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What Is Gelatin?

What Is Gelatin?

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Have you ever made chocolate mousse at home, only to have it deflate a few hours later in the refrigerator? I have. But there’s a way to keep this from happening. What’s the secret? Gelatin.

Gelatin is a tasteless thickening agent derived from collagen, a type of protein that gives structure to desserts, gummy candies, and old-school French food (think aspics filled with meat and fruit or vegetables). Most people, however, would be hard-pressed to remember the last time they ate aspic (much less wanted to eat it), so it’s more likely to be encountered in puddings, parfaits, icebox pies, marshmallows, ice cream, and mousse. It is also found in many of our medicines; the shells of liquid-gels and other hard and soft capsules are generally made out of gelatin. (Photo courtesy of flickr/katerha)

Gelatin is derived primarily from pig skin, cow bones, and cow hides, although it can be derived from plant-based sources as well, such as seaweed. Recently, Chinese scientists have even found a way to make it by inserting human DNA into yeast cells. The researchers argue that the advantage to producing gelatin from human DNA is that it eliminates the risk (however slight) of animal-based diseases, such as mad cow disease, from contaminating the food supply. Coming soon to the baking aisle.

A trip to the store today, however, will reveal two main types of gelatin for sale — the more common powdered gelatin, which comes in ¼-ounce envelopes; and leaf gelatin, which look like thin, clear sheets. A little goes a long way: One envelope of powdered gelatin (or four sheets of leaf gelatin) is sufficient to thicken two cups of liquid. Leaf gelatin takes a little longer to dissolve, but is essentially the same product, just in a different form. It is frequently used in European recipes. Whichever type you decide to use, though, there are some useful rules of thumb to keep in mind.

Gelatin should always be soaked in cold water (or depending on how you’re planning to use it, another liquid, such as cream), for three to five minutes before use. Otherwise, once you start cooking the gelatin, it won’t dissolve properly. At the same time, however, you never want to boil it, as this will denature the proteins, as they say in science-speak, and you can never put those back together again, kind of like taking apart a Rubik's cube. In other words, you’ll ruin the gelatin, and it won’t work anymore.

Certain types of fruit can also keep gelatin from working properly. Fruits such as fresh figs, guava, kiwi, papaya, and pineapple need to be cooked first to break down the substances which keep the gelatin from setting. And whatever fruit you decide to stir into your dessert, make sure to wait until it’s partially set, so that it doesn’t accumulate at the bottom. (Photo courtesy of flickr/Nathanael B)

So, back to that chocolate mousse. How does gelatin come into play in this dessert? You’ll need to stir pre-soaked gelatin into the melted chocolate after it has cooled slightly (it shouldn’t be room temperature, but it shouldn’t be boiling hot, either). Then, fold in the whipped cream in two batches, making sure not to overwork it. After that, your mousse will be invincible. Well, almost.

What Is Gelatin?

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.

Fast Facts

  • Origin: Animal collagen from bones, connective tissue, and skin
  • Shelf Life: Indefinite
  • Substitute: Pectin, agar

What is Gelatin?

There are two types of basic gelatin you may or may not have worked with — sheet gelatin, which is more commonly used amongst chefs as it creates a very clear gel, and powder gelatin. Both kinds are derived from animal collagen and both work very well for creating a set and firm jelly-like texture. I use gelatin in things like my Homemade Marshmallows, Coconut Panna Cotta, and homemade fruit jelly.

Though you may have never worked with it before, have no fear, because once you learn the tricks of the trade you will get no-fail results.

Gelatin Health Benefits and Uses

1. Gut Health – Gelatin is one of the best foods for gut health. It helps to fill holes and damaged areas of the stomach lining and reduces inflammation. Gelatin also increases the amount of gastric acid in they gut, which is needed to breakdown and digest protein.

2. Bone Health – Did you know that our bones are made up of collagen? We hear often that calcium is needed for healthy bones but calcium is needed with collagen to make our bones healthy and strong. Gelatin in bone broth or grass fed powdered gelatin is the best way to get collagen.

3. Joint Health – It’s common knowledge that collagen is needed for healthy joints (the connective tissues in our joins are made up of collagen). According to this study athletes who took a collagen supplement experienced less pain in their joints and saw an increase in performance!

