Expert's guide to gelato

Nick Palumbo
23 November, 2013

Nick Palumbo, the virtuoso behind the peerless Gelato Messina, shares the secrets behind the perfect scoop.

What is gelato?

There is a lot of misconception about what gelato actually is. Gelato is simply the Italian word for ice cream. This statement may cause an uproar among the gelato chefs outside of Italy who will tell you about fat percentages and air content, and so on … The confusion lies in the fact that in most English-speaking countries, there are laws on what you can call ‘ice cream’. Ice cream must have a minimum of 10% butter fat in order for it to be called ice cream. If it has less than 10% fat you can call it a gelato, but you can’t call it ice cream. In Italy, whether it has 2% or 10% fat it’s called gelato – there is no differentiation or law like there is in countries such as Australia, England and the United States.

Having said this, there are some parameters that, over the years, have become typical of what we call gelato, but generally you can call your recipe a ‘gelato’, as long as it contains some dairy. Sorbets are a little different; sorbets are simply ‘dairy free’ and usually consist of water and fruits. They contain virtually no fat and range from 26% to 32% sugar.

The other key difference is the amount of air that is incorporated in the freezing stage. Standard domestic ice cream or gelato machines may give you 10% air incorporation (this is why it goes rock hard in the freezer overnight); professional gelato machines give you around 20% to 45% air; and industrial ice cream machines 50% to 100% – yes 100%! That means a 1000 g recipe yields 2 litres of ice cream. No wonder ice cream is often so much cheaper than gelato … because half of it can be air!

Gelato Messina cabinet

Core ingredients

Like any food product, especially in the gelato and patisserie arena, there are several key ingredients that are critical to achieving a well-balanced and textured product. Some of these ingredients are for taste, some for texture and some are simply necessary in order for the gelato to be edible at a sub-zero temperature.

The purpose of this article is to give you a brief idea of why we use certain ingredients and the effects they have on your recipe.


It may seem strange to think of water as an ingredient, but whether we are talking about a gelato, ice cream or sorbet, water by weight is the most voluminous ingredient in any recipe.

Milk and cream by weight hold the largest amount in any ice cream or gelato recipe, but milk is nearly 90% water and cream is almost 60% water, so you can see that most recipes contain quite a lot of water. Sorbets, too, are generally made with fresh fruits and water, and because most fruits contain about 90% water, again you can see that water is the dominating ingredient.

But what happens when water is chilled to 0°C? Obviously, it begins to turn into ice. So if water turns into ice and we have a large amount of water in all gelato, ice creams and sorbets, this could become a major problem – we aren’t making flavoured ice blocks, we are making gelato and there shouldn’t be any ice in gelato.

A well-balanced recipe ensures that all the water present finds a home – it gets absorbed by a solid and therefore will not present itself as an ice crystal in your finished gelato. Water is readily absorbed by some solids such as sugars, but it won’t be absorbed by solids like fats, so there will always be a percentage of water that is not absorbed but is ‘bound’ to another ingredient, such as fat. The result, however, is the same: less chance of free-flowing water, which can turn into ice and destroy the texture of your gelato.

When we talk about total percentage of water in a recipe, we have some general rules that account for almost all gelato, but please remember that there will always be exceptions to the rule.

  • In gelato: percentage of water ranges from 54% to 70%; the rest are solids, generally made up of sugars, fats and proteins.
  • In sorbet: The percentage of water ranges from 65% to 75%; the rest are solids, generally made up of sugars and fruit fibres. 


When we think of ice cream or gelato, milk is generally the first ingredient that comes to mind. It’s virtually irreplaceable in ice cream and alternatives such as soy, rice or almond milk, I’m sorry to say, just don’t cut it, at least for my palate. Having said that, I do like to experiment with these; the results are often pleasing and interesting, but they will always be an alternative.

Milk contains nearly 90% water; the rest is approximately 3.5% fat, 3.5% proteins and 6% carbohydrates (namely lactose, a sugar). All four main elements of milk have a critical function in any gelato recipe but, unfortunately, not in the amounts required. We therefore need to add more of each of these ingredients from other sources, which are listed further on.


Cream is the source for the majority of fats found in gelato. It has a great flavour and its mouthfeel is unmatched by any other type of fat because it has the tendency to melt at close to our body temperature.

As we are making gelato and not ice cream at Messina, we generally use significantly less cream in our recipes. We aim for about 4% to 8% total butter fat (fat derived from dairy), but remember that your finished gelato may contain around 12% total fats if you have added ingredients such as nut pastes.

By law, commercial ice cream must contain a minimum of 10% butter fat. Gelato has no such rules, only averages that, over the years, gelato makers have come to respect.

