Bakers Journal

The scoop on gelato

June 24, 2013
By Laura Aiken

I’d like to be up front about something straight away: I love all incarnations of ice cream.

I’d like to be up front about something straight away: I love all incarnations of ice cream. I do not discriminate between fat or sugar contents; I take the scoopable stuff in all its delightful forms, preferably on a daily basis and even in the winter. It was with great personal passion and intrigue that I set out to explore the world of gelato.

Dan Hoffman of Hotel Gelato in Toronto.


In Canada, a product labeled ice cream has 10 per cent or more milk fat (may vary to slightly less for cocoa content). Gelato is in the range of only four to eight per cent fat, so technically it’s not Canadian defined as ice cream, but it is ice cream Italian style. Gelato literally translates as “frozen” in Italian. This European treat is lower fat than it’s Canadian cousin, and that makes it attractive in today’s market of better-for-you options.


Per capita, consumption of ice cream in Canada has fallen from 9.23 litres in 2001 to 5.72 litres in 2011, according to statistics from the federal government’s Canadian Dairy Information Centre. Finding information specific to gelato is challenging. It is not nearly as abundant as ice cream in the grocery isles, and tends to be a product served in artisanal fashion in bakeries and gelaterias. So, while consumption of ice cream is down, this does not mean the sales of gelato are down or that innovation has been cast aside. Perhaps people are changing the way they consume ice cream, looking for high quality in smaller quantities. The National Post published an article in 2012 called “Inside the golden age of gourmet ice cream” by Tristin Hopper. Mario LoScerbo of Mario’s Gelati in Vancouver, who serves grocery and dealers, told Hopper that sales have always been strong and his market has bore prices of $17 a pint with success.

Aye, but here’s the rub: gelato is no licence to print money either. Like all products, one must pay attention to quality and curry local favour to create a sustainable business. However, from a longevity perspective, frozen desserts are older than the Bible, and surely will remain a staple well past any New Age.

The first traces of primitive snow cones made up of ice/snow/spices and rice milk can be traced back to 3,000 BC, I learned from Daniela Saccon, instructor for classes at PreGel Canada’s Woodbridge, Ont., facility. Here, I spent a whole day learning the ins and outs of gelato, starting with its history. This Chinese concoction was your first known sorbetto.

In 2500 BC, there is evidence of Egyptian pharaohs consuming ice and fresh fruit ice, which is an early rudimentary form of sherbet (which originated in Sicily and was only available to the ruling class for hundreds of years). Zabajone was developed in 16th-century Florence using a combination of frozen milk, honey, eggs and wine. In 1686, a fisherman from Italy opened the first retail outlet for gelato/sorbet in Paris. Shortly after, gelato made its New York debut.

Gelato can be easily assimilated into cultures because the sugars and milks can be interchanged to suit different diets, noted Saccon. PreGel, a global company that supplies a full line of ingredients for gelato, sorbetto and frozen yogurt, is rooted in Italy. PreGel was founded in 1967 and PreGel Canada launched in 2008.

Talking technical
Gelato is made up of water (milk, cream), sugars (sweetening agents), fats, and MSNF (milk solids nonfat, which are proteins/lactose/minerals). Air also makes up part of the volume. Overrun is the percentage increase in volume of ice cream that is larger than the volume of mix used to make it. In short, it is how much air is pumped in or incorporated into the product. Gelato is 30 to 35 overrun, ice cream gains 50 to 100 per cent overrun and sorbetto is 25 per cent. Overrun is why the frozen product shrinks as it melts. The higher the fat content, the more air can be whipped into it, says Saccon.

Water is the only ingredient in gelato that freezes, and thus it is a very important aspect of balancing a recipe. Sugar, on the other hand, is an anti-freeze. Adding more skim milk powder (your MSNF) can increase your solids balance without increasing the amount of sugar. Fats help make gelato scoopable and creamy: producers can add them or just count the fat in whole milk.

Stablizers (gelatin, gums) will link your solids with your water and comprise 0.2 per cent to 0.5 per cent of the total mix. An emulsifier also is used to bind fat and solids. For this process, PreGel supplies sorbitol paste.