4. Skin & Hair Health – Collagen gives your skin its elasticity and helps to keep your skin wrinkle free. Gelatin is also anti-estrogenic and may help balance hormones and break down fat that causes cellulite. Gelatin also improves the strength and shine of your hair.

What's the Difference Between Powdered and Sheet Gelatin?

If you follow The Great British Bake Off or have European cookbooks, you&aposve probably come across references to sheet gelatin or gelatin leaves. Luckily for American bakers, sheet gelatin is increasingly available in the U.S., both in specialty stores and online. If you can&apost find it, here&aposs a little primer on how to use both types, and how to substitute one for the other.

How to Use Powdered Gelatin

This needs to be rehydrated before you use it. Always use cold water (or juice, or other liquid)—if you start melting the gelatin before it&aposs rehydrated, you&aposll have little dried granules sprinkled booger-like throughout your dessert. Sprinkle the gelatin over the liquid and set aside for 5 to 10 minutes to let it absorb it&aposll swell up and look a bit like applesauce.

Once the gelatin is hydrated, it&aposs time to melt it. You can do this by stirring it into a hot liquid like a custard (crème Anglaise) or juice, or you can melt it in a double boiler. If you&aposre careful, you can even melt it in a stainless steel bowl set over a gas burner on your stove, but that&aposs for gamblers and pros, because it&aposs easy to scorch it or your fingers. Make sure the gelatin granules are fully dissolved before proceeding with your recipe.

How to Use Sheet Gelatin

To make things more complicated, there are different types of sheet gelatin, each with different gelling strengths or "bloom". I&aposm going with silver sheet gelatin, which I&aposve used most often.

To use it you just put the gelatin sheets in a bowl filled with cold water. After they&aposve been submerged about five minutes, they&aposre re-hydrated. Hold them gently in one hand, and slick the water off the sheets with the fingers of your other hand. The gelatin dissolves quickly when stirred into a warm liquid or heated over a double boiler.

How to Work With Gelatin in Recipes

  • There&aposs a bit of "time&aposs-a-wastin&apos" pressure when working with gelatin: once you fold a cold element like whipped cream into your room-temperature base, the gelatin will start to set. You need to have everything ready to go before you start mixing together the components of your dessert. Have your baked pie shell ready, or your cake layers, or your dessert glasses.
  • If something comes up, you do have a save-this-for-later safety net: you can re-melt the gelatin. If it&aposs in a custard or fruit juice base, just refrigerate it until you have time to complete your dessert. Gently heat the base until it&aposs fluid, let it cool to room temperature, and proceed with the recipe. Once you fold in the whipped cream or meringue, though, it&aposs time to pour the dessert into molds.
  • Gelatin-stabilized desserts should chill 24 hours, or at least overnight, before serving.

How Much to Use

According to the authorities at Knox®, 1 envelope of powdered gelatin has the same gelling strength as 5 sheets (about 3 x 8.5 inches) leaf gelatin. According to other pastry chefs I admire, there&aposs a range: David Lebovitz says "Three-and-a-half sheets seems to work best for me. I use sheets that are 3 inches by 5 inches." Are you making something you&aposre going to slice? Add an extra half or whole sheet. Is it something you&aposre spooning out of a dish? Keep it elegant and go for a texture on the softer side.

Favorite Gelatin-Stabilized Recipes

This is great piped on a pie𠅎specially the Pumpkin Bavarian Cream Pie ("Tart"). As I noted on a photo for the recipe I posted, "I piped rosettes of whipped cream on the Pumpkin Bavarian Cream Tart and garnished with grated nutmeg. The cream held up well�out four days in the fridge (as long as the pie lasted!)."


Gelatin made from bone broth is one of the essential ingredients in my kitchen. I make mine using pork. Having raised pigs for years I’ve learned to appreciate the way pork gelatin enriches so many things. It adds body and hearty flavor to ragu, stews, anything braised. I use it to make my favorite head cheese and our Tuscan capofreddo (see my post), I add it to meat pies and pour it over a terrine or pâté as it cools. After deglazing with wine and maybe some vin santo or elderflower cordial a spoonful of gelatin finishes the quick pan jus I make for a duck breast or a venison loin. Pork gelatin brings everything together and I shamelessly add it not just to pork but to chicken, duck, goose, pheasant, rabbit, hare, wild boar and venison.

