Gelatin is an animal derivative and used for setting sweet or savory liquids to create a jelly. We are most familiar with it in desserts (particularly Jell-o), but gelatin is also included in recipes such as cold soups and fish molds. Although we need gelatin to make certain candies, cranberry mold, pannacotta, and homemade marshmallows—just to name a few—it has developed somewhat of a bad reputation from retro recipes such as ham in aspic and jellied beef mold. This is unfortunate, considering it is a necessary ingredient in several delicious and popular dishes.
When buying gelatin, you may come across it sold in two different forms—either leaves or powder. And although both versions are made from animal collagen, they need to be treated differently. They will also create a slightly different outcome in the dish and thus one type may be recommended over the other for certain recipes.
Gelatin is created when the animal collagen in the connective tissue, skin, and bones is heated slowly until it is broken down, creating a gelatin substance. A gelatin powder is made when this substance is dried out and then becomes individual grains. The powdery consistency allows the gelatin to easily disburse throughout the mixture it is added to.
Also called gelatin sheets, leaf gelatin is made when the gelatin is dried into a flat sheet. Some consider leaf gelatin the more preferred setting agent in making a jelly, as it gives a very clear, clean, tasteless set. Cooks may find it easier to use as well since the measurement is simply counting out sheets versus weighing amounts of powder.
Using Powder Vs. Sheets
Not surprisingly, since these two forms of gelatin are quite different, there are different techniques in how you use them in recipes. For powder, you will need to add a few tablespoons of warm water and stir until it is dissolved (just a few minutes). Make sure to never boil any gelatin mixture as it will lose its thickening quality. And if you are adding sugar to the recipe, mix it with the powdered gelatin before dissolving in liquid.
For leaf gelatin, you should soak the sheets in cold water for five minutes to soften; then remove and gently squeeze the leaves to remove any excess water.
Substituting One for the Other
If your recipe calls for gelatin leaves or sheets but you only have powder (or vice versa), not to worry—you can convert the measurements to meet your needs. One packet (1 tablespoon) of powdered gelatin is equivalent to four gelatin sheets. This is enough to soft-set 2 cups of liquid.
Vegetarian and Vegan Alternatives
Since gelatin is made from animal protein (most often pig), it is not suitable for vegetarians, vegans, and even those keeping kosher. There are vegetarian gelatin alternatives, including agar-agar, which is made from seaweed. It is sold in powder form, solid blocks, or in thin strands. You can also use arrowroot, guar gum, xanthan gum, pectin, and kudzu (an Asian plant).