Differences between artisan Italian gelato, industrial ice cream and soft ice cream

Image of ice creams

Often the differences between italian gelato, industrial ice cream and soft ice cream are not clear to everyone, even though in Italy the fact that there are so many gelato parlours as well as a history of hand-made gelato making would seem to facilitate this distinction.

Hand-made gelato involves producing small quantities, in a workshop, and selling them direct to the consumer, although today a number of gelato parlour chains have begun to open up, with a central workshop that distributes the mixtures to the various outlets where an attendant then handles the final stage of production – batch freezing – before providing customers with the finished product.

Gelato was originally designed as a product intended for immediate consumption and, unlike industrial scale ice cream, does not need to be kept in cold rooms until it is distributed and sold. Indeed, as ice cream is manufactured centrally and in huge quantities, it is designed to be stored for long periods in cold rooms.

From this point of view, hand-made gelato and ice cream might look similar, but especially when served up in tubs, the differences stand out a mile.

There are a number of other differences between the two products as regards production, production temperature and conservation:

ice cream is produced using continuous freezers, generally being conveyed through a freezer tunnel at -40°, then held in a cold room (at the factory) for long enough to “ensure that the product temperature at the core is at least -18°C” (maximum limit imposed in Europe by the Code of Conduct for industrial gelato products). At a technical level, the product needs to be that cold both to give it a longer shelf life, and to facilitate the other pre-sale phases (shipment in refrigerated trucks to another cold room and/or to the client’s distributor and/or wholesaler) .

  • hand-made gelato is produced using a discontinuous batch freezer and is then put out onto display with perhaps just a brief stopover in a cabinet freezer (or in a blast chiller at -40°) to make it even colder, as the temperature in the sales counter is lower (-15°) than when it is removed from the batch freezer (-12°).
  • ice cream is produced in a continuous freezer; freezing is performed with a continuous input of mixture and a continuous outflow of finished product (in a continuous cycle). In this case, it stays little more than a minute in the freezing chamber where the mixture is transformed into ice cream (compared to the 10-15 minutes needed to make hand-made gelato).
  • the volume of ice cream generally increases far more than hand-made gelato does, as so much more air is blown into gelato (by law, up to 100% of its weight is allowed), which acts as a thermal cushion and so melts much more slowly. This means that 1000 ml of industrial ice-cream could weigh only 500 grams.
  • Creamy hand-made gelato contains much less fat (6-10% in hand-made gelato, 8-12% in industrial ones)

Soft ice cream is also very popular abroad because it requires less investment in terms of machines, showcases and equipment, and is a completely different product from the first two: it is produced directly in a specialised production machine. It gets its name from the fact that it is squeezed out of the machine onto the cone at a higher temperature (-4/-6°C) than hand-made gelato or industrial ice cream (-13°/-18°C) and so looks softer, creamier and less cold. Compared to hand-made gelato, it contains more fats and less sugar, so its air content is above 50%.


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