What Is Gelatin?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Rainbow Gelatin

Andrea / Flickr / CC 2.0

Gelatin, a clear, tasteless protein, 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.

Fast Facts

  • 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 when it cools. This is what produces the gelatinous, fatty layer on top of a pot of homemade stock. Gelatin sold commercially for culinary purposes gets purified before it's dried and packaged.

Varieties

Gelatin comes in sheets or powder. Professional chefs tend to prefer the thin, flat sheets of gelatin, also called leaf gelatin, because they dissolve slowly and result in a clearer final product, with a more pure taste. The individual grains of 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 Uses

Gelatin thickens puddings, yogurt, gummy candies, fruit gelatin desserts, ice cream, pannacotta, 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 a 1/4 ounce, or 1 tablespoon, of gelatin powder. This amount of gelatin is enough to thicken approximately 2 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 determines 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 and creamy mouthfeel similar to chocolate.

How to Cook With Gelatin

Gelatin must be dissolved into another substance in order to make it work. This means any recipe that contains gelatin must have a liquid component that gets heated, in order to allow the gelatin to dissolve. The food must then subsequently be chilled to allow the gelatin to set.

You need to mix powdered gelatin with warm water before you add 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 them, then gently wring out the leaves to remove excess moisture before you use them.

Gelatin should not be boiled as the high heat can break down its structure and destroy its solidifying ability. 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.

Gelatin Substitute

Because gelatin is made from animal collagen, it is not suitable for vegetarian or vegan diets. Alternatives to gelatin, such as agar and carrageenan, which come from seaweed; and pectin, which comes from fruit, provide a similar gelling action. 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 people who follow religions that don't allow consumption of cattle products, gelatin made from only pork or fish can be used. Be sure to read the package closely or contact the manufacturer to confirm the source.

Gelatin Recipes

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.

Storage

Keep gelatin sheets and powder in a cool, dark, dry location; exposure to water or moisture ruins it. Stored properly, gelatin lasts indefinitely. Items made with gelatin should remain refrigerated as they can break down if exposed to heat.

Nutrition and Benefits

Pure gelatin powder contains no carbohydrates or fats, only protein. A 1-ounce packet of gelatin powder contains approximately 23 calories and 6 grams of protein; with only nine of the 10 essential amino acids, it does not count as a complete protein, though.

Gelatin mixtures, such as Jell-O desserts or aspics made with broth, often count toward fluid intake for special or restricted diets, due to the high volume of water suspended in the gel.