NPR logo Why Scream For Gelato Instead Of Ice Cream? Here's The Scoop

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Why Scream For Gelato Instead Of Ice Cream? Here's The Scoop

Higher butterfat content makes ice cream thick and heavy, which is why you can get a nice, round, firm scoop of ice cream, shown at left. Gelato, at right, has less cream, which gives you softer drifts. iStockphoto/The Art of Making Gelato, Race Point Publishing hide caption

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iStockphoto/The Art of Making Gelato, Race Point Publishing

Higher butterfat content makes ice cream thick and heavy, which is why you can get a nice, round, firm scoop of ice cream, shown at left. Gelato, at right, has less cream, which gives you softer drifts.

iStockphoto/The Art of Making Gelato, Race Point Publishing

Back in the day, this saying applied to pretty much everyone: "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream."

Nowadays, though, one friend is probably screaming for gelato, another for a vegan frozen dessert and yet someone else for sherbet.

But it's gelato, ice cream's Italian cousin, that's keeping more customers coming back. Gelato sales rose from $11 million in 2009 to an estimated $214 million in 2014, which has kept frozen dessert sales afloat, according to the market research firm Mintel.

Gelato has gained ground in part because it's novel, says Beth Bloom, an analyst at Mintel. And, because we tend to think of gelato as "this special thing made by artisans in small, premium batches," she says.

But is gelato really all that different? I'll admit that whenever I take in a mouthful, I often wonder if I'm really just eating ice cream with an exotic name slapped on.

Italian gelato is smoother and silkier than its American counterpart. It's also denser, but has elasticity and fluidity, says Morgan Morano, author of The Art of Gelato. Marc Buehler/Flickr hide caption

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Marc Buehler/Flickr

Italian gelato is smoother and silkier than its American counterpart. It's also denser, but has elasticity and fluidity, says Morgan Morano, author of The Art of Gelato.

Marc Buehler/Flickr

They are, in fact, quite different, Morgan Morano assures me. She's the author of the new book The Art of Making Gelato, and was classically trained in Italy.

The first thing you'll notice, she says, is that gelato is a lot creamier. It's smoother and silkier than its American counterpart. It's also denser, yet it has that elasticity and fluidity that you can't get with ice cream.

Another difference: "the actual recipe and ingredients used," she says. Both contain cream, milk and sugar. Ice cream, though, is heavier on the cream and typically uses egg yolks to pack the mixture together. Gelato, on the other hand, has more milk than cream. And authentic gelato rarely uses egg yolks, says Morano. Usually, if they're in there, it's just for a bit of flavor.

With more cream comes more butterfat. The Food and Drug Administration defines ice cream as containing no less than 10 percent fat – though Morano says most ice cream tend to be 14 to 25 percent fat. Italian gelato, though, only has about 4 to 9 percent fat.

At the most basic level – the molecular level – any frozen dessert is a mix of water and fat molecules, according to a 2014 video by the American Chemical Society. These molecules form crystals as the mixture freezes. And the longer it take for ice cream to freeze, the bigger the crystal, resulting in that crunchy mouthfeel.

What the butterfat does, according to the ACS video, is keep ice crystals small by preventing water molecules from clumping together to form giant crystals. It also makes the mixture thick and heavy, which is why you can get a nice, round, firm scoop of ice cream. Scoops of gelato, on the other hand, are often soft fluid drifts.

But if fat is what makes the frozen treat creamy, how can gelato be creamier?

"There is a lot less air churned into gelato than into American ice cream, [a process] known as overrun," Morano says. American ice cream can be up to 50 percent air. Air makes it soft and fluffy.

Since gelato has less butterfat, the mixture is light to begin with. So it only needs 20 to 30 percent air as it thickens and freezes. That keeps the product dense — and therefore creamy, Morano explains. It's also why her recipes suggest using a gelato machine, which churns at a slower rate, rather than an ice cream maker.

Lower fat also means the flavors in gelato come out better, Morano argues. "Butterfat coats your palate," she says, "and if you have less of it you can taste the flavors more quickly."

It also helps that authentic Italian gelato is typically served at 7 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit, about 10 to 15 degrees warmer than ice cream. As the YouTube video explains, the cold numbs your tongue so you don't taste as much of that sugary sweetness in ice cream. Because gelato is served warmer, you also get more of the flavor's intensity.

With the trend of gelato on the rise, shops have been popping up and commercial ice cream companies like Breyers and Haagen-Daz have been quick to jump on the bandwagon. But Morano says there's one way to tell if a cup of gelato is made the traditional way or if it's just ice cream in a fancy suit.

She says traditional gelato shouldn't be served with an ice cream scoop. Instead, you have to use a spade, which is flatter — like a spatula. "Not only can you work gelato with the spade to soften it up, but there's a whole artistry," she says. "That's why I love the spade, it's an amazing tool and when you're using it to scoop gelato, people love seeing that."

When it comes to actually eating gelato, she says one thing matters most: "Eat it fresh."

"When you make anything at home, it never tastes the same the next day," she says. "These recipes in my book — they're meant to be consumed within 24 hours."

Correction June 16, 2015

An earlier version of this story stated that gelato sales rose to an estimated $416 million in 2014. In fact, gelato sales rose to $214 million in 2014, according to Mintel.