If you’ve never worked with gelatin before or your last attempt at a molded salad didn’t set properly, this week’s Vintage Cooking 101 is for you. Gelatin is an incredibly versatile natural ingredient (collagen) that helps liquids thicken and set as gel solids.

If you’ve made Jello and are new to working with gelatin, it is important to remember that Jello is a mix that contains gelatin. Plain gelatin powder (one ingredient: gelatin) and shouldn’t be prepared the same way. Gelatin powder needs to hydrate or you will end up with a stringy, lumpy mess.

Five tips to help ensure your next gelatin creation is successful

You’ll be serving Molded Masterpieces in no time!

1. Time is of the essence

Timing is important when working with gelatin. Once hydration starts the clock is running. Good news: prepping gelatin is quick and easy.  Before you start have your mold pans prepped and ingredients handy and ready to go.

2. Hydrate in cold water

If you’ve made Jello before, then this step is the one you want to highlight. Jello’s directions start with dissolving the mix of boiling water. Do not hydrate pure gelatin powder in boiling water. Always start with cold water to hydrate the gelatin. Gelatin molecules need time to hydrate and plump up before use. This is also why it isn’t a good idea to just stir gelatin powder into the mix with other ingredients. Take time to hydrate for the best consistency and avoid stringy or clumpy gelatin.

Power gelatin packet

Start with a little cold water (about 1/4 cup per 1 packet) in a bowl or saucepan. Sprinkle the gelatin powder evenly across the surface of the liquid and gently stir. Let sit 1-2 minutes to “bloom”. It will take on a lumpy consistency as it plumps up and hydrates.

Gelatin sheets

Fill a bowl or shallow pan with cold water  (about 1 cup per sheet) and place sheets in a single layer across the top. Let “bloom” for 8-10 minutes until they are soft and clear. Gently lift out and wring out excess water before adding it to the warm mix.

The clock is now ticking! It is important to use the hydrated gelatin base as soon as possible. 

3. Add heat to dissolve

The next step is to add heat to your bloomed gelatin to fully dissolve the gelatin granules for use. This stage can’t be rushed by hydrating with hot liquid instead of cold back in step 2.

If your recipe tells you to add your hydrated “bloomed” base to warm or hot liquid, perfect. Use the amount of liquid stated in the recipe and you’re on your way.

If your recipe is vague and just says “dissolve gelatin”, they mean: add hot water to your bloomed gelatin (directions above) and stir thoroughly until completely dissolved.

If your recipe does not specify how much hot water is, use about 1/4 cup per 1 packet for powder or 1/2 cup for a sheet. Now you are ready to continue with the cold ingredients or liquid.

If your bloomed gelatin is going into a cold mix, you’ll need to add heat to help the gelatin dissolve first following the steps above.

4. Not Everything is Gelatin Friendly

Some fruits contain an enzyme that will dissolve the gelatin protein molecules, preventing it from setting firm. These fruits include fresh or frozen pineapple, figs, kiwi, guava, or papaya.

Pineapples as you’ll see around this site are very popular in vintage (and contemporary) molded desserts and salads. This can be attributed to the growing availability of canned pineapple in the first half of the 20th century. Why is canned pineapple ok? The canning process may break down the enzymes to make it more gelatin friendly.

If you want to use one of these fresh fruits with gelatin, try cooking them to help break down the enzymes so they become more gelatin friendly. Also, these fruits are compatible with gelatin recipes that are not set to solid, like “whips”, “snow”, and mousses.

5. Chill

Give yourself and your mold plenty of time set. For smaller molds, allow for 2-4 hours. Large or layered molds may take upwards of 6 hours or even overnight to fully set.

I’ve read tips about pouring into a chilled mold or adding ice. It could be those tips work perfectly with Jello packets. But once your ingredient list grows, the list of what is reacting to an abrupt change is temperature does as well. In my experiments working with gelatin mold recipes, trying to ramp up the cooling process produced issues with consistency and sticking to the mold. I can not recommend these hacks or putting gelatin dishes in the freezer to speed things up. 

Unofficial last step

Do not fear the gelatin! Remember it was tremendously popular for generations because working with gelatin is simple once you have the basics down. Need some inspiration? Check out our gelatin recipes or our Molded Masterpieces recipe collection.

Gelatin FAQ

Have questions? Here are some common gelatin questions.

How much gelatin powder do I need?

If your recipe doesn’t say exactly, add up the volume of its liquid ingredients. One packet of gelatin (approx. 2 1/4 to 2 1/2 tsp) can set two cups of liquid firmly.

Is gelatin vegan?

Gelatin is not vegan. The gelatin used in cooking to thicken and set liquids is derived from animal collagen.

Is gelatin made from hooves?

No, hooves contain keratin just like human nails and hair. Gelatin is extracted from skin and bones.

What’s gelatin powder taste like?

Plain gelatin powder is colorless and flavorless.

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