Gelato, or the plural gelati, is Italy's regional variant of ice cream. As such, gelato is made with some of the same ingredients as most ice-creams around the world; milk (and cream), sugar (and other sweeteners), flavorings (fruits, nuts, essences, etc.) and air are the main ingredients. Unlike many types of ice cream, gelato often does not contain eggs. Other ingredients that stabilize or emulsify may be used to improve the shelf life of the product. Gelato can be made using the hot process, which includes pasteurization, or the cold process, which doesn't require pasteurization. Both processes require a gelato batch freezer, which makes the end product by mixing the ingredients and incorporating air. Like high-end ice cream, gelato generally has less than 55% air, resulting in a denser product.
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The History of Gelato dates back to the 16th century. There is some confusion as to where or who really invented gelato. Most stories credit Bernardo Buontalenti, a native of Florence, who delighted the court of Caterina dei Medici with his creation. The people of Italy are certainly credited with introducing gelato to the rest of Europe; with Sicilian born Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, who was undoubtedly one of the most influential individuals in the history of gelato, as one of the first to sell it to the public. Summoned to Paris in 1686, he opened a café named after himself called "Café Procope", which quickly became one of the most celebrated haunts of the literary establishment in France. Meanwhile, in Italy, the art of traditional gelato making was passed on from father to son, improved and perfected right up to the 20th century, when many gelato makers began to emigrate, taking their know-how to the rest of Europe.
Gelato is typically made with fresh fruit or other ingredients such as chocolate (pure chocolate, flakes, chips, etc.), nuts, small confections or cookies, or biscuits. Gelato made with water and without dairy ingredients is known as sorbetto (also known as sorbet). Traditionally, milk-based gelato originated in northern Italy, while the fruit and water-based sorbetto came from the warmer parts of southern Italy.
Dairy gelato is made with cow's milk (whole or skim) and contains less butterfat depending on the ingredients (nuts, milk, or cream increase the fat content). North American-style ice creams contain more butterfat than gelato does, ranging from 10% to 18%, since cream is used. Gelato is usually made with whole milk, which is 3 to 4% butterfat. Unlike other ice cream, dairy gelato ingredients are not homogenized, which results in a product that melts faster. Gelato tends to be stickier than ice cream once it melts.
Some gelato recipes call for eggs, although, with the homogenization of the gelato culture and mixes and stabilisers readily available and in use, eggs are being phased out as emulsifiers.
Some people have the misconception that the word "gelato" is related to "gelatin" and that the latter is an ingredient, chasing away vegetarians and other people wishing to avoid gelatin. Traditional gelato recipes do not call for it and most gelato is not made with gelatin. In Italy, Gelato literally means "frozen." Similarly, water or cream-based confections served at elegant collations in the 1800s were called ices, as described in Isabella Beeton's Book of Household Management (sections 1510, 1555ff) .
In the UK, gelato is served from a different freezer from American-style ice cream — a forced-air freezer—which is usually held at about -15°C (5°F). This allows the gelato to be served immediately after being extruded from the gelato machine — the "forced air" blowing around holds the product at a consistent temperature. In Italy, gelato is typically served with a spoon out of a special freezing tray, ensuring a thicker, more flavorful consistency. Much of the gelato experience lies in its semi-frozen consistency; therefore, you might serve ice cream from a gelato freezer but you would not serve gelato from an ice-cream freezer as the gelato would become too frozen.
Other countries make ice creams similar to gelato. In Argentina, helado is made much the same way. In France (though usually slightly higher in fat) glace is a very similar product and, in fact, was introduced to France by Catherine de' Medici (of Florence).
Some food products from Italy also use gelato as a main ingredient. These include ice cream cake, semifreddos (gelato cake), spumoni, cassate, Tartufo, fruit filled gelato candies, and mignon. Gelati are often eaten in cones, or in bowls with a wafer.