If you've only ever used gelatin to whip up a batch of Jell-O or boxed pudding, you're missing out. Considering it's sold as a completely flavorless product, gelatin is one of the culinary world's greatest unsung heroes. It makes its way into countless sweet and savory preparations, from creamy panna cotta to tender, juicy meatloaf and just about everything in between.
But first things first: What exactly is it? Packaged gelatin—the stuff you most often find in packets of powder or thin, translucent sheets—is a relatively recent innovation. It wasn't until the late 1890s that William Knox brought his neutral-tasting product to market; the first boxes of Jell-O followed just a few years later.
While that was the first time gelatin was made widely available off the shelf to home cooks, it was far from new in and of itself: Gelatin's been a cooking staple for as long as people have been stewing meat. That's all thanks to collagen, a component of connective tissue (the stuff you'll find on fish and animal bones or hides)* that, when heated in liquid under proper conditions, converts into gelatin. If you've ever made a long-cooking stew or stock and found the liquid all jellied after a night in the fridge, that's gelatin at work. In its natural form, it gives stocks and sauces a thicker body and lip-smacking richness. Industrially extracted and processed into powder or sheets, it can also do a whole lot more.
* The vegetarians and vegans out there needn't despair: Gelatin substitutes, like pectin, kosher gelatin, agar, and carrageenan, can often be used instead—just follow package instructions to calculate the proper usage and amount.
Once it's hydrated, or "bloomed," in a cold water-based liquid (to deter lumps) and heated up on the stovetop or in the microwave, the possibilities are nearly endless. Use a high concentration of gelatin and you'll get a firm, stiff texture, akin to that of Jell-O; reduce that amount and you can simply use it to enhance the viscosity of, well, whatever you want. Here's a look at gelatin's many delicious, wobbly faces.
Richer Stocks and Better Pan Sauces
While naturally extracting gelatin from animal bones through a long simmer in water is the most common way to make a rich, full-bodied chicken stock or tonkotsu-style pork stock, packaged gelatin makes for a ridiculously easy shortcut. You can add it to a thinner-bodied homemade stock (think vegetable stock or a quick-cooked broth) and even sprinkle some into your go-to store-bought broth to give it the body of its homemade, long-simmered counterparts.
That's an especially useful trick when you're just looking to whip up a quick pan sauce at home. If you've ever noticed that your homemade versions aren't living up to the glossy, smooth, emulsified texture you get in restaurants, it's probably because they're lacking that crucial gelatin content. So, when you're not up for brewing a whole potful of gelatin-rich broth, you can simply bloom some powdered gelatin in boxed or canned stock—about one and a half teaspoons per cup of stock will do the trick. A quick simmer and a pat of butter later, you'll have a mouth-coating white wine and fines herbes or creamy morel mushroom pan sauce with a restaurant-quality texture.
The same principle applies to virtually any preparation that calls for stock—if you have to go store-bought (and, let's be honest with ourselves, sometimes it's a necessary shortcut), a packet of powdered gelatin can make a world of difference. Use it in rich and hearty All-American Beef Stew, a complex bowl of Chicken Paprikash, and a satisfying Hungarian Goulash.
Just as gelatin can take liquids from thin and watery to rich and smooth, it can take ground meat from crumbly and dry to juicy, tender, and springy. We love sneaking it into bouncy Italian-American meatballs and hearty slow-cooked Bolognese sauce. It can keep meatloaf exceptionally moist and cohesive, whether it's stuffed with cheddar or layered with the flavors of shepherd's pie.
And don't forget the crucial role that gelatin-rich stock plays in soup dumplings! Xiao long bao rely on a fully solidified stock in order to get all that soup inside their wrappers; the stock then dissolves as it's heated. Of course, the best flavor will come from a real stock, but a little extra powdered gelatin can always help you along the way.
Gelées and Aspics
"Aspic" is basically a fancy name for solidified, clarified stock—it's what you'll find encasing pâtés and mousses or jiggling on top of your gefilte fish. When you add or substitute other flavors, you're heading into gelée territory. And yes, you can turn everything from juice to wine to beer into a gelée, so don't hesitate to get creative. Want a cocktail-flavored gelée? You just made a Jell-O shot. Going for something a little more sophisticated? We like this cranberry gelée, which we use to accompany a bourbon-spiked chicken liver pâté.
Panna Cotta, Pudding, and Other Desserts
More of a sweets person? You're in luck—gelatin's a key ingredient in everything from that aforementioned Jell-O pudding (here's how to make it from scratch) to classic panna cotta. Just combine your cream, sugar, gelatin, and any extra flavorings over gentle heat, then let it set up in the fridge. Want to get a little more adventurous? Give this Singapore-style Soya Beancurd a shot: mildly sweetened soy milk, firmed up with gelatin and flavored with anything from green tea to coffee to chocolate. For something less jiggly, we like this light, nutty, and not-too-sweet black sesame and honey pudding. Looking for a more substantial option? A no-bake, no-cook summer strawberry pie may just be right up your alley.
When even a fridge-chilled treat won't cut it, though, you can get the ultimate cooling dessert with our super-simple recipe for Mr. Softee–style soft-serve. In this case, explains creator Max Falkowitz, "Gelatin acts as a stabilizer—it reduces the size of ice crystals in the ice cream and allows the ice cream to hold its shape even when it's on the verge of melting." Once you have the base, we have some killer ways to amp it up.