Gelatin is a clear, tasteless protein that thickens and solidifies liquid and semi-liquid foods, such as soups, marshmallows, and old-fashioned aspic molds. Commonly associated with Jell-O brand products, gelatin comes from animal collagen. It's also used in personal care products, cosmetics, drug capsules, and photography.
- Origin: Animal collagen from bones, connective tissue, and skin
- Shelf Life: Indefinite
- Substitute: Pectin, agar
What Is Gelatin?
Gelatin comes from the collagen found in the bones, connective tissue, and skin of pigs, cattle, and other animals. Collagen may also be derived from fish bones. Boiling the bones extracts the protein, which "sets up," or partially solidifies, as it cools. This is what produces the gelatinous, fatty layer on top of a pot of homemade stock. Gelatin sold commercially for culinary purposes is purified before it's dried and packaged.
Gelatin comes in sheets or powder. Professional chefs tend to prefer the thin, flat sheets, also called leaf gelatin, because it dissolves slowly and results in a clearer final product, with a more pure taste. The individual grains in gelatin powder disperse more easily throughout a dish and dissolve faster.
Sheet gelatin can be found in four distinct strengths: bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. The "bloom strength" distinguishes each level. The higher the bloom strength, the higher the melting points of the gel and the shorter the gelling set time.
Gelatin thickens puddings, yogurt, gummy candies, fruit gelatin desserts, ice cream, panna cotta, marshmallows, and more. It can be mixed into any number of liquids or semi-solid substances to create structure and form.
Packets of gelatin sold in most grocery stores typically contain 1/4 ounce, or one tablespoon, of gelatin powder. This amount is enough to thicken approximately two cups of liquid, although you can use more to produce a firmer end product. You need four gelatin sheets for the same amount of liquid. Some cooks find it easier to count sheets than to measure or weigh out the powder.
Gelatin solidifies as it cools and generally requires refrigeration. The concentration and grade of gelatin determine the exact temperatures at which it solidifies and melts. Most gelatin has a melting point near body temperature, which gives foods made with gelatin a smooth, creamy mouthfeel similar to chocolate.
How to Cook With Gelatin
Gelatin must be dissolved into another substance to be activated. This means any recipe that contains gelatin must have a liquid component that's heated in order for the gelatin to dissolve. The food must then subsequently be chilled to allow the gelatin to set.
Mix powdered gelatin with warm water before adding it to a recipe. Use about three tablespoons of water per tablespoon of gelatin, stir the granules in and let it sit for a few minutes. As the gelatin absorbs the water, it will thicken to the consistency of applesauce. Soak leaf gelatin sheets in cold water for five minutes to soften, then gently wring out the leaves to remove excess moisture before using.
Gelatin should not be boiled as the high heat can break down its structure and destroy its ability to solidify. Certain fruits, such as pineapple, guava, and papaya, contain enzymes that can also inhibit gelatin's ability to solidify. The canning and pasteurization process typically destroys these enzymes, which means canned versions of these fruits can be successfully used with gelatin.
What Does Gelatin Taste Like?
Unflavored gelatin should have no taste or odor. It takes on the taste of whatever you make with it. The reason for using it is to create a gel-like consistency. Make sure you don't confuse gelatin with Jell-O, the flavored gelatin snack food.
Because gelatin is made from animal collagen, it is not suitable for vegetarian or vegan diets. There are alternatives to gelatin that provide a similar gelling action. For instance, agar and carrageenan come from seaweed, and pectin is derived from fruit. Other possible substitutes include arrowroot, guar gum, xanthan gum, and kudzu, but they all thicken liquids differently, so research the best option for your intended application.
Gelatin marked with a "K" has been certified kosher and comes from sources other than pigs. For those who avoid cattle products, gelatin made from only pork or fish can be used. Read the package closely or contact the manufacturer to confirm the source.
Gelatin makes it possible to solidify liquids, and it often provides the structure for fruity desserts.
Where to Buy Gelatin
You can typically buy powdered gelatin in the baking aisle of most grocery stores. For gelatin sheets, especially a specific strength level, look at baking supply stores or online. Gelatin is inexpensive, although the sheets cost a bit more than the powder.
Keep gelatin sheets and powder in a cool, dark, dry location; exposure to water or moisture ruins them. Stored properly, gelatin lasts indefinitely. Items made with gelatin should remain refrigerated as they can break down if exposed to heat.