What is gelatin?

Checking the technical definition would reveal that gelatin is a substance that it is a hydrocolloid. It means, that it creates a gel when it comes in touch with water.
The gelatin we buy at the groceries store is actually produced by breaking down collagen- which is a protein found in the bones of different animals.
Gelatin is marketed as powder or as sheets.

Home bakers are using gelatin as a stabilizer, in particular for making various mousses.
Many people are often fear of using gelatin. However, this fear is due to not understanding how to use it properly.

Gelatin has different strength levels, depending on the amounts of “impurities” that remain in the final product after it was processed. These strengths are called “Bloom strengths”. A high-quality gelatin will not be discernible after it was mixed with the final product (i.e., it should be tasteless, odorless and colorless). I’ve bolded the last two words because those of you who already played around with gelatin before, must know that its smell is not very pleasant.

1. Why gelatin?

There are all sorts of stabilizers being used in professional bakeries: pectin, pectin NH, gellan, agar-agar, etc. The different stabilizers are distinctive not just by the way they are being used, but also in the characteristics they lend to the final product. Personally, I exclusively use only gelatin in my recipes.
As home bakers, whether novice or professional- I truly think we shouldn’t put too much efforts into hoarding all of the other stabilizers.

Most of us probably do not own molecular food restaurants, and our name is not Pierre Hermé. In my humble opinion, gelatin provides a wide range of solutions in terms of textures and usage, only if you know how to correctly work with it. But this is just my opinion and everyone is entitled to research and use the other stabilizers as they see fit.

2. Which type of gelatin should be used?

The most common gelatin is available in the form of powder (fish gelatin). Fish gelatin has a very high Bloom strength, which can explain why using it is also very common. The powder is very easily measured using small digital scales, or accurate measurement teaspoons.
The source of sheets gelatin is mostly cattle or pork.
Either way, use the formulation which you like and prefer the most. Personally, I exclusively use powdered gelatin.

3. So, how to use gelatin?

As I briefly mentioned in the previous section, gelatin must be weighed or measured accurately. Otherwise, the final result will be noticeable in the texture of whatever it is we are trying to stabilize.
The steps for using gelatin are:

  • The gelatin must be soaked in water, in a process called “Blooming”, in order to prepare a “gelatin mass”. Whether you are using sheets or powder, the gelatin must be soaked with cold water that is 5 times the amount of gelatin.
    If using powder, I highly recommend to mix them very thoroughly in the water so that they are evenly dispersed. The gelatin must soak for at least 30 minutes, preferably in the refrigerator, before moving on to the next step.

  • Heating the gelatin mass- you can microwave the gelatin mass about 10 seconds each time, but no more than that (it also depends on the amount of gelatin mass you prepare). The mixture will be liquid again, and it needs to be thoroughly stirred until you get a clear and liquid that doesn’t have any lumps. Note, that if your liquid is not crystal clear and has lumps, it means that the Blooming was not done properly and it can impair the final texture. If using gelatin sheets, you can skip this step.

  • Adding the gelatin mass into the product to be stabilized- the liquid can now be added into a mousse or compote mixture, in order to be stabilized according to the instructions of the recipe. If using gelatin sheets, you need to squeeze out the excess water and add the sheets directly into a hot mass for them to dissolve in.

4. How do I know how much gelatin I need to add in order to stabilize a mass?

This is a question I asked myself dozens of times when I first started using gelatin. The answer is, regrettably, quite annoying.
In your experience.
Only through trial and error, you can learn and figure out the right and preferable texture to you. Sometimes we want to stabilize creams, but only so much that they keep their airy and tender texture. While sometimes, we want a fruit insert to feel more jello-ish in texture.
Yet still, in order to try and come up with some useful rule of thumb, I highly recommend to check out recipes that are calling for gelatin.

After finding a recipe that is to your liking, check the ratio of gelatin compared to the total amount of the mass into which it is being added, for example:
1 teaspoon of gelatin (which is by the way, 3.1 grams), for 500g total mousse mass.
The above example is not accurate, but is intended to show that if we’re interested to stabilize a different mousse using gelatin, our starting point should be 1 teaspoon of gelatin. You can always go back and revisit the ratio when you re-try the recipe.

5. Additional notes on using gelatin

  • Gelatin is a thermoreversible substance. It what makes it possible to re-heat and chill the gelatin so that it breaks down and forms again, without losing its stabilizing strength.
    I’ve read on many sources that you should avoid boiling gelatin as this will cause it to lose its strength.
    This never happened to my, in my experience, even at times when I accidently over heated the gelatin mass. What I’m trying to say is that not everything is so delicate and fragile as we’re being told, and we totally almost always have a chance to fix what goes wrong.

  • There are all sorts of techniques to incorporate a gelatin mass into another mass that needs to be stabilized. However, the most important thing to remember is that when we introduce a hot gelatin mass, to a cold cream (for example)- the differences in temperatures will cause the gelatin to activate and the cream will be filled with many tiny and chewy lumps, that are not pleasant to eat at all.
    It’s important to stick to the instructions of the recipe in order to avoid these situations, since once those lumps appear, there’s no way back and unfortunately, we’ll need to start from scratch.

  • Please consider whether the recipe calls for gelatin sheets or powder. In terms of weight, they are the same, i.e., if a recipe calls for 4 grams of gelatin sheets, you can use exactly the same weight of powdered gelatin. However, some recipes are calling for the number of sheets. For example, 2 sheets of gelatin. You can use the following formula below, that will be ok for most home-made baking needs of gelatin, in order to convert the number of gelatin sheets, to grams

    Powdered Gelatin = 1.78 x Number of Sheets
    A recipe calls for using 3 gelatin sheets. Therefore, we will need 3 x 1.78 = 5.34 gram of powdered gelatin (this weight also equals 1.75 teaspoons).

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