Traditional gelatin is made from collagen, a natural protein product of the meat industry obtained from the skin, cartilage, tendons, bones and connective tissue of cows and pigs. Most commercially produced gelatin used by home and professional cooks comes from pig skin. It is available in sheets or leaves, as well as in powdered or granulated forms, and is used as a thickening or gelling agent in sweet and savoury dishes.
Gelatin Sheet Substitutes
Leaf or sheet gelatin is most commonly found in ingredient lists for European-based recipes. American cooks normally use granulated gelatin, which can easily substitute for leaves or sheets, by using one tablespoon for every four sheets. Agar, a powdered vegetarian gelatin alternative made from seaweed, can also replace gelatin sheets and uses the same exchange ratio as granulated gelatin.
Whether in sheet, leaf or granulated form, gelatin must first be dissolved in water. Four sheets or leaves, one tablespoon or one prepackaged envelope of gelatin will gel two cups of liquid. To get the maximum thickening power from powdered gelatin, soak it in cold liquid for three to five minutes to soften and enlarge the granules. This helps the gelatin smoothly dissolve in hot liquid before it becomes semi-solid. For dishes with transparent gels, professional cooks frequently prefer gelatin leaves or sheets, as they are less cloudy than granulated types. All types of gelatin react poorly with natural enzymes of raw fruits, such as pineapple, peaches, mangos, guavas, papayas, figs and kiwi fruit, and hinder the gelling process. If using these ingredients in a gelled dish, use canned varieties, which are all precooked, or briefly cook them on a hob to destroy the enzymes.
Besides agar, other vegetarian substitutes for gelatin are carrageen, dai choy goh, kanten, Japanese gelatin or isinglass, Chinese gelatin or isinglass, vegetable gelatin and angel's hair. These seaweed derivatives take about 15 minutes to dissolve and set up quicker and more firmly than animal product gelatin. They often gel at room temperature and have higher melting points, which makes them good ingredients for gelatin-based dishes served at room temperature.
Tips and Hints
When using gelatin in recipes, have all ingredients at room temperature for optimum gelling results. Some gelatin powders made to create vegetable and meat aspics have salt and other flavourings in them, so check gelatin ingredients to make sure there are no additives that will clash with other recipe components. For best results, use gelatin by the expiration date on the box.
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