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Using Gelatin to Give Desserts Body and Shape

Fine Cooking Issue 27
Photos: Scott Phillips
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Those of us who recall those omnipresent technicolor rings of Jell-O when we were kids might shudder to hear that gelatin-based desserts are springing up at fine restaurants. But these aren’t our mothers’ molds.

Flavored with whole fruit, fruit purées, wine, spirits, cinnamon, or mint, gelatin desserts can be sophisticated, with a jewel-like splendor. A perfect ex­ample of this is Stephen Durfee’s terrine of strawberries and Champagne.

When added to flavorful custardy bases and lightened with whipped cream, egg whites, or a combination of both, gelatin gives body and staying power to light-as-air mousses, Bavarian creams, and sweet cold soufflés, such as the lemon soufflé at right.

However you plan to use gelatin, the key to making successful desserts with it lies in properly incorporating the gelatin into your other ingredients for smooth, tender results.

Powdered gelatin is easy to work with

Gelatin comes in powdered and leaf (or sheet) forms; they produce identical results. I always use powdered (granular) gelatin, as do most of the chefs I know, because it’s readily available and easy to use. In Europe, there’s a stronger tradition of using the sheet gelatin, which some claim is easier to measure but which needs more soaking time to release its gelling properties.

The amount of gelatin you need depends on your recipe. The perfect gelatin dessert is firm enough to hold its shape yet tender enough to melt quickly on your tongue. Too much gelatin makes a dessert that’s stiff and rubbery; too little causes the dessert to split and collapse. One packet of unflavored powdered gelatin (about 2-1/4-teaspoons or 1/4-ounce) will set about 2-cups of liquid (just remember “a packet per pint”). If you need a softer set to the dessert, as for a mousse, for ex­ample, you may use up to 3-cups of liquid per packet.

Soften powdered gelatin and then melt it one of two ways

Soften gelatin before melting it

Using gelatin requires two steps: softening it in a cold liquid (a step called blooming) and then heating the liquid to melt the gelatin. The initial softening helps the gelatin melt and dissolve smoothly.

The liquid you use to soften the gelatin depends on your recipe. Many recipes call for water, but often it will be juice, coffee, wine, or a spirit. The liquid then performs double duty—softening the gelatin and providing flavor.

One way to melt the softened gelatin is in a pan over a low flame. Just don’t let the mixture boil: the intense heat will destroy the gelling properties. The melted gelatin is then incorporated as the recipe directs.

Or, you can stir the softened gelatin right into a warm mixture, such as a cooking custard, where it will melt and dissolve. Be sure to stir as the gelatin melts to keep it from separating from the custard.

Time additions with care

Gelatin sets rapidly as it cools: remember that fact as you mix it with other ingredients. When adding melted gelatin to a flavor base, like a fruit purée, it’s best if the gelatin is still warm (especially if the flavor base is cold) or the gelatin will set as soon as it touches the base and can form strings.

If you add whipped cream or whipped egg whites to a flavored gelatin mixture, as you would for a mousse, a Bavarian cream, or a soufflé, the custard-gelatin mix should be chilled over an ice bath until it feels cool and has thickened slightly. If the gelatin hasn’t set enough, it will be too liquid to blend easily with the whipped cream; if it has set too much, its firmness will keep the cream from folding in evenly. If the gelatin mixture sets too firmly before you’re ready to add the other ingredients, warm it gently to soften it.

Chill gelatin to set

Gelatin-based desserts need some time in the fridge before they’re served. I find that six hours is usually sufficient for a perfectly set, chilled dessert. Don’t be tempted to freeze the dessert to speed the process; frozen gelatin will separate when thawed.

Gelatin desserts will stay tender for about 36-hours of chilling. After that, they’ll toughen or lose some of their shape, so plan to serve your dessert no more than a day after making it.

Chill the base over ice

Chill the gelatin base before adding whipped cream or egg whites. When the gelatin-custard base has reached the consistency of unbeaten egg whites, fold in the whipped ingredients. Then gently pour the mixture into a mold and chill to set.

Ingredients to watch

Gelatin won’t set if it has been combined with an ingredient containing a certain enzyme that destroys protein molecules. Notable offenders include kiwi, papaya, pineapple, fig, honeydew melon, and fresh ginger. Highly acidic fruits and liquids also give gelatin trouble. When using acidic juices or purées, an extra packet of gelatin may be needed for the dessert to set.

Soak sheet gelatin and mix it into warm ingredients


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