Gelato: The Basic Recipe

Gelato: The Basic Recipe

In dessert, summer by Frank Fariello43 Comments

Let’s continue our exploration of Italian frozen desserts. We have already gone over the basic recipe for the elegant sorbetto, so today we’ll take a look at the basic recipe everyone’s favorite summer dessert: ice cream! The Italian version of ice cream, called gelato, meaning simply ‘frozen’, is typified by the density of its texture and intensity of flavor. It achieves these qualities by avoiding any fillers or fluffers like whipped cream or egg whites. The basic batter for gelato is simply milk and/or cream, thickened with sugar and egg yolks. Here’s how you make the most basic of gelati, variously called gelato di crema, gelato fior di latte or, if you flavor the batter with vanilla, gelato di crema alla vaniglia. Practically all other gelati begin with this basic recipe and add additional flavors, whether chocolate, pistachio or other nuts, or some sort of fruit purée.

Gelato di crema

Ingredients
  • 500 ml (2 cups) milk or equal parts milk and cream
  • 150g sugar (3/4 cup)*
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 vanilla pod, split open down the side, or a piece of lemon zest (optional)

* NB: Superfine sugar is best, but regular granulated will do. 

Directions

Step 1: Pour the milk, or milk and cream, half of the sugar and, if using, the vanilla pod or lemon zest, into a saucepan and bring the milk nearly to a boil. When the very first bubbles begin to appear, take it immediately off the heat and let it cool. (If using the optional vanilla or lemon zest, you can cover the saucepan, which will slow down the cooling process and prolong the steeping process, thus drawing out more of their flavor.)

 

Step 2: When the milk has cooled—it need not be perfectly room temperature, but it should not be hot or it will cook the egg prematurely—put the egg yolks into an electric mixer together with the other half of the sugar. Beat at a high setting until the egg yolks and sugar have been totally combined and developed a creamy quality. You will be able to see ripples as the mixer turns:

Step 3: Lower the setting and slowly add your cooled milk (from which you will have removed the vanilla or lemon zest if using) in a steady stream. Mix until everything is well amalgamated.

Step 4: Transfer the mixture back into the saucepan. Now begins the one slightly tricky part of the process: you want to heat the mixture gently until the eggs thicken it into a thin custard—thick enough to coat a spoon lightly—but not so much that the egg curdles. Many recipes tell you to use a bagnomaria or bain-marie technique, which is to say that you place the saucepan with the mixture over a saucepan of simmering water, which ‘softens’ the heat. But I find this precaution is not really needed. If you are attentive, increasing the heat very gradually from low to medium or medium-high, stirring constantly until you begin to ‘feel’ the mixture beginning to thicken—you will notice slightly more resistance to the movement of your spoon or whisk—and then lowering the heat immediately to low, you can avoid disaster. Above all, never let the mixture reach the boiling point or all will be lost. As an extra precaution, you can keep a bit of cold milk or cream at the ready, and add just a bit to the saucepan if you feel that the mixture has gotten too hot. The truth is, it just takes a little practice and attention. After a few tries, the procedure will become second-nature.

Step 5: Once the mixture has thickened nicely, remove it from the heat, pour it into a bowl (I just use the mixer bowl) and chill the mixture in the fridge. Some recipes will tell you to pass the mixture throw a sieve before chilling, to remove the vanilla seeds and any possible bits of coagulated egg, but I usually skip this step too. I don’t mind the seeds—in fact, I rather like them—and if you are careful about the previous step, you should not have any coagulated egg to worry about. This will take at about an hour. Stir from time to time to prevent a film from forming on the surface of the mixture. When chilled, you will notice that the batter will have thickened even more.

Step 6: Pour the batter into an ice cream maker and proceed to churn per the instructions that came with the machine. Typically, you will churn the batter for 20-30 minutes, which results in a ‘soft serve’ texture. If you want a firmer gelato, freeze it for an hour or two before serving. If you are keeping it in the freezer for a longer time (gelato will keep for quite a while in the freezer) then remove it from the freezer about 15 minutes or so before serving, as it hardens further over time, and the texture of gelato can be firm but never hard.

