There is no denying that we love our frozen desserts around here, especially now that warm weather is on the way. However, we think these icy treats are best enjoyed when you actually know what makes them different from one another, because no—ice cream, gelato, and frozen custard are not all the same thing.
When it comes to consuming frozen dairy products, there is no shortage of options. From ice cream, to gelato, and then to frozen custard, it’s easy to blend all of these products into the same mental category of cool and creamy desserts. However, they are far from being one in the same, and it's important to know the differences between them... because hey, part of truly loving something is understanding it. And lord knows we love some frozen dairy.
The base of a traditional ice cream consists of milk, cream, sugar, and (usually) egg yolks. Depending on where you are and the level of richness that is trying to be achieved, egg yolks will have more or less of a presence in the base. Regardless, this base is gently cooked to form a custard, then churned at a high speed to aerate the mixture whilst avoiding ice crystals. In fact, there are plenty of "no cook" recipes for ice cream that don't include egg yolks and often don't require churning. Those aren't technically considered ice cream and aren't going to have quite the same rich smoothness that a legit custard-based ice cream does, but it will certainly do in a pinch if you're nervous about cooking custard (p.s. don't be!).
Alternatively, you could churn this by hand, although it’s going to be a lot more effort on your part than if you had an ice cream maker. Typically, ice cream falls on the icier side of frozen desserts, so it’s not going to melt quite as quickly as the other frozen treats we'll dive into below. In other words, this is the indulgence you want to be enjoying on a sweltering hot summer day because its aptitude for temperature retention keeps it from melting too quickly. Keep in mind that traditional churned ice cream is different from soft serve ice cream. While soft serve is still considered ice cream by definition, it is significantly lower in milk fat than regular ice cream, and it’s served at a warmer temperature.
While this may come as a surprise to many, gelato is not just a fancy, pretentious, and foreign-sounding way of saying “ice cream.” The biggest difference between gelato and ice cream is the proportion of milk used. Gelato starts with a very similar base to that of ice cream (milk, cream, sugar, and sometimes egg yolks), however there is a greater proportion of milk added to the base (and sometimes no cream is used at all), thus yielding an even silkier, more intensely-flavored final product. Usually, gelato is churned at a slower rate, meaning less air is incorporated, so the end result is more dense than ice cream. This is the treat you want to turn to when you want something extra-indulgent with the most fine-tuned flavor profile.
While the two desserts above have mixed reviews as to whether to add egg yolks or not, there’s no skepticism on that front when it comes to frozen custard. This dessert is in fact defined by the fact that it must contain a certain percentage of egg yolks in order to be technically considered frozen custard. The yolks act as a natural emulsifier, thus yielding an exceptionally smooth, rich end product. How frozen custard definitively distinguishes itself from ice cream is its higher percentage of egg yolks and butterfat, as well as the fact that it’s served at a slightly warmer temperature than ice cream.
Typically, frozen custard is frozen shortly before it’s served, and it is because of this that it emulates the texture of a soft serve ice cream. It is for this same reason that you probably don’t want to go searching your local grocery store for this delicious dairy dessert —you’re better off finding a frozen custard specialty shop.