What is Gelato?

Milestones in Gelato History
How is a Gelato Made


Gelato is an age-old delicacy that dates back thousands of years. The earliest beginnings of frozen desserts are recorded in 3000 B.C. when Asian cultures discovered they could consume crushed ice and flavorings. Five hundred years later, it became a custom for Egyptian pharaohs to offer their guests a cup of ice sweetened with fruit juices. Italians joined in as the Romans began the ritual of eating the ice of the volcanoes Etna and Vesuvius, and covering it with honey.

It was during the Italian Renaissance when the great tradition of Italian gelato began. The famed Medici family in Florence sponsored a contest, searching for the greatest frozen dessert. A man named Ruggeri, a chicken farmer and cook in his spare time, took part in the competition. Ruggeri’s tasty frozen dessert of sweet fruit juice and ice (similar to today’s sorbet) won the coveted award, which immediately put Ruggeri in the spotlight. The news of Ruggeri’s talent traveled quickly and Caterina de Medici took Ruggeri with her to France. Caterina was convinced that only he could rival the fine desserts of French chefs – and had to make his specialty at her wedding to the future King of France.

In the late 1500s, the Medici family commissioned famous artist and architect Bernardo Buontalenti to prepare a beautiful feast for the visiting King of Spain. Using his culinary skills to present an elaborate and visually pleasing display, Buontalenti presented the King of Spain with a creamy frozen dessert that we now call gelato. Buontalenti is considered the inventor of gelato.

But it was Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, a famous restaurateur, who made gelato famous all over Europe. Procopio moved from Palermo to Paris and opened a café that soon became the hub for every novelty, from exotic coffee, to chocolate, to a refined gelato served in small glasses that resembled egg cups. The Procope, as the café was known, soon became hugely successful and gelato spread throughout France and into other parts of Europe.

Gelato made its way to the Americas for the first time in 1770, when Giovanni Basiolo brought it to New York City. At this point, there were two types of gelato – one made by mixing water with fruits such as lemon and strawberries (also known as Sorbetto), and another made by mixing milk with cinnamon, pistachio, coffee or chocolate. By 1846, the hand-crank freezer was refined and changed the way North Americans made this frozen dessert. The freezer kept the liquid mixture constantly in motion and kept it cool throughout, making a product that was no longer granular, but creamy. This is where the history of industrial ice cream began, as the product contained more air and was less dense. gelato did not make a name for itself in North America. until the late 1900s – although its popularity still had a long way to go.

Today, gelato stores are opening all over North America as they started to appreciate the superior quality of gelato and learn about the intense flavor, the natural ingredients and the nutritional value of gelato. And though gelato still remains largely undiscovered in North America. compared to Europe, companies like PreGel are working to change that by training owners and employees of gelato shops and other foodservice establishments to combine technology with the tried and true Italian techniques – to consistently produce the creamiest, smoothest, most flavorful gelato around.

Milestones in Gelato History

3000 BC:
Asian cultures discover they can consume crushed ice and flavorings
2500 BC:
Egyptian pharaohs offer their guests a cup of ice sweetened with fruit juices
The Romans begin a custom of consuming the ice of Mt. Etna and Mt. Vesuvius with honey
Ruggeri participates in a competition in Florence and wins with a frozen sweet (a sorbet)
Buontalenti prepares a banquet for the King of Spain and gelato is served for the first time
Francesco Procopio moves from Palermo to Paris and opens a café, making gelato famous all over Europe
Giovanni Basiolo introduces gelato in New York
Hand-crank freezer is perfected in America and changes the way the frozen dessert is made


Did you know that all the ingredients you need to make gelato are probably already in your own kitchen? Gelato is made with ingredients that are all found in nature making it both a healthy and natural dessert.  To better understand what makes the delicious, creamy Italian ice cream, here’s a list of the ingredients that it’s made from:  


Depending on whether you want to make a cream flavor (such as chocolate or vanilla) or a fruit flavor (such as strawberry or mango), you need either water or milk.  The best type of milk for the cream flavors of gelato is whole milk (3.5%), but some gelato makers use reduced-fat milk (1%  or 2%), fat-free milk (skim) or even soy milk!  The milk helps the gelato obtain a creamy and smooth texture, but it also increases its resistance to melting so you can take your time to enjoy it on a hot day.  Milk used in gelato is a great way to not only add protein to your diet, but to get an extra serving of calcium. 