Notes

So this is your ‘mother’ recipe. It is perfectly delicious as it is, served plain (as pictured above). It can also be served with berries on top:

Other nice toppings include powdered cocoa, melted dark chocolate or even a bit of best-quality balsamic vinegar–but only the very best, well-aged (and very expensive) kind, which has a wonderfully mellow flavor, almost like a fine port.One of the most exquisite ways to serve gelato di crema is called affogato al caffè, literally ‘drowning’ in strong espresso coffee, which has been allowed to cool down a bit and, if you like, laced with rum, cognac, Cointreau or other liqueur of your choice:

 An affogato is sometimes served with some savoiardi (‘lady fingers’) crumbled and moistened with the same liqueur, at the bottom of your ice cream bowl or cup. You can also top it with some slivered almonds, crumbled walnuts, cinnamon or grated dark chocolate. Indeed, there are any number of variations you can try. But personally—and, dear reader, you must know me by now—I like it as simple as possible.From this mother recipe, you can also make all sorts of other kinds of gelato by adding flavorings. In the case of fruit flavors, a purée is usually folded into the chilled batter just before churning. In the case of nut flavorings (pistachio, hazelnut and coconut being the most common) they are ground finely and allowed to steep with the hot milk as indicated for the vanilla and lemon zest in the basic recipe. In any event, over time we will go over these variations in detail.

If you don’t like the idea of using egg yolks, there are eggless variations: many recipes call for some stabilizer like cornstarch, agar or gelatin to thicken the batter rather than the egg yolks. In this case, add all the sugar to the saucepan together with the milk in Step 1, then add  2-3 tablespoons of cornstarch or one of the other thickeners as a slurry to the hot milk and cream until thick. You can skip steps 2-4; just allow the mixture to cool, and proceed with Steps 5 and 6. You can also avoid the egg yolk if you use fruit purée and all cream, which provides enough thickness and stability on their own. In either case, the result will no doubt be very good, but will lack the richness that the egg yolks provide.

Don’t have an ice cream maker? Well, you can make gelato without an ice cream maker by simply putting the batter in a large, covered container into the freezer. After about an hour, take the container out and mix it vigorously with a wooden spoon. Repeat the process every so often (some recipes say every 15 minutes) thereafter. By the two hour mark, your gelato should be ready to eat.

I should mention that in Italy, gelato is more often something to eat out, as a kind of snack, than a dessert to have at home. For this reason, and with a gelateria available literally around the corner from most homes, it is rather unusual for Italians to make their own gelato. But those of us not lucky enough to live there, this recipe is guaranteed to transport you to the Old Country, if only for a few blissful moments.

Related articles

Gelato: The Basic Recipe

Prep Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 2 hours

Serves 4-6

Gelato: The Basic Recipe

Ingredients

  • 500 ml (2 cups) milk or equal parts milk and cream
  • 150g sugar (3/4 cup)*
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 vanilla pod, split open down the side, or a piece of lemon zest (optional)* NB: Superfine sugar is best, but regular granulated will do.

