Gelatin's main use in baking is as a thickener. However, it is used in many other culinary applications, particularly stocks, broths and desserts. Gelatin is sold as a jelly, a powder and in sheets. Pure gelatin is flavourless and colourless. Coloured gelatin makes good “stained glass” windows in gingerbread houses. It is widely used in the processed food industry as a stabiliser, thickener and texturiser. It is also used outside the food industry for things such as capsules for medication, candles, adhesives, photographic film and cosmetics, and is part of the paper-making process.
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Source of gelatin
Gelatin for culinary use is derived from collagen, and is produced by boiling the bones, connective tissues and skins of cattle and pigs. Sweeteners, colourings and flavourings are added, depending upon its intended use. Aspic – the savoury jelly found in certain dishes – is gelatin. Plant-based gelatin is not true gelatin, as it shares none of its chemical make-up. However, certain plant starches mimic the form and behaviour of gelatin and so make good substitutes.
Gelatin is highly nutritious as it contains 98-99 percent protein in dried form. It contains half the amino acids required by the human body. Supporters claim it is the presence of gelatin in chicken soup that makes it so healthy. Gelatin is beneficial in the formation of keratin, which promotes hair and nail growth. Gelatin aids digestion and also improves anaemia, arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis and Crohn’s disease. Certified nutritionist Lisa La Barr says feeding gelatin to children can alleviate and prevent food allergies as it coats the stomach wall and promotes absorption of nutrients.
Cooking with gelatine
Gelatin is an important ingredient in many sweet and savoury dishes. It is a major component of good stock and is easily extracted at home by boiling chicken or beef bones. Use it in soups, gravies and baked meat pies. Gelatin is a main ingredient of jelly-based desserts, including mousses, trifles and fruit fillings.
Agar agar is a gelatin substitute extracted from red algae, a type of seaweed. It is popular as a thickener and for desserts in Asia. It is used in fruit preserves, ice-cream and custards. It is 80 percent fibre, so can be a useful laxative.
Carageenan is made from seaweed, commonly called “Irish moss.” It is a good vegetarian substitute for animal-derived gelatin, although it has different nutritional qualities, mainly fibre. It reacts in various ways, depending on what substances it is combined with.
Arrowroot is a starch-based thickener and was favoured by the Victorians for making biscuits, puddings, jellies and hot sauces. Often used in baking as a cornflour substitute, when mixed with boiling water it forms a thick jelly. It is not used as much today, as it has little nutritional value.
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