The real difference between ice cream, gelato and frozen custard

Kevin Farrell

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There’s more than one way to find a bit of sweet relief and ice cold bliss when it comes time for a frozen desert on a summer day. I may scream and you may scream, but ice cream isn’t the only thing you have to scream for. From international delicacies like gelato to vacation-destination staples like frozen custard, when it comes to confections that cool you off, you’ve got more decisions to make beyond cone or cup.


Here’s what you need to know about the differences between ice cream, gelato, and the rest of the gang.

Ice cream

Although we tend to use ice cream as more of an umbrella term encompassing a wide array of frozen delights, the truth is that the words really only apply to a small sliver of options. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires any food being sold under the category of ice cream to possess no less than 10% milk fat (sometimes also called butter fat), 12%-16% sweeteners, and then a remaining composition consisting of cream, eggs and stabilizers. Sounds delicious, right? Spartan though the recipe may sound, manufacturers that adhere to it are able to produce the iconic, semi-hard, infinitely scoopable ice cream.

Although 10% is the minimum amount of milk fat required to qualify as legitimate ice cream, plenty of manufacturers produce signature recipes that regularly take that number up into the teens or low 20s. The reason is this: greater amounts of milk fat frustrate the ability of water molecules to freeze, slowing down the growth of ice crystals. The longer it takes ice crystals to form, the smaller they tend to be. Smaller crystals make for creamier, silkier sensations and mouthfeel when ice cream hits your tongue.


Gelato is one of the most rapidly-growing in-demand foods in the country, with annual sales ballooning from a paltry $11 million in 2009 to $214 million just five years later. Now granted, the entire U.S. ice cream industry is a $39 billion monster, so gelato remains just a drop in the bucket for now.

So what is it exactly? Italy’s contribution to the frozen dessert world has a slightly differing composition. Whereas ice cream contains specifically regulated amounts of milk fat in the form of cream, gelato relies more heavily on straight up milk. Knowing what we do about ice crystal formation, one might imagine that this would make gelato crunchier and less smooth than ice cream. In fact, the opposite is true. Because gelato is churned more slowly, in much smaller batches, far less air is whipped into the liquid base. This gentle churn results in a more elastic, smooth mouthfeel beloved the world over.

And before you go getting it twisted, calling gelato an Italian ice cream copycat, consider this: Some people interpret a series of bible passages in which Abraham eats “goat milk mixed with snow” as proof of gelato’s longstanding historical roots.

Soft serve

While you won’t find this type of ice cream sold in a supermarket, on account of the fact that it is difficult to preserve for extended periods of time, for many Americans on vacation, this is the frozen treat they are most likely to encounter. Accidentally invented when famed ice cream manufacturer Tom Carvel’s ice cream truck broke down during Memorial Day weekend in 1934 – forcing him to sell off his cargo before it melted into a soup – the softer treat proved to be a surprise hit. Carvel would soon after open a permanent ice cream shop selling this new soft variety of ice cream on the very spot his truck broke down. By 1938, Dairy Queen had developed a similar product.

Soft serve is lower in milk fat than hard ice cream, containing just 3-6%. As such, it doesn’t need to be refrigerated at nearly as low of a temperature. What soft serve does contain in spades ,though, is air. Up to 60% of a cone can actually just be air that is folded into the base during the freezing process. Soft serve is stored in its liquid form up until it is preparing to be served. Specialized machines are required to transform the liquid into its solid (if, well, soft) base.

Frozen custard

While eggs tend to pop up in recipes for a number of the desserts on our list here, they are the very foundation of frozen custard. Along with the usual suspects like sugar and cream, a generous serving of eggs is added to the base of frozen custard, which must first be cooked in a double boiler before heading off to the ice cream maker to take form and freeze.

When it comes to healthy desserts, frozen custard is actually a fairly decent option. The higher egg content amounts to a slightly larger serving of protein than other ice creams, and also allows for less reliance on fats to create a smooth consistency. As such, frozen custard regularly contains about half the calories of ice cream, even as it possesses a denser, richer texture.

Because frozen custard takes that extra shift in a double boiler, there is generally less experimentation with flavors in the final product.


Call it sher-bet, -bit, or -bert. It’s all the same to this lonesome frozen treat that doesn’t quite fit into any existing tribe. Sherbet, of the rainbow-hued fame, draws its dramatic colors from the inclusion of fruit and fruit juice in its liquid base. While it is technically a contender on our frozen dairy list here, by law sherbet can only contain up to 2% milk fat. Sherbet tends to melt quickly on the tongue, giving just the smallest hint that there is even any cream at all involved in this icy treat.


Kevin Farrell

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