Ice cream around the world: your guide to 5 different frozen treats

Have you ever wondered about the difference between ice cream and gelato? How about frozen custard or helado? Does it matter?

When traveling during the summer, I take it as a right that I will eat some form of ice cream every single day, sometimes as my lunch. It’s one of the first words I translate in any language, just as important as “hello,” “thank you,” and “how much.” And no country has disappointed on this icy dessert yet.

Sadly, one thing I have noticed, however, is that people of all nations and regions can get very defensive about their particular form of frozen dairy, be it gelato, helado, or custard, whatever. And this breaks my heart. If one thing should be bringing us all together, it’s the heavenly combination of milk, sugar, and ice.

So for the next 1,500 words or so, we’re going to celebrate frozen dairy in all its beautiful forms. No winners, no losers, only love. We’ll find out there’s a lot of cultural nuance, a little semantics, and some legal reasons for the varied terminology. And because everyone deserves a cold treat on a hot day, we will even talk a little about sorbet, our favorite dairy-free ice cream pal.

Note: for the purposes of this post, we will be focusing on the structure of these treats as they are today. For a quick, fun history lesson on frozen desserts, check out this PBS article by Tori Avey.

Photo by JC Bonassin on Unsplash

Ice Cream

Did you know that Americans individually consume an average of 20.8 liters of ice cream per year? No surprise here if you’ve ever seen the lines outside of any ice cream shop in San Francisco.

According to my good friend and the best home ice cream maker I’ve ever met, Noam Ben Ami, “ice cream is a mixture of fat, water, sugar, flavoring, and an emulsifier to prevent the ice cream’s fat and water from separating.” While ice cream sometimes contains egg yolks, usually the fat content will come from a combination of milk and cream, with the milk fat content ranging somewhere between 10-20%–surprisingly almost double that of our good friend, gelato.

Honestly, this little tidbit threw me. I was sure when I started researching this post that creamy, dense gelato must be the fat champion, so how could this be? It all comes down to churning and chilling. Though ice cream has a higher fat content, it churns at a much faster pace than gelato, whipping more air in. We also store ice cream at a temperature between -5°F and 0°F and serve between 6°F and 10°F, making it more solid and less pliable.

To learn how to make your own ice cream at home, check out this awesome two-recipe beginner’s tutorial Noam created for us. Noam studied at the Paul Bocuse Culinary Institute in Lyon and makes serious next-level ice cream–he’s always my first resource for technical questions!

Bonus anecdote, I once had a trainer tell me that ice cream has the perfect fat:carb:protein ratio for HIIT workouts (if your goal is building muscle–not losing weight!). I don’t know if it’s true, but I choose to believe it!


Milk fat percentage: 10-20%

Egg yolks: sometimes; anything over 1.4% is technically a custard (more on that later)

Churn speed: high

Storage/serving temperature: 6°-10°F

City spotlight: San Francisco, CA, United States

Maybe I’m biased, but San Francisco is my favorite city for good, old fashioned American ice cream. Here are some of the best shops:

  • Bi-Rite Creamery – Super popular creamery in Mission Dolores with a fun mix of daring and classic flavors.
  • Mitchell’s – Beloved old-fashioned shop in the Mission/Bernal Heights.
  • Smitten Ice Cream – I remember when there was just one location in Hayes Valley… ah, some change is good.
  • Salt & Straw – Technically, not just an SF thing, but I’ve celebrated here so many times, I had to include it. The SF location is in the Western Addition.
  • Garden Creamery – My dear friend just introduced me to this one, and it’s a charmer! Lots of great vegan/dairy-free options alongside fun dairy flavors. Located in the Inner Mission.


Photo by May Day on Pexels

Anyone who’s ever traveled Europe in the summer knows that gelato is queen. Every city has stands on every corner and square, sometimes three in a row! And even though your language app may translate the local phrase to “ice cream”, be aware that 9.5 times out of ten, you’ll be eating gelato.

As we touched on earlier, gelato contains a lower milk fat content, 50-9%, but less whipped air than ice cream, thus the density. Like ice cream, gelato sometimes contains egg yolk but usually not. Gelato also tends to carry more concentrated flavorings and churns more slowly, adding to the experience of creaminess.

One other thing you’ll notice when traveling Europe is how skilled vendors can get in their presentations, making elaborate rosettes with your cones. Gelato is kept and served at a higher temperature than ice cream, around 10°-22°F, making it easier to work with–and more urgent to finish! I think this is also why so many Americans have a hard time telling the difference between the two; our freezers, both commercial and home, are set at temperatures more compatible with ice cream, so we lose some of that gelato softness while also dulling the flavors.

When searching for the perfect cone, make sure to walk around the less trafficked streets a bit before jumping in. The smaller stands off the beaten path usually have the better prices, and there’s not much difference in actual product.


Milk fat percentage: 5-9%

Egg yolks: sometimes

Churn speed: low

Storage/serving temperature: 10°-22°F

City spotlight: Belgrade (Beograd), Serbia

Holy-moly, does Belgrade surprise when it comes to gelato! I spent two weeks here and ate gelato every chance I got. I especially recommend the extra-dark chocolate, which tastes like my favorite chocolate pudding (in the best way). Try these out:

  • Moritz Eis – Founded in Belgrade but can now be found as far away as Chile! This shop touts “all-natural” ingredients and is a must-stop on your way to Kalemegdan Park.
  • Bacio Gelato – Fancy little shop across from Manjez Park. I couldn’t find an official website; however, I did find out that there’s a strain of marijuana with the same name. God bless the internet.
  • LUFF – Luff! Though less fancy and well-known than other shops, this hip yet unpretentious oasis near the Tesla Museum has the most fun vibe that I ran across. Entry to the Tesla Museum is limited to once an hour, with very little shade cover, so I highly recommend stopping here before hopping in line.
  • Crna ovca – This beloved shop means “black sheep” in Serbian and prides itself on variety of flavors. They even have a walnut flavor based on my favorite cookie, orasnice! There are two locations in the city’s most popular areas and one in Novi Sad, so you have no excuses not to run into it.