Gelato is 60 to 70 per cent liquids, the balance solids, while sorbetto is 70 per cent liquid and 30 per cent solids.

Saccon discussed three different methods for making gelato: hot process, cold process and super sprint. Hot process is the least expensive, but her observations indicate a combination of all seems most likely used. Hot process pasteurizes and takes the longest. Yogurt must always be done cold process, says Saccon, and fruit flavours are better done hot. Customers often invoke the PreGel super sprint line for difficult-to-make flavours as it comes in a premade mix that is simply added to the machine, she says. This is the fastest method. All of these processes involve very nice looking machines that require diligent cleaning.

A final few tips on the technical side: be sure to weigh ingredients, use a good immersion blender, defrost fruit before using to avoid introducing ice crystals, and ensure your flavour pastes are soft for good incorporations.

A trip to Hotel Gelato
You can’t sleep over at Hotel Gelato, but the 24 flavours on display kind of make me want to stay there all night just to try them all. The Toronto shop opened in February 2010 as a counter service bakery café and gelato spot. It has since morphed into a licenced breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, post-dinner, date, family break and all-around everything spot. Owners Dan Hoffman and Christopher Borowski developed the vision through a shared history in the luxury hotel market. Hoffman’s work history cultivated a front of the house expertise, while Borowski climbed ladders in food and beverage at the back of the house. 

Tiramisu gelato made at PreGel’s Canadian training facility in Woodbridge, Ont.


“It just made good sense to go out and start our own café vision and do it with service, style and a great product. That’s what we strive to do every day.”

Hotel Gelato makes everything on site, which allows staff to produce volume based on demand. At the height of sales, a pan may last only a few hours, says Hoffman. They also take advantage of making smaller three-litre batches during slower winter and shoulder seasons when walk-in traffic is lighter.

The shelf life of its product is about five to seven days, says Hoffman, because the constant flowing current of air and opening and closing of the display case causes the temperature to rise and fall, introducing crystallization. You can tell it’s not good anymore by the look of it, he says. They throw it out at this point. It’s not worthwhile to sell an inferior product, he says. After three years, the team has got a good handle on managing production, and their strategy leaves little waste.

There are some methods for repurposing gelato, says Saccon. You can make popsicles using a blast freezer, or combine complementary flavours at the end of the day. She does not recommend rebatching for food safety reasons, which involves melting the gelato down and repurposing it. Hotel Gelato manages without a blast chiller, but Hoffman says it is on the wish list and he would be making pops if he had one. 

Hoffman and Borowski elected to use a hot process so that all milk-based flavours are pasteurized. 

“From what I’ve sampled across the city, and throughout the U.S. as well, the ones that are pasteurized do have a more balanced homogenous flavour. Everything has melted together. There’s no sugar crystals or skim milk powder. Everything has really blended well so you have a really nice consistency to then add flavour too, which makes a nicer product.”

Quality is the number 1 ingredient needed for successful gelato sales, says Hoffman. As we know, taste is a big factor in determining quality and flavours are where a gelato maker can create signature items that stand out. At Hotel Gelato, they’ve made a signature flavour called Vanilla Sponge Toffee using sponge toffee made in house. They experimented with a guacamole flavour using avocado, lime, cilantro and sea salt, and although it went over well with some patrons, opinions were polarized as some clientele couldn’t fathom eating a vegetable in ice cream. What works for you will depend on your clientele. 

Within their 24 flavours they have staple flavours that remain 365 days a year, and four to six wild flavours that change throughout the year, like pumpkin in the fall and candy cane in the winter, to keep offering customers something new. Salted caramel has proved a top seller, as well as their dark chocolate. Eight or 10 of the flavours are sorbets and they carry sugar-free raspberry and chocolate using Splenda.

Saccon sees a trend towards savoury in the Canadian market, and says PreGel is currently researching floral extracts to make flavours like candied lavender. 

When it comes to decorations, Hoffman finds that simple designs make it easier to keep products consistent, are easier to replicate, and stay looking good for days.

Gelato is a fun, sophisticated product with a lower fat content than ice cream (though neither option spares one the sugar).

Hoffman seems to be having a blast in his new endeavor and confirmed that with some simple but true words about the world of ice cream Italian style: “It’s a lot of fun.”

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