Making pork gelatin really is no trouble.

Have your butcher split the feet, you could also use the meatier pork hocks or a mixture of both. Cover with cold water and add some aromatics. Simmer slowly for many hours skimming and adding more water as needed until the pigs feet are very tender. Strain and cool the stock which should gel as it cools.

Below are a couple of old family recipes I use. Both produce pork gelatin but you can easily find lots more online. Here and here for starters or scroll to the end of this post for mine. Some suggest cooking the trotters in stock instead of water. For me that’s gilding the lily but suit yourself. And there’s one more thing, gelatin enriched stock not only adds richness and flavor, it’s also really good for you.

In many European cultures pig’s feet were simmered with a few aromatics. The gelatainous cooking liquid was strained and reserved to make aspics or jellies and the cooked feet were preserved in vinegar to eat later. I inherited this recipe from my mother and I’m pretty sure she got it from hers. I’ll admit I’m not very fond of a pickled pig’s foot. I make this for the gelatinous cooking liquid, pork gelatin.

This is the recipe my father (Bill) used to make his delicious head cheese. You can see it is pretty similar to my grandmother’s recipe. The difference is instead of pickling the foot the meat is removed and added to the cooking liquid to make head cheese. How easy is that? I also add lots of minced parsley, a little carrot and some lemon or orange zest.

It appears Bill got his recipe for head cheese from Dot Howe. I found both in a recipe book my mother kept. A google search reveals Dot Howe apparently sold her head cheese in the farmer’s market in Fredericton, New Brunswick where it was very popular. Maybe she still does? I have no idea when this clipping was published or in what paper. But I am sure it is more than 20 years ago, probably much more.

Have your butcher split the pig’s feet and cover them with cold water and the aromatics. I cook mine in a pressure cooker which is not only faster it produces a nice clear gelatin.

Bring the pressure to high and then reduce it to low. Cook at low pressure for about 45 minutes before removing from the heat. Let the pressure release naturally. The meat should be falling from the bone.
Remove the feet and the aromatics and strain the liquid through a fine sieve. Chill until the fat rises to the surface and the gelatin sets. Scrape off the fat and reserve. This is nice lard you can use this for baking or cooking. Reheat the gelatin, strain through a fine meshed sieve again and transfer to your chosen container or mold. You can pickle the feet or pick the meat off them and make head cheese.

For a darker, richer pork gelatin you can roast the pigs feet first in a hot oven (200 C) until they are dark and crispy. Strain off the fat and proceed as described above.

The finished gelatin, made in the pressure cooker. It is really delicious!

We made this batch on top of the stove, no pressure cooker. You can see it is cloudy. Not as pretty but just as good.

I freeze pork gelatin in silpat molds to add later to soup. stew, ragu and braises. I use it to make head cheese and other savory gelatins and to make a quick jus for pan roasted meats…….

To make head cheese I’ll melt the gelatin and combine it with some chopped meat from the pigs’ feet, some carrots, parsley and lemon or orange zest.

I pour it into individual silpat molds, then chill to set

Voila! Head cheese ready for service

Pork gelatin in one form or another is a speciality in many different cuisines. Here is a salumi plate we enjoyed last year in Siracusa, Sicily with some salumi, cheese and gelatina

And an important message from Brutto Senese….If you plan to make your own pork gelatin choose organic, naturally raised pork. That’s all for now folks!

This congealed salad from the Southern Living Fondue and Buffet Cookbook packs a double dose of vintage fun—a citrusy gelatin mold also serves as the serving dish for a beautiful mound of crab salad. Double the salad, double the delicious!

If we’re talking retro congealed salads, we can’t go without mention of a recipe with soda. From the pages of our May 1980 issue, this salad sticks out among others because it can easily be made in your 13x9 if you don’t have a gelatin mold.

Gelatin Art Market

Gelatin art is made by injecting a colorful base into clear gelatin forming petals, leaves and other shapes.

