At some point in life, you’ve probably taken advantage of the wonders of gelatin. Your first encounter was likely as a child to make Jello (‘member that agonizing hours-long wait for it to set?), and then rediscovering the fruity, jiggly classic again during adulthood, only this time, with a boozy tweak. Its magic also extends to a variety of other dishes from marshmallows and dumplings to pie and panna cotta.
What Is Gelatin?
Well, for starters, it ain’t vegan (though there is an animal-free alternative which we’ll get to later). Much like a hot dog, it consists of a seemingly unappetizing blend of odds and ends: animal collagen, hooves, tendons, and other connective tissue can end up in the mix. The result, however, is flavorless (thankfully).
In concentrated doses, you’ll get that iconic firm, wobbly, translucent block (or artful mold) of jelly. Used less liberally, gelatin is a nice thickener for softer dishes like pudding.
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Powder, Leaf, and Agar-Agar
You’re likely familiar with gelatin in a powdered or granulated form. Given its fine texture, it dissolves more quickly providing faster results. While store shelves are stocked with gelatin-based dessert mixes, look for powders and granules that don’t have added ingredients when using it in a recipe.
Knox Original Gelatine, $2.19 from Target
The familiar powdered form.
You also may come across leaf (or sheet) gelatin. It takes longer to dissolve and become firm but the upside is that it yields more transparent, visually appealing results than powder. Occasionally, powder and granules won’t dissolve, but leaves/sheets rarely have that issue. They’re what professional chefs tend to use, particularly in gourmet European dishes like aspic.
Champion Gelatine Sheets, $4.99 from Walmart
The leaf form, preferred by many pasty chefs.
For vegetarians and vegans, seek out agar-agar which uses dried red algae as its base. It’s flavorless but using it instead of gelatin will yield stiffer, less jiggly results. Agar-agar also comes in powdered form and leaf/sheet form, with similar pros and cons coming with each.
Living Jin Agar Agar Powder, $13.75 from Amazon
A vegan gelatin substitute.
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How to Use Gelatin in Recipes
See below for some of our favorite (and perhaps surprising) uses for gelatin and agar-agar.
If the beloved soup dumpling specialist Din Tai Fung is outside your current reach, replicate its famous bundles of juicy joy at home. Gelatin is cleverly applied here, used to solidify pork stock which is placed inside the raw dough. Then, when the xiao long bao are cooked, the cube is melted down resulting in the dumpling’s signature liquid (careful, it’s hot!) center. Get the Xiao Long Bao recipe.
Panna cotta is typically the final course of a decadent meal, but consider making it a triumphant starter with this playful recipe from San Francisco’s Michelin-starred Madcap. Japanese flavors abound including ginger, plum vinegar, and lobes of creamy, briny sea urchin. Leaf/sheet gelatin is key to giving this panna cotta its semi-firm texture. Get the Uni Panna Cotta recipe.
This sweet Indonesian treat will be the envy of everyone in your social media feed. Pandan, an edible leaf (find it at an Asian market) with a grassy, herbaceous flavor, offers a wonderful balance to creamy coconut. Get the Pandan-Coconut Layered Agar Jelly recipe.
If you’re not convinced pudding is best enjoyed when frozen, here’s some proof. Keep it simple with plain-old chocolate or vanilla vanilla. Better yet, swirl the two together for the best of both worlds. Get our Chocolate-Vanilla-Swirl Pudding Pops recipe.
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Here’s the perfect way to take advantage of your summer strawberry haul while satisfying your sweet tooth. This recipe yields a dozen whimsical puffs with a creamy and tangy gelatin-infused mousse. Get our Strawberry Cream Puffs recipe.
Related Reading: How to Grow Your Own Strawberries This Summer, Indoors or Out
Chiffon pies are melt-in-your-mouth delicious with their soft, fluffy texture (thanks to a boost of gelatin). If it’s summertime, go with a blackberry-forward version. But when Thanksgiving rolls around, you know what to do. Get our Pumpkin Chiffon Pie recipe.
Related Reading: 13 Unique Pumpkin Pie Recipes for Your Holiday Table
If you’re planning to have a bonfire, you probably want classic vanilla marshmallows on hand. But if you’re staying indoors, try this retro recipe from Melissa Cole’s The Beer Kitchen: The Art and Science of Cooking, & Pairing, with Beer. Her boozy ‘mallows are made with both gelatin and agar-agar along with tart, fruity lambic, a traditional Belgian-style sour beer. A side of chocolate fondue brings even more suds to the party with the addition of dark stout. Get the Lambic Marshmallows with Chocolate Stout Fondue recipe.
There’s nothing wrong with getting your Jello shot on, but why not step up your game with these N’awlins-inspired rum-soaked little numbers? If you want to revel in that Mardi Gras spirit but you’re more of a whiskey fan, go the Sazerac route. Or for the botanical booze enthusiast, get jazzed for these Ramos Gin Fizz cubes. Get our Hurricane Jelly Shots recipe.