Having carved out its formidable niche in the gourmet ice-cream category with such flavors as dulce de leche and bananas foster, Häagen-Dazs has announced that it’s expanding its realm and continent-hopping for its newest release, drawing inspiration from across the Atlantic for seven flavors of gelato, including black cherry amaretto, cappuccino, dark chocolate chip, limoncello, sea salt caramel, stracciatella (basically chocolate flake in vanilla ice cream) and vanilla bean. Sort-of-Italian-sounding names aside, these flavors match up, more or less, to varieties already in the ice cream line.
So aside from a play for more freezer space, what gives?
We tend to use the terms “gelato” and “ice cream” interchangeably in the United States (and frankly, sometimes ice cream shops and recipes do, too), but anyone who’s troweled up a cup of soft, pliable pistachio gelato knows it’s a bit different than the perfect ball of chocolate ice cream perched atop a waffle cone.
Both ice cream and gelato likely originated in a similar place, and you could certainly argue that gelato was the precursor to the modern American scoop. Frozen desserts date back thousands of years, but most accounts pinpoint the invention of ice cream to sometime in the 16th century, very likely in Italy. The dairy treat promptly became an indulgence for rich people because of the insane labor involved in procuring ice during the hot months. Via the upper classes, the dessert spread throughout western Europe, and it really took off in the United States, where it led to further refinements such as the sundae, the ice cream soda and, eventually, soft-serve, the pinnacle of the American method of churning air into a sugar and cream base.
Air is one of the differentiating factors between gelato and ice cream: Whereas ice cream is frequently as much as 50 percent air (this is what gives it that characteristic fluffiness), gelato is made without the vigorous churning, so it sets much denser and often requires a higher serving temperature. The other main defining factor between the two is butterfat content, though this is a little more vague. In Italy, gelato has to contain at least 3.5 percent butterfat, but frequently stops way short of the 12 to 16 percent mark normally found in American ice cream. This is because gelato is made with more milk, while ice cream is heavy on the heavy cream.
That said, there’s no real rule in the United States for labeling something gelato instead of ice cream, so it’s not impossible to find gelato with a fair amount of air and butterfat, or ice cream that’s quite thick and dense. In fact, that’s what makes Häagen-Dazs “premium”: the company makes its ice cream in a thicker style than many other brands, which makes it perceptibly richer — much like, ironically, gelato.
So how is the brand’s actual gelato different? Per the company, it’s “creamier and softer in texture than regular ice cream.” Häagen-Dazs also specifically notes that it uses less butterfat in its gelato, à la traditionally made gelato in the Italian style. Exactly how much less butterfat the Häagen-Dazs gelato has than Häagen-Dazs ice cream is unclear, though: According to nutrition labels for both products, it contains two fewer grams of saturated fat and five fewer grams of regular fat per half-cup serving.
For what it’s worth, we did sample the straciatella flavor of the new Häagen-Dazs line (for research!) and found it a bit denser than our favorite old Häagen-Dazs pint, but in sort of a smooth, plastic-y way rather than that silky, malleable texture that wraps around your tiny spoon. It also seemed sweeter, and a quick comparison of the nutrition labels has the gelato coming up consistently a few grams higher on the sugar count, which also falls in line with traditional gelato.
Overall, though? Not that different. If only the new flavors were a little more evocative of Italian sunshine and silver rectangular pans filled with brightly hued frozen treats.
Want to try a couple of local examples of ice cream and gelato and make your own comparison? Check out Il Laboratorio del Gelato for a taste of gelato made by the traditional Italian method; Ample Hills Creamery, in Prospect Heights, scoops a luxurious version of the airy American classic.