If you want to make a fruit flavor of gelato (also known as sorbetto), gelato makers use water.  While tap water will work just fine, the quality and consistency of tap water can vary from place to place so the best sorbetto is made with filtered water.  Try drinking a glass of tap water and a glass of filtered water (or bottled water) and see if you can taste a difference.  If you can, that means your sorbetto will taste differently as well, depending on which one you use!  Because water freezes, this ingredient helps the sorbet to keep its frozen quality.  Water also helps to hydrate and disperse the other ingredients. 


Is anything sweeter than our next ingredient?  Gelato makers add sugar to bring sweetness to the mix, but also to help decrease the freezing point and increase the viscosity.  We learned that the water in gelato will freeze, but adding sugar to the mix will allow it to maintain a soft but not melted texture.  There are many different types of sugar that can be used, each bringing a different level of sweetness.  Some of the types include: sucrose (cane sugar), dextrose, lactose (natural sugar from milk), fructose (natural sugar from fruit), and invert sugars (glucose, honey and corn syrup).  Invert sugars can be used similar to sweeteners, but are completely natural.  The only thing sweeter than regular sugar?  Invert sugar!  Keep in mind it doesn’t take as much invert sugar as regular sugar to sweeten a mix.    

In some cases, sugar is substituted in gelato to appeal to an audience with special dietetic needs. Splenda® Brand Sweetener is one of those substitutes, and creates an equally dynamic gelato product. Gelato makers are truly committed to being able to supply their customers with options that can fit into any diet, and as the industry continues to grow, researching new substitutes for sugar is a focus.   


Another ingredient that is used to make gelato is milk-solids-non-fat (MSNF), which consists of protein, lactose and minerals found in dairy products.  A gelato maker can add skim milk powder, milk or cream to the product for the benefits of MSNF.  This is another ingredient that increases the percentage of proteins and improved the texture of the gelato at the same time.  Too little MSNF might make the gelato icy, while too much could make the texture grainy.  Just the right amount of MSNF makes the gelato delicious!

Stabilizers and Emulsifiers

To keep that gelato in a perfect swirl on top of your cone, gelato makers often add food additives, in the forms of stabilizers and emulsifiers.  These food additives preserve flavor and improve taste and appearance.  Stabilizers act as thickening agents to give gelato a firmer texture.  Emulsifiers allow water and oils to remain mixed together so the gelato mix is consistent from the first scoop to the last.  Both of these additives come from natural substances and are used in very small amounts.  When making gelato, it’s important to check all your ingredients because some semi-finished gelato bases already contain these ingredients. 


What’s your favorite gelato flavor?  It would be hard to argue with the common assumption that flavor is one of the most important characteristics of gelato.  Two important things to remember when talking about flavor are type and intensity.  Flavors can come in the form of pastes or powders and from low to high intensity.  But above all, the best type is a high-quality flavor that will be consistent.  This means that every time you pick your favorite flavor, it will taste exactly like you remember it! 


Fruit is a great addition to any fruit-flavored gelato (known as sorbetto).  Fruit can be added as fresh, frozen, juice or fruit puree.  The natural acidity in the fruit helps to characterize the flavor and the natural sugar sweetens the mix.  While fresh fruit makes for a really intense gelato, frozen or fruit puree is a great way to enjoy your favorite fruit out of season.  So when you’re craving the taste of watermelon in January, stop by your local gelato store for some “remind-you-of-summer” sorbetto!


Not to be overlooked, air is an important ingredient too!  As gelato is being frozen, the liquid mix is whipped with air to increase the volume of the product and smooth out the texture.  “Overrun” is the term typically used for the amount of air whipped into the product.  Because milk-based gelato is denser than water-based sorbetto, it has more overrun.  It’s important to remember that the air used to make gelato should be from a clean environment so there’s no affect on the taste of your gelato.