Skim milk powder (SMP)

Not to be confused with milk powder … Skim milk powder is a critical ingredient as it helps us bulk up the total proteins in our gelato recipe. There is no fat in SMP; it’s made up of mainly milk proteins and lactose, both of which are desirable in correct proportions.

Think of proteins as the building block of your gelato. Proteins help give the gelato structure and also facilitate air incorporation during the churning stage. The protein molecules help trap the air and keep it in the gelato once churned; this aids in what we call the ‘scoopability’ of the gelato. Gelato, or any ice cream or sorbet, needs a certain percentage of air; without it, it will be hard and difficult to scoop.

Gelato Messina Factory


Sugar is important because without it, there is no gelato, sorbet or ice cream, or at least one that can be served in the traditional way.

While sweetness is an important attribute of sugar, it’s not the only reason it’s used. Sweetness definitely has its place because, like using salt in cooking to lift the flavour, sugar helps lift the flavours in your gelato, especially fruit flavours, but it is important that we find the correct balance of sweetness.

Sugar has two other amazing properties. Firstly, it has the ability to lower the freezing point of your gelato, meaning that at a sub-zero temperature you can ‘trick’ the gelato into not freezing hard. Think of it as an ‘antifreeze’.

Secondly, the carbohydrates in sugar help ‘warm’ the gelato at sub-zero temperatures. The best analogy I can think of is ice. Imagine taking an ice cube from the freezer and placing it on your tongue. After only a few seconds you would encounter ‘freezer burn’ – so why is it possible that you can grab gelato out of the same freezer at the same temperature and place it on your tongue without anywhere near the amount of discomfort as the ice? It’s the sugar in the gelato that helps to keep it soft at a sub-zero temperature and gives you the illusion of it being warmer than ice, making it pleasurable to eat.


Dextrose is the most important secondary sugar we have after caster and granulated sugar. It is indispensable in gelato recipes because it gives you great flexibility. Dextrose has only 70% of the sweetness of sugar but has the incredible ability of being able to reduce the freezing point by nearly two times. This means that by introducing some dextrose to your gelato recipe as part of your total sugars, you can make your gelato less sweet and, critically, softer at serving temperatures.


This is another important sugar because it has great binding properties and virtually no sweetness. Think of it as the ‘cornflour’ for gelato. Maltodextrin is great to use in sorbets and alcohol-based flavours where the solid content is quite low and you need something that will help bind the excess water present.

vanilla gelato

Equipment and method

Now that you are familiar with the key ingredients used in gelato, an understanding of the method and equipment we use will help you achieve the best results for both domestic and professional applications.

Professional gelato equipment is very expensive and domestic machines are not exactly miniature versions of the real deal, so achieving great results at home can be difficult, so gelato made at home should be made in small quantities and served soon after you’ve made it.


Pasteurisation is the process where you mix all your ingredients and heat them to a specific temperature. This heat treatment is done for two reasons. The first is to ensure that you kill off as many bacteria as possible in your ingredients, especially in the milk and cream. The second reason why we pasteurise is because it’s the best way of mixing all your ingredients. Making gelato is basically the art of binding water to solids and then ensuring that it is scoopable at sub-zero temperatures. In order to achieve this, we heat all our raw materials under agitation; this will help break down the solids into smaller and smaller particles. This process is called homogenising.


Ageing means leaving the mixture to rest at 4°C for a few hours. The longer the better, but I find no improvement if you age it for more than 6 hours, however there is nothing wrong in making the mixture and letting it age overnight in the fridge.

During the ageing process you are allowing the mix to settle down, giving the solids time to absorb any excess water that hasn’t already found a home in the solids, therefore reducing the risk of ice crystals forming in your gelato. Ageing also helps with the air incorporation during the churning phase, as all the proteins are hydrated and can trap air particles with more ease.


Once your mix has been pasteurised and aged, it’s then ready to be turned into gelato. In professional gelaterias we use a batch freezer. These are expensive machines that can make upwards of 20 litres of gelato in 15 minutes. If you’re making gelato on a commercial scale, you can’t do it any other way.

A domestic machine takes much longer to churn, so place your mixture in the freezer for 20 minutes before churning, so the mix is as close to 0°C (32°F) as possible, and switch the machine on a few minutes beforehand to get it really cold.

I hope I have given you a basic understanding of the principles of gelato making and an insight into the main ingredients and equipment used. As with most new skills, the best way to learn is really through trial and error.

Good luck!

This is an edited extract. For Nick’s full and comprehensive instructions for making gelato, as well as his recipes for Messina’s famous gelato flavours, read Gelato Messina: The recipes.



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