Directions

  1. Pour the milk, or milk and cream, half of the sugar and, if using, the vanilla pod or lemon zest, into a saucepan and bring the milk nearly to a boil. When the very first bubbles begin to appear, take it immediately off the heat and let it cool. (If using the optional vanilla or lemon zest, you can cover the saucepan, which will slow down the cooling process and prolong the steeping process, thus drawing out more of their flavor.)
  2. When the milk has cooled, put the egg yolks into an electric mixer together with the other half of the sugar. Beat at a high setting until the egg yolks and sugar have been totally combined and developed a creamy quality. You will be able to see ripples as the mixer turns.
  3. Lower the setting and slowly add your cooled milk (from which you will have removed the vanilla or lemon zest if using) in a steady stream. Mix until everything is well amalgamated.
  4. Transfer the mixture back into the saucepan. Heat the mixture gently until the eggs thicken it into a thin custard—thick enough to coat a spoon lightly—but not so much that the egg curdles. Be attentive, increasing the heat very gradually from low to medium or medium-high, stirring constantly until you begin to 'feel' the mixture beginning to thicken, and then lowering the heat immediately to low. If you fee the mixture is getting too hot, you can add a bit of cold milk to the saucepan to avoid curdling.
  5. Once the mixture has thickened nicely, remove it from the heat, pour it into a bowl and chill in the fridge for about an hour. Stir from time to time to prevent a film from forming on the surface of the mixture.
  6. Pour the batter into an ice cream maker and proceed to churn per the instructions that came with the machine. Typically, you will churn the batter for 20-30 minutes, which results in a 'soft serve' texture. If you want a firmer gelato, freeze it for an hour or two before serving.

If you are keeping your gelato in the freezer for a longer time (gelato will keep for quite a while in the freezer) then remove it from the freezer about 15 minutes or so before serving, as it hardens further over time, and the texture of gelato can be firm but never hard.

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Comments

  1. Michelle

    Hi everyone!

    Can I still make authentic gelato without an ice cream machine? How often should I stir the mixture whilst freezing? Thanks so much!

    1. Author
      Frank

      Dear Michelle,

      First of all, sorry for the late reply! I think that the answer, unfortunately, is that you won’t be able to make authentic gelato without an ice cream machine of some sort. Stirring while freezing the mixture will produce a result that, while perfectly edible, won’t have that smooth texture that characterizes gelato.

      Now, there is another frozen dessert called granita, which *is* made by occasionally stirring a coffee or lemon and simple syrup mixture while it freezes. That dessert is not supposed to be smooth but rather grainy in texture, so the technique works. We have the recipe here on the blog if you want to try it out:

      http://memoriediangelina.com/2010/09/06/granita-di-caffe/

      Cheers,
      Frank

  2. titan

    Thank you for the basic recipe. I peeled some tart green apple peel into the milk/cream mixture and let it steep until almost cool. Then I added a teaspoon of lemon juice to the yolk/sugar before adding the cooled cream mixture. When I churned the mixture, I added grated (patted dry) tart apple to the mixture. It made a delicious, delicate, yet fresh green apple gelato.

  3. Adri

    Beautiful post, Frank! Comprehensive, well done, and inspiring.Well done – and even though it is raining here, I want gelato!

  4. Rosalba

    I made gelato al with cocoa and one with banana with my mum this thursday and is coming creamy and perfectly , all my family enjoyed the homemade gelato! VERY NICE! ; ))))))))

  5. Frank

    Thanks again, friends, for your kind comments!

    And, yes indeed, @Angela, there's something about berries and ice cream… :=)

  6. Angela

    I have just made the basic gelato recipe but with a whole heap of mixed berries (marionberries, loganberries, boysenberries and tayberries) whooshed up with some caster sugar using a Bamix… Churned the gelato until almost fully set and then added about a quarter of the berry puree for the last 15 minutes and then just stirred the rest of the berries through the mix to make a ripply, uneven mix. Absolutely sensational! Another great thing to do with a 'glut' of berries when you have enough jam put up and you have already made berry cakes, berry meringues, fresh berries and yoghurt for breakfast…

  7. earthwerrm

    What a wonderful recipe! I used stevia extract and a little agave as I am trying to stay away from refined sugars. It turned out amazing, even my teenagers couldn't tell the difference. The second time making, I doubled it but still used only one vanilla bean. I also opened the bean up after the milk cooled and scraped out every wonderful speck!

  8. theerd

    Wonderful recipe. Thank you for sharing. Though I have a gelato cafe around the corner, I look forward to making gelato on my own. I love making different foods at home since they taste so much better than processed foods and I know exactly what is in them. Please visit me at The Erd's Cooking Adventures http://theerdzcookingadventures.blogspot.com

  9. Frank

    @Joy: Many thanks and welcome! It's wonderful to know that folks are making and enjoying our recipes. Makes this labor of love worthwhile!

