Gelatin
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Gelatin (or gelatine) is derived from animal proteins and is the most well known irreversible “hydrocolloid,” ingredients that can capture food as a flexible solid. Others hydrocolloids include Pectin (made from fruit), Agar-agar, (which comes from seaweed), and jelling agents such as Xanthan Gum, or sodium alginate.

Perhaps first discovered in a chilled bowl of leftover broth or soup, Gelatin forms when heat unwinds twisted fibers of Collagen, present in skin, Connective Tissue, Cartilage and bones causing them to mix with liquid in the cooked foods. As the collagen strands cool again, they create a liquid-trapping matrix that becomes Gelatin. Substances containing gelatin or resembling Gelatin are called “gelatinous.”

Commercial Gelatin is made by boiling down animal bones and hides. Though nearly any type of meat can be used to make Gelatin. In the United States, it's most often made from (in descending order of predominance) pigskins, cattle bones, and cattle hides. A small amount of Gelatin is made from fish, chicken, or beef bones and skins. Fish Gelatin has a lower melting point, 73.4° F - 77° F (23° C - 25° C), than other gelatins. It melts roughly at the human body temperature or 98° F (36° C). Also, Gelatin is always animal-derived. Anything labeled as “Vegetable Gelatin” is not Gelatin but a gelatin substitute or gelatin alternative.

Gelatin is a translucent, yellow-white, brittle (when dry), flavorless, fat-free, sugar-free, cholesterol-free, solid substance. It contains 84 - 90% protein, 1-2% mineral salts and 8-15% water. Nutritionally, gelatin is classified as a food stuff and not as an additive. Though it is an animal product, it is not a Complete Protein food because the Essential Amino Acid tryptophan is missing and methionine is only present at a low level.

Gelatin is used to add volume and/or Mouth Feel to products without adding calories, weight or fat. In foods, Gelatin is used as: a gelling agent, a thickener, a binder, an emulsifier, a whipping agent, and a stabilizer. Gelatin is often used in making confections, such as gummy bears or marshmallows; in desserts including Jell-O ®; in "Lite" or “Low-Fat” foods including some margarines; and in dairy products such as yogurt or ice cream.

Until the late 19th century when Charles Knox of Johnstown, New York created the sheet form (also called “Leaves”) of Gelatin, and later the powdered form, making Gelatin was a laborious, dirty job of simmering hooves, bones and skin, constantly skimming them and finally clarifying the results through layers of cheese cloth or linen napkins. Only restaurants or households with a kitchen staff could afford the time and effort to make a Gelatin dish making them a de facto status symbol, as kitchen staffs and their patrons vied with one another to make ever more elaborate presentations.

The competition for status and pride of place made the use of Gelatin very influential in Western cuisine. The Golden Age of Cooking is chock full of examples of grand brandy Aspics and sophisticated herbed Gelées molded into ornate food art. Gelatin creations, because of their complexity, became the pinnacle of the culinary professionals’ craft.

As with many gentrified preparations, like soups, Gelatin went completely mainstream due to the inventiveness of an American entrepreneur at the turn of the last century. Jell-O, gelatin and fruit flavorings, was invented in 1897, and it put gelatinous creativity into the hands of the average housewife armed with a Gelatin mold.

As described by Sarah Dickerman in Gelatin a Thing of Beauty in Saveur Magazine, “There was a sheer force of will applied to the jellied dishes of the early and mid-20th century. If a food was eaten at the American table, then a home economist found a way to encase it in gelatin.”Items like Perfection Salad, (published in “Knox Gelatine: Dainty Dishes for Dainty People,” 1931) or Jellied Bouillon with Frankfurters were commonly found in “ice-boxes” across the country because they were at once sophisticated, for the time, and a thrifty way to re-task leftovers. Even Irma Rombauer’s 1931 classic, The Joy of Cooking, pushed them.

As with many human endeavors, “what is old becomes new again,” as they are seen with new eyes and put to novel purposes. So it is with Gelatin, which plays a pivotal role in Molecular Gastronomy, including the cooking of Ferran Adria of El Bulli and Wylie Dufresne of WD-50 in New York. Culinary wizardry like Adria’s “espumas” or foams which are liquids (or purées) stabilized with Gelatin and foamed by pushing them through a high pressure nozzle. Because it is the only hydrocolloid that melts in your mouth at body temperatures, Gelatin, has cycled from the haute cuisine of the 19th century new guard, to populist fame in the mid 20th century, to seeming culinary obscurity on retirement home or all you can eat buffet menus, until being rediscovered and raised to new heights by curious, scientific-minded, avant garde chefs.

Varieties

Commercial Gelatin is classified in 5 categories: Edible, Technical, Pharmaceutical, Cosmetic or Photographic, each with its own use of Gelatin. We will only cover the edible form in depth here and lightly touch on the pharmaceutical use, since edible hard and soft gel caps are derived from Gelatin.