Gelatin: A Chef’s Secret Weapon
As a chef, one question I get a lot is, “Why do you always add gelatin to your stocks?”
I decided to do a post on this because the answer is actually more complicated than you might think.
It’s complicated because there are so many good reasons — both from a health and a culinary point of view — to make this magic ingredient a pantry staple.
(Pro tip: Check out FIXATE on BODi for Fix-approved recipes, cooking tips, and more.)
What IS Gelatin?
First, let’s talk about what it is: Gelatin is what collagen turns into after extended periods of low and slow heating.
It’s a protein loaded with many amino acids that are normally only found in the parts of animals we don’t eat (think bones and tough connective tissue).
Traditionally, those less edible parts would go into a stock pot with water and vegetables and simmer for 6 to 12 hours, until all of their healthy goodness is extracted.
Most store-bought stocks today aren’t made in this traditional manner because it’s too time-consuming and expensive.
So, if you want the benefits of a bone broth, or “stock” as we refer to it in the culinary world, but you don’t have time to make your own, you can enrich the store-bought stuff with a little bit of all-natural, unflavored gelatin.
You can find gelatin in the baking aisle of your local grocery store. Just make sure you don’t get the sweetened, colored, flavored stuff you use to make dessert; we’re looking for pure gelatin.
It comes as a powder, but it also comes in sheet form; although, gelatin sheets are a specialty product used mostly by pastry chefs. I like to add one teaspoon per cup of broth, hydrating it for 5 minutes in the cold or room-temperature broth before heating to avoid clumps.
Every good bone broth will set like Jell-O once cooled to refrigerator temperatures, but we’ll of course be consuming it warm, where it will yield a protein-rich, full-bodied stock that’s hearty and satisfying, keeping you full for hours without leaving you feeling deprived.
First, of course, is that protein we just talked about, which is an important part of a healthy diet — there are six grams of protein in a tablespoon of gelatin powder, so you’re getting quite a bang for your buck.
Gelatin also contains the amino acid lysine, which can help the body absorb calcium, which in turn is essential for healthy bones. More research is needed, but some studies show that collagen consumption may help with issues like joint pain and osteoarthritis.
All in all, that’s a pretty nice package of benefits you can get from consuming gelatin!
Cooking With Gelatin
Now, let’s talk about gelatin’s culinary functions.
Stocks made with gelatin are rich, both in flavor and mouth-feel. They have a silky, satisfying texture that