You start by cooking the gelatin powder with water, just like you would store-bought jello.
The trick is to use high-quality gelatin that has high clarity, low odor and makes a firm jelly.
Gelatin powder sold in grocery stores is usually not strong enough and is not likely to give you nice-looking results.
In addition to that, it is packaged in small (7gr) packets making it much more expensive than gelatin sold by the pound.

Besides gelatin, you will need sugar, citric acid and food flavoring to complete your clear gelatin base.

When the gelatin has set in the fridge for a few hours (or overnight), draw shapes into it using a color base.

There are many ways to make the color base. The most basic recipe contains milk, sugar, gelatin and food coloring.

Click on the link to see the detailed instructions and recipes for Clear Gelatin and the Color Base.

Flowers are usually drawn using a simple syringe with a needle or specialized gelatin art tools.

One very important thing is to pay attention to the temperature of the color base.
While clear gelatin should be kept cool, the color base should be kept slightly above room temperature to keep it thick but liquid while working with it.

If the color base starts to thicken up, place it in a container filled with warm water to make it liquid again.
If it get's too warm and runny, allow it to cool down a bit.

That is pretty much everything you need to know to get started.

To view our step-by-step online classes, visit our Gelatin Art Academy here.

To save you the trouble of collecting all the right ingredients, we have created a starter kit that has everything you need to start making gelatin art desserts.

To purchase the starter kit and other gelatin art products, visit our online store here.

Article Sources

  1. What Is Gelatin Good For? Benefits, Uses, and More . Alexandra Rowles . Healthline . 2017 .
  2. Collagen: The Fibrous Proteins of the Matrix . Lodish H, Berk A, Zipurskey SL . NCBI . 2000 .
  3. Decreased Collagen Production in Chronically Aged Skin . James Varani, Michael K Dame, Laure Rittie, Suzanne E G Fligiel, Sewon Kang, Gary J Fisher, John J Vorhees . NCBI . 2006 .
  4. A Microengineered Collagen Scaffold for Generating a Polarized Crypt-Villus Architecture of Human Small Intestinal Epithelium . Yuli Wang, Dulan B Gunasekara, Mark I Reed, Matthre DiSalvo, Scott J Bultman, Christopher E Sims, Scott T Magness, Nancy L Allbritton . NCBI . 2017 .

Updated on: February 26th, 2021 Published on: March 5th, 2018

Amy Myers, MD

Amy Myers, MD is a two-time New York Times bestselling author and an internationally acclaimed functional medicine physician. Dr. Myers specializes in empowering those with autoimmune, thyroid, and digestive issues to reverse their conditions and take back their health. In addition, she is a wife, mother, and the successful founder and CEO of Amy Myers MD ® .

What is Gelatin?

A. Gelatin is a colorless, flavorless thickening agent that is used to give body to molded salads and desserts. A by-product of meat processing, most gelatin is granulated, although it is available in sheets-known as "sheet" or "leaf" gelatin-in some gourmet shops. The granulated type is sold in regular supermarkets and comes in unflavored and in flavored, sweetened varieties.

Q. How do you measure gelatin?

A. A 1/4-ounce envelope of unflavored gelatin contains 1 tablespoon, which is enough to gel about 2 cups of most clear liquids. Keep in mind that certain foods-figs, ginger root, guava, kiwifruit, papaya, and pineapple-contain an enzyme that prevents gelatin from thickening. Cooking and canning destroys this enzyme so that the gelatin will gel.

Q. How do you use gelatin?

Unflavored gelatin must be softened before using. To soften, place 1/4 cup of the cold liquid used in the recipe in a small bowl or saucepan and evenly sprinkle the liquid with 1 tablespoon gelatin. Let stand for 5 minutes. To dissolve the gelatin, place the bowl in a larger container of hot water. Let stand until all of the gelatin crystals have dissolved. You can also add softened gelatin to a hot mixture, or heat it in a saucepan over very low heat until dissolved. Do not bring the gelatin mixture to a boil boiling will destroy its thickening powers.

Gelatin salads and desserts are particularly enjoyable in the summertime. They require little if any stove time and offer a cooling refreshment to the palate.


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