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Gelatin Dangers

400x magnification of a popular brand of sugar-free gelatin.

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Kitchen Mysteries is a weekly exploration of oddities surrounding cooking and food. They could be recipes that fail when they shouldn’t, conflicting advice from different sources, or just plain weirdness. If it happens in a kitchen, and you’re not sure why, send a tweet to The Food Geek to find out what’s happening.

Friend of The Food Geek, Steve, asks via twitter:

Hi, Steve,

I know you asked me this question in December, but I’ll hope you’ll understand that I waited until the very beginning of April to answer. Some questions require the proper context in order to be properly explored.

It’s a scary thought, isn’t it? Here you are, enjoying a little weekend recreation, perhaps making a nice gelatin dessert. But there’s so much lime-flavored dust flying around in the air. You inhale, perhaps inadvertently, and then the thought crosses your mind: what if the gelatin freezes in there? What if it makes a perfectly formed though quite disgusting mold of my lungs? Are my marathon plans for the next weekend dashed? Should I call an ambulance? Should I have made a safer dessert, such as a nice crème brûlée?

Before I answer, let’s look at what a gelatin is. When exploring sauces and foams, we’ve noticed that there are several clever ways of trapping water and air in meshes of molecules such as proteins or fats. Sometimes the structure forms because you’re agitating the molecules, and as they pass by each other, they join together and don’t let go. Gluten does this

Sometimes the entrapping molecules respond to temperature. Starches will often lie in wait until they hit a high temperature, then they spring forth and spread all throughout the liquid. Given a chance to cool again, rather than reverting back to their original shape, they merely group together in the liquid. 

Gelatin works like a starch, though it’s a set of proteins, rather than a starch. Gelatin is generally derived from collagen, which is one of the connective tissues in animals. Well, plants, too, but not in the concentration that you find in animals. The collagen is what makes stewed meats so moist when cooked properly. Of course, when properly processed, it doesn’t taste of meat, but this is why gelatins and many marshmallows are not vegetarian foods.

When gelatins are in hot water, their protein molecules are loose and free-floating, much as you might be in a hot spring. When the temperature drops, though, all the tension returns to the collagen. They wind up into triple-helixes (kind of  like DNA, but more so), which gives them much more strength. As they had spread throughout the liquid when it was warm, when they bunch up, they trap the water in between their coils. The water has no place to go, so it ends up just staying where it is. Thus structure is formed. If you heat the gelatin back up again, it relaxes and lets the water turn back into a liquid.

The key fact that you’re looking for is that gelatin remains turns into a liquid right around 100°F. It’s especially tasty to people because, although it’s solid at a cool room temperature, it melts at body heat. Therefore, it’s unlikely that you’ve made a gelatin mold inside your body, which I think we can say is good news all around.

This doesn’t mean you should take up gelatin sniffing as a hobby. First of all, I don’t believe medical science has adequately answered what would happen to a lung that is overwhelmed by gelatin, and I’d imagine that they’d rather not have to.

Second, depending on how fine the gelatin is processed, it might not dissolve evenly in your moist, lungy environment. Coarse gelatin, which is usually what you get with the non-flavored types or sometimes the off brands, acts like flour in an improperly prepared gravy: if you dump a bunch into hot water, it’ll clump. If you inhale something that turns into a big clump, you can be sure that you’re going to at least be coughing for a while. If it gets stuck in your throat, which is also plenty damp and warm, then you may have other problems. At the very least, you will disappoint your doctor, and you don’t want that.

For this reason, if you’re using an unflavored gelatin to make something such as panna cotta, which is basically a milk gelatin, you’ll want to bloom the gelatin first. Blooming, named for Oscar Bloom, is letting the gelatin sit in cold liquid for a while, which gives it a chance to hydrate and prepare itself for the upcoming hot bath. Given this preparation, you won’t end up with clumps in your panna cotta.

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  • Vane_mx | 04/02/2009

    I love Food Geeks, reminds me of Harold Gee's book,
    On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen .

  • dollibygolly | 04/01/2009



    This was a very interesting question, and the answer (although supposedly a tad late) was thoughtful, scientific and to the point. Good job Food Geek! Thanks for all the useful info.

    Dollibygolly

  • Cooksbakesbooks | 04/01/2009

    I'm really enjoying the Food Geek posts! Good scientifically-based research goes into his answers, and I appreciate that.

  • HDnigrine | 04/01/2009

    All of these newsletters should be addressed to Dorothy

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