GELATIN. Gelatin (also gelatine, jelly in Britain, jelly powder in Canada, and gelée in France) is a flavorless, transparent thickener derived from animal collagen that dissolves when heated and congeals when cooled, allowing foods to set. This versatile ingredient provides unique textural and sensory properties to both savory and sweet foodstuffs such as mousses, gummy bears, Turkish Delight, nougat, jellied soups, Bavarian cream, aspic, and Jell-O.
Gelatin is composed of protein molecules, made up of chains of amino acids. When placed in liquid, the molecules swell and then dissolve, and the chains separate. After cooling, they re-form as tightly as before. In the warmth of the mouth, they melt, providing excellent flavor release. This property and gelatin's easy digestability and absorption by the body makes gelled desserts appropriate for children, invalids, and the elderly.
Nutritional value of gelatin was recognized as early as the Napoleonic Wars (1800815) when the French used it as a source of protein during the English blockade. Commercial gelatin contains no fat or cholesterol and few calories, making it popular with people who have diet and heart concerns. Commercial manufacturers claim that gelatin promotes nail and hair growth, as well as flexible joints and healthy bones. However, the protein in gelatin is missing an amino acid and thus is not absorbed as a complete protein by the body.
The discovery of gelatin was probably serendipitous: When animal bones and hides are boiled in water, the broth that results will set upon cooling. From the Middle Ages through the eighteenth century, making gelatin was a daylong, laborious process in which cattle hooves were boiled for six hours. The stock was clarified as it dripped through a jelly bag, boiled again, and then allowed to sit. Not surprisingly, production was limited to wealthy households with many servants. Another early
Today, the substance is manufactured commercially all over the world. In the United States most gelatin is derived from pig skin. Strictly speaking, this is not a kosher practice (although interpretations vary), and it is not permissible under Islamic dietary law. An alternative, isinglass (made from the air bladders of sturgeon), is acceptable to the religious and vegetarians. Another alternative is agar, made from a variety of red seaweed, commonly used in Japan where it is known as kanten and used in the manufacture of ice cream. Cattle form the basis of gelatin in France and Britain, raising safety concerns about transmission of mad cow disease even in the United States where some gelatin is imported from Europe.
Commercially manufactured gelatin is packaged in ¼-ounce envelopes of desiccated granules; paper-thin sheets, known as leaves (used in jelled Central and Eastern European desserts and aspics); and meltable blocks (Great Britain). In Latin America, gelatin is often mixed with milk or cream instead of water for the popular creamy desserts. In Russia, gelatin encases pigs' feet and other meats.
Aside from home and restaurant cooking, gelatin has wide application in the food industry where its functional properties are used to gel, thicken, stabilize, emulsify, bind, film, foam and whip prepared foods. Among other items, gelatin is incorporated into marshmallows, cake mixes, frostings, bakery glazes, meringues, ice cream, coffee, and powdered milk.
Elaborate molded jellies began to grace aristocratic British banquet tables in the fourteenth century. In the Late Medieval period (the 1400s) through the 1500s, cooks made savory and sweet jellied dishes using meat, chopped fine, mixed with cream or almond milk that was flavored with spices, rosewater, or sugar to fashion creations known as cullis, gellys, or brawn. In 1754, the first English patent for the manufacture of gelatin was granted. During the Victorian era, copper, and later aluminum, molds were introduced, which made possible the presentation of tall, shimmering creations. Unflavored dried gelatin became available in 1842 from the J and G Company of Edinburgh, Scotland.
Gelatin had an esteemed role in classic French cuisine. Escoffier's legendary Guide Culinaire (1903) includes a chapter on aspic jellies (savory gels) in which the great chef named two kinds: one flavored with champagne; the other with sherry, Marsala, or Madeira. Surprisingly, he mused that aspics might be even more important than stock, the bastion of Gallic cooking, because a cold meat, poultry, or fish entree (known as chaud-froid) is nothing without its glimmering coating of aspic. He warned that the value of the aspic decreased in direct proportion to its increasing firmness. The ideal was a softer consistency so aspic could even be served in a sauceboat. Gelatin also figured in many classic French desserts like blanc-mange, charlottes, mousses, and Bavarian creams.
Gelatin in the United States
In America, in 1845, Peter Cooper, inventor of the steam locomotive, secured a patent for a gelatin dessert powder called Portable Gelatin, requiring only the addition of hot water. The same year, the J and G Company began exporting its Cox Gelatin to the United States. The new formulas never gained much popularity, however, and as late as 1879 when the classic Housekeeping in Old Virginia was published, editor Marion Cabell Tyrer, while admitting that jelly made of calves and hogs was "more troublesome," claimed it was more nutritious than Cox's or Nelson's desiccated formulas. Plymouth Rock Gelatin Company of Boston patented its Phosphated Gelatin in 1889. In 1894, Charles Knox introduced granulated gelatin, making the brand something of a household word. This opened the way for a plethora of American recipes that gained popularity, particularly during the 1950s when chiffon pie and tomato aspic (made of gelatin and tomato juice) became staples.
Although Jell-O is considered déclassé in upscale restaurants, gelatin was resurrected and frenchfied by American chefs in the late 1990s, who reverted to calling the sweets "gelées." These creative formulas have been limited only by imagination since virtually any liquid can be usedoffee, champagne, grape and beet juice, rosé wine, sangria, and fruit poaching liquids. What began in the Middle Ages as an elite food has come full circle and returned to gourmet status.
See also Escoffier, Georges-Auguste; Medieval Banquet;Proteins and Amino Acids; Icon Foods; Women and Food.
Wyman, Carolyn. JELL-O: A Biography, The History and Mystery of "America's Most Famous Dessert." San Diego, Calif., New York and London: Harcourt, 2001. Contains material on gelatin as well.
Shapiro, Laura. Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986.
Belluscio, Lynne. The JELL-O Reader. Le Roy, N.Y.: Le Roy Pennysaver, 1998. A collection of forty articles by the director of the Le Roy Historical Society. Also contains material on gelatin.
Berzok, Linda Murray. "My Mother's Recipes: The Diary of a Swedish American Daughter and Mother." In Pilaf, Pozole, and Pad Thai: American Women and Ethnic Food, edited by Sherrie A. Inness. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001. The social meaning, for women, of Jell-O molded salads.
Linda Murray Berzok
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