If you’ve read my aspic recipe, you know I’ve been doing some thinking about gelatin — not the finished jellied dessert or side dish, but the stuff that makes it that way, plain gelatin. It’s one more of those ingredients that seem to have a magical, one of a kind effect on food they’re used in. The food industry uses it in processed food and packaged mixes, and most of us are fine leaving it to them. But it’s available to home cooks, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t learn to use it ourselves.
As I wrote earlier, you can find plain, unflavored gelatin at the store, in boxes holding packets of it in granular powder form. Like MSG, it looks like some artificial chemical creation, but like MSG, it’s all natural. Gelatin is made from animal collagen, which, like collagen skin treatments, firms up substances that we think need it (whipped cream, for instance).
Gelatin also comes in sheets — though I’ve never seen it that way — and loose powder. According to Food.com, four sheets of “leaf” gelatin equal one packet, which equals one tablespoon of the loose stuff. If you’re using an older recipe, this may become important to know.
There’s instant gelatin, something else I’ve never seen, which thickens liquid on contact, but most gelatin needs a slightly more complicated process.
According to the text on my box of Knox gelatin, one packet (or the equivalent) will thicken two cups of liquid “or 1 ½ cups of solids”. I’m still trying to think of solids I’d like to thicken.
You start by dissolving the gelatin in the same kind of liquid you’re going to use it on — a quarter cup to a packet. Put the liquid in the bowl first and sprinkle the gelatin on top; it takes a little care to do it evenly. The liquid will soak up the gelatin right away, giving you a gummy substance. Next you dissolve this in boiling water –a quarter cup per packet, so the same amount as the first liquid. You’ll need to stir or whisk for up to two minutes, according to Knox, to dissolve it completely. I’m glad my new mixer came the other day — thank you, Air Miles. Finally you add the bulk of the liquid you’re thickening, mix thoroughly again, and chill the whole thing.
Leave yourself plenty of time; this is not something to start an hour before you eat. Three hours, maybe, but even that is pushing it. Some people are able to speed up the process with ice cubes, but I’ve never got the hang of that. .
Using unflavored gelatin lets you create your own flavors with ingredients the industry doesn’t use, like coffee. It even allows you to make savory gelatin dishes with meat stock or vegetable juices. Once you’ve used it, you’ll want to get creative.