Gelatin is an odourless, tasteless and colourless protein deriving from animal collagen (most commonly from pig skin). It is very popular amongst bakers as the ultimate setting and thickening agent for liquids.
It’s a very versatile protein that is widely used in dessert making and savoury cooking. It is used to set and thicken anything from soups, gravy, mousse, souffles, jelly and even ice cream. So if you have ever wondered what makes a mousse silky smooth or what makes that whipped cream keep its shape, then chances are they have gelatin in them!
Types of Gelatin
Gelatin powder is gelatin that has been dried into individual grains, making it easier to distribute evenly within the mixture. They are usually stored in packets containing 3 to 4 sachets of approximately 1 tablespoon of powder in each sachet.
Sheet Gelatin (leaf)
Gelatin sheets, on the other hand, are made from dried gelatin which have been turned into a clear, flat sheet. Gelatin sheets tend to be more popular than gelatin powder as they result in a more transparent, clear product. It is also easier to use as the measurements are just counting the number of sheets rather than weighing out the grams, like you would do with powder gelatin. As a general rule of thumb, use 3 to 4 gelatin sheets for every tablespoon of gelatin powder.
Top baking tip: 1 tablespoon of gelatin powder or 3 to 4 sheets will set around 2 cups of liquid.
What does Gelatin do in Baking?
Gelatin can set and stabilise; mousses, jelly desserts, marshmallow, cheesecake, whipped cream, panna cotta, trifle, custard and many more of your favourite desserts!
Although both gelatin powder and gelatin sheets derive from the same product, the two forms are very different from each other and require different techniques when being added to your bakes.
Gelatin powder needs to be dissolved in cool water, usually in about 3 tablespoons of water for every tablespoon of powder gelatin used. Bakers generally sprinkle the gelatin powder over the water, mix it and let it set aside to bloom for a few minutes. During the blooming stage, the gelatin granules strengthen and become enlarged as they absorb the water. Once it has bloomed, you should end up with a gelatin mixture that is quite thick.
Since your gelatin is almost solid, you need to liquefy it again before mixing it into your dessert.
You can do this by either adding the gelatin straight into your hot mixture, such as in custard, and your gelatin will melt within the mixture. If you are wanting to add the gelatin to a cold mixture, such as in a no-bake cheesecake batter, melt the gelatin over some hot water or add some hot water directly in the gelatin mixture to break it up and dissolve it. Makes sure not to boil the powder as it will break down and lose its ability to solidify.
When using gelatin sheets, soak them in cold water for 5 to 10 minutes. Once they have soaked, squeeze out any excess water and add them to your hot mixture. If you are wanting to add the sheets into a cold mixture, dissolve them in some hot water first. Similarly to powder gelatin, watch that the gelatin sheets do not boil as this will ruin them.
Once you have mixed the gelatin with your dessert mixture, it’s time to pop it in the fridge. For gelatin to stabilize your dessert, it has to be refrigerated from 8 to 24 hours. The longer you refrigerate your dessert for, the better the gelatin will set. Once your dessert is set, you should have a silky, smooth, melt in the mouth texture.
Popular Vegan Alternatives to Gelatin
Gelatin is a big no in the vegan world as it’s made from animals (pretty obvious by now). But that’s not to say that vegans can’t enjoy their favourite desserts. There is a wide variety of vegan alternatives that work similarly to gelatin.
Agar is one of the most common vegan alternatives for gelatin. It comes in sheets, flakes, and more popularly, in powder form.
Agar derives from red algae, which is a type of seaweed. It works very similarly to gelatin, in that it has to be soaked in cool water, dissolved in hot liquid then cooled down to firm up.
The difference with agar is that it has to be boiled to dissolve properly within the liquid. Bring the agar mixture to a boil and then let it simmer, stirring constantly until it starts to thicken. Once it starts to thicken, remove it from the heat and pour it into your mixture. Similar to gelatin, desserts with agar need to be refrigerated to set and are eaten cold.
Agar is a strong setting agent and you don’t need much to solidify a liquid. Around one teaspoon of powdered agar will set 1 cup of liquid. If you are using flakes, you’ll need 1 tablespoon of flakes to set 1 cup of liquid.
Agar is a great vegan setting agent as it’s also tasteless, odourless and leaves a clear, transparent finish to your dessert that is silky smooth when eaten.
Xanthan gum is a flavourless thickening agent that helps stabilize liquids. It can be used to thicken sauces, soups, ice-creams and is also very popular amongst gluten-free bakes as it mimics the effects of gluten.
Xanthan gum can be found in powder form in the baking aisle of the supermarket and is fairly easy to use as it does not require to be heated up or bloomed. It activates as soon as it touches liquid. You don’t need much of it. Around 1 teaspoon per cup of liquid is enough to start to thicken. The more you add to your liquid, the thicker it will get. But don’t over do it as xanthan gum is hard to digest and may cause some discomfort (no one wants that!). Try and stay below, 15 grams, but chances are you won’t be using that much anyway!
Top baking tip: Xanthan gum is a gluten-free baker’s best friend. Be sure to use it in all of your gluten-free recipes.
Pectin is another vegan setting and thickening agent. It is a type of starch that naturally comes from fruit and vegetables. Pectin is usually used in jams and marmalades. When it’s heated up with sugar and an acidic fruit, it creates a gelatinous texture, which is a key characteristic of jams, marmalades and jellies.
Pectin comes in different types; high methoxyl (HM) and low methoxyl (LM). HM requires a high amount of sugar in order to create a gel-like structure. LM, on the other hand, does not require much sugar and is an ideal option for low sugar jams and jellies. LM has also become very popular as a setting and thickening agent for desserts and pastries that are not very sweet.
Pectin can be found in powder and liquid form. Dry pectin is more popular as liquid pectin can be quite messy to use and it doesn’t last long once it’s opened.
If you are planning on making jam, the amount of pectin used comes down to the type of fruit you will be putting in your jam and whether you will be using high sugar content or low sugar content. But, generally, you would use around 1 tablespoon of pectin to set 4 cups of fruit.
So now you know what gelatin does in baking! It is an ideal ingredient when it comes to setting, stabilizing and thickening liquids and it’s used in a lot more desserts than you would think! If used right, desserts with gelatin have a very clean, silky and smooth finish. Use too much gelatin, and your dessert will be bouncing around the kitchen! Use too little, and your dessert will melt into your hands when you take it out of the fridge (we’ve all been there). Just follow your recipe and you should be okay!
And for all our vegan friends out there, there are many vegan-friendly alternatives to gelatin. If you want to get the closest effect to gelatin, agar-agar is definitely your best bet. It has very similar characteristics to gelatin and you can use it pretty much the exact same way and you will get a similar effect.