How is Gelato Made?

The Old Fashion Way

The process of making gelato has evolved over thousands of years. In the beginning, gelato was made with a few simple ingredients.  Egg yolks were used as the main stabilizer and were added to the other raw ingredients such as sugar and milk (sometimes water for sorbetto), heated in a large pan/bowl and then chilled. Flavor ingredients (fresh fruit, nuts, chocolate, etc.) were then added and the gelato was batched. Batching gelato is also known as the process in which the gelato is frozen and air is incorporated into it to give it its nice, dense, smooth texture. The tedious Old Fashion Process only allowed gelato makers to be able to make a maximum of 4-5 of the traditional flavors, and the shelf life was not long. While this is the classic “from scratch” recipe , few gelato makers still use this process as technology has redefined the traditional gelato making process without compromising taste and flavor.

Hot Process

At the turn of the 21st century, new technology allowed for the introduction of a new way to make gelato known as the Hot Process. Widely used today, the Hot Process is one of the most highly used processes. The Hot Process involves the use of a pasteurizer, which heats the gelato ingredients up to 85°C for 5 seconds and then drops the temperature to 5°C. This controlling of the process allows for stabilizers and emulsifiers to perform properly, and creates a microbiologically safe mixture.

After the pasteurizer, the gelato is placed in a batch freezer. Here, the mix is quickly frozen while being stirred to incorporate air to produce and control formation of small ice crystals that are necessary to give gelato a smooth, creamy texture and a satisfactory overrun (percentage of air). There are some gelato machines that contain both a pasteurizer and a batch freezer, which can simplify the process. Hot process is generally used for gelato because it can allow more flexibility for the customization of recipes, and offers a slightly longer shelf life than all of the other processes.

Cold Process

In the 1980’s, the Cold Process was developed to provide a simpler gelato making process. The Cold Process is the other process typically used by many gelato makers today because it allows for the preparation of gelato to occur in a more efficient manner. The ingredients used in the Cold Process are already microbiologically safe which eliminates the need for a pasteurizer –  not only saving gelato shops costs, but also space, as it is one less piece of equipment.

In the Cold Process, the raw ingredients are mixed with a Cold Process base and flavor, and placed directly in the batch freezer, where the gelato is batched and prepared for serving. While the shelf life is slightly less than Hot Process, Cold Process is the answer to gelato makers’ need for a process that achieves a greater amount gelato in a quicker timeframe without compromising taste.

Sprint Process

The gelato market continues to develop, and with this, the needs of the gelato maker have continued to grow and/or change. The Sprint Process is the newest process to make its way into the industry, offering an even easier and quicker way to produce gelato without the intervention of a skilled gelato master. The sprint process is simple; add a liquid ingredient (water or milk) to a prepackaged mixture containing all of the remaining raw ingredients including, flavors, stabilizers and emulsifiers. Then, pour into the batch freezer.  The Sprint Process allows little room for error and complete consistency in flavor every time. For gelato shop owners producing large varieties of flavors in a short period of time, the Sprint Process works best.  On the downside, the Sprint Process doesn’t leave much room for flavor experimentation and creativity.


Regardless of the process used, when the gelato has completed its cycle in the batch freezer, the next step is extraction into the gelato pan. Here’s where the difference in presentation between gelato and American ice cream reveals itself. Gelato is extracted using a spatula, rather than an ice cream scooper. The spatula helps to create creamy waves of gelato that are visually appealing in the display case and truly give gelato its artisanal feel.

Blast Freezer

In some instances, gelato makers do not immediately serve their gelato, but utilize a blast freezer. The blast freezer contributes to the life of the gelato by freezing it at a lower temperature than a standard freezer. This also helps it maintain its artisanal presentation.


The final step in all gelato processes is decoration. Here the gelato maker can add to the gelato texture, flavor and artisanal appearance by adding toppings and fillers (also known as Arabeschi®). Click here for a more in depth look at gelato decoration.