Photo by Lukas

Eh-la-do. No matter how many times I practiced, I never quite got the intonation right on this one–lo siento, amigas! I also assumed that helado was just gelato with a Spanish pronunciation. Whoops!

In actuality, helado is closer to an ice cream–and sometimes translates directly depending on where you are–than a gelato, with some small differences. Coming primarily from South America, helado churns at a high speed and is served at a lower temperature like ice cream, but it also commonly contains egg yolks, leading to an even higher percentage of fat–14-25% on average. However, like with gelato, you can also expect to find a higher flavor concentration with helado. Sounds like the best of both worlds to me!


Milk fat percentage: 14-25%

Egg yolks: yes, usually

Churn speed: high

Storage/serving temperature: 6°-10°F

City spotlight: Buenos Aires, Argentina

Honestly, just go anywhere here–you’ll come out fine! (Full disclosure, everything listed below comes on (trusted) recommendation. I have eaten helado all over Buenos Aires, but it was before I was writing and I stupidly did not take note. Everything was excellent.)

  • Lucciano’s – Dubbing themselves “the ice cream masters,” Lucciano’s can be found all over Buenos Aires.
  • Rapanui – Though Rapanui has its roots in chocolate making, it’s high-class helados shouldn’t be overlooked. Free of preservatives and all artificialities, this stuff is the real deal.
  • Tufic – With at least one location close to the Botanical Garden in Palermo, this classic heladería goes beyond helado to offer frozen yogurts and novelty desserts.
  • Cadore – They call themselves gelato, and we won’t argue, but it comes highly recommended, so we’re keeping it on the list.

Frozen Custard

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Are you ready for more hair-splitting? Let’s talk about frozen custard.

As the name suggests, egg yolks are frozen custard’s defining attribute; however, frozen custard is not forgetting your crème pat in the freezer. Be sure to transfer that to the fridge after 15 minutes or there will be consequences, and they won’t be a delightful treat. Legally, frozen custard is an ice cream that must contain the same minimum of milk fat as regular ice cream, 10%, and must also have at least 1.4% egg yolk, though many contain more. If you’re thinking we just talked about this and it’s called helado, you’re wrong and here’s why: frozen custard must also be prepared in a slow-churning machine and served at a higher temperature… like gelato.


Milk fat percentage: 10-20%

Egg yolks: yes, at least 1.4%

Churn speed: low

Storage/serving temperature: 10°-22°F

City spotlight: Milwaukee, WI, United States

I have never been to Milwaukee, so I will quote Wikipedia: “Per capita, Milwaukee has the highest concentration of frozen custard shops in the world[8] and the city supports a long-standing three-way competition between Kopp’s Frozen CustardGilles Frozen Custard and Leon’s Frozen Custard.”

My own note: In the United States, custard is primarily a Midwestern phenomenon, though it can be found in other areas. I grew up in Arkansas (which is the South, not the Midwest, despite what some confused compatriots might think) eating custard from a chain called Shake’s. There’s another unrelated famous chain in New England called the Shake Shack that also serves custard. And then there’s also Andy’s. I love custard, but it has somehow gotten stuck in chain-land outside of the Midwest, which is a bummer.


Photo by Porapak Apichodilok

Though really not an ice cream, sorbet is one of the OG frozen desserts and deserves a little summer love. More and more shops these days are offering sophisticated sorbet flavors, and even the lactose tolerant should be taking notice.

Sorbet traditionally consists of just three ingredients–water, fruit puree, and sugar; however, rules seem to be pretty loose around what you can throw in and the methods used to make it. Ice cream makers seem to be the most common appliance, but you can find several no-machine recipes that look pretty great.

Sorbet can sometimes be confused for sherbet, it’s dairy sister, so be careful when ordering in a different language.


Milk fat percentage: 0%–dairy free!

Egg yolks: 0%–vegan!

Churn speed: high, low, or not at all

Storage/serving temperature: 6°-10°F

City spotlight: Lyon, France

  • Único Artisan Glacier – Located on the famous Montée de la Grande Côte in the Croix-Rousse, you’ve just got to stop in on your way up (or down). Sorbet usually can’t tempt me away from chocolate, but Único Artisan Glacier’s fresh, locally-sourced sorbet flavors knock it out of the park. They do also serve an amazing selection of gelato, if that’s what you’re feeling.
  • Terre Adélice – I only had the gelato here but wanted to include this shop as an option as they have an amazing selection, and they’re easy to find in the popular Vieux Lyon area.

We know that as of now this is a Western-centric list and do plan on adding more on Asian and African varieties as we travel to those continents. Please share your favorite frozen desserts and recommendations in the comments so we can all learn more!

2 thoughts on “Ice cream around the world: your guide to 5 different frozen treats

  1. Hey- travel to St Louis for the best custard ever @TedDrews


    1. Great call! Yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve been back there. Do you have a place you recommend?


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