  10. Joy Slezak

    I made your Gelato de Crema over the 4th of July holiday and my grandson, daughter-in-law and son loved it. They were amazed at how easy it is to make your own gelato. I have also made the Mango Sorbeto. Unbelievably smooth, creamy and delicious! So glad I found your blog.

  11. Frank

    Nice to know we could bring back such sweet memories, @thalia! I can only imagine the joys of home made ice cream savored in that setting.

  12. thalia

    Wow! What memories your gelatto recipe awakened !!It stronly reminded me of my grandfather and the lovely small ice-cream store that he opened back in the 60's -using a Caprigianni ice-maker and making the most fabulous ice-cream until the late 80's !! (And all that in a village in Greece !)

  13. Ewa

    This is a great recipe – thanks! However, while my testers loved it, it was a bit sweet for me. Do you have any idea how much you could reduce the amount of sugar by without affecting the texture?

  14. Frank

    Thanks, @LeAnn and @nicolettatavella!

    @LeAnne: You're welcome! Gelato with farm fresh ingredients must be incredible. Lucky you!

  15. LeAnn

    I found this blog through google search and I am so glad that I did. I have subscribed. I love your blog and we adore the Gelato. We make it with our own fresh goat milk and farm eggs. I have also tried it with cornstarch and two whole eggs. Both ways are fabulous! Thank you many times over!!!!

  16. Anonymous

    For all of you who said the receipe looked like it was a good one, but you hadn't tried it out, I actually made the gelato. The directions were very easy to follow. I didn't strain the custard or have any issues with clumping. This was my first attempt at making gelato and it came out perfectly. It is delicious and is a new family favorite! This is definately a keeper!

  17. I Sicilian

    such a treat to have homemade gelato. Great thing about making things at home is that ingredients can be adjusted to one's palate. and health requirements. Great informational post.

  18. Bunny

    I made my first gelato about a week ago, following very much the same recipe and procedure. It was fantastic. I have to try this vanilla recipe, it looks wonderful!

  19. Foodessa

    During the summer months…gelato gets made fewer times in my kitchen since I'm very much into having an outing to go have my gelato with friends and family ;o)

    I still make my gelato in a very traditional fashion…without machine for now. My procedure is quite different when making the custard. I will have to compare it to yours one day.

    I enjoyed your post very much…you have given loads of great info…especially for those that have never made this homemade treat before.

    Thanks for sharing and flavourful wishes,
    Claudia

  20. lindaraxa

    Frank, this is wonderful, thank you. I'm maketing canteloupe gelato tomorrow…little different procedure but great in this heat.

  21. Joshua

    With the heatwave we're having over here I'm going to have to try this.
    And now that peaches are in season, I'll be contemplating Drick's variation

  22. Jean

    One of the things I love to see in Italy is the Italians enjoying gelato at seemingly all times of the day. I love to watch people in the late afternoon walking along with their favorite gelato. It's always a treat to see people enjoying food. Great picture!

  23. Claudia

    Perfect timing – I am looking for a base to make a basil gelato as I ahve a bumper crop of that wonderful herb. And then shall use the egg whites for a frittata of sort. Love the creaminess without all of the cream.

  24. Kath

    What a great tutorial on making gelato! I usually make a really simple ice cream–just milk, cream, honey, and vanilla. I may have to try this.

  25. Lauren Zabaneh

    this is such a great post! I love how simply you have laid it all out, cutting out confusion about gelato. thanks for sharing and I'm excited to get out the ice cream maker!

  26. Drick

    my grandmother made a peach ice cream using only egg yolks and powder sugar, but I never related it similar to gelato… I have since learned that by using only egg yolks makes for a much creamer form of frozen dessert with a combination of heavy cream and half-in-half, with sugar.. will have to go back to the powder sugar to see the difference…

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