaten like ice cream; products that are identical to ice cream with the exception of their butterfat contents; and premium ice cream containing butterfat far exceeding the minimums set forth in Italy. Depending on the recipe and the person making it, dairy-based gelato contains 16–24% sugar. Most ice cream in the United States contains 12-16% sugar.
A street vendor selling gelato in Montecarotto, Italy in the 1950s
The history of gelato dates back to frozen desserts in Sicily, ancient Rome and Egypt made from snow and ice brought down from mountaintops and preserved below ground. Later, frozen desserts appeared during banquets at the Medici court in Florence. The Florentine polymathBernardo Buontalenti is said to have invented modern ice cream in 1565, as he presented his recipe and his innovative refrigerating techniques to Catherine de' Medici, who in turn brought the novelty to France as Queen consort, where in 1686 the Sicilian fisherman Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli perfected the first ice cream machine. The popularity of gelato among larger shares of the population, however, only increased in the 1920s–1930s in the northern Italian city of Varese, where the first gelato cart was developed. Italy is the only country where the market share of handmade gelato versus industrial one is over 55%. Today, more than 5,000 modern Italian ice cream parlors employ over 15,000 people, mostly Italians.
The mixture for gelato is typically prepared using a hot process first, where the sugars need to dissolve. White base is heated to 85 °C (185 °F) completing a pasteurization program. The hot process to make chocolate gelato is essentially the same for conventional ice cream, and depending on recipes, it is meant to be traditionally flavored with cocoa powder and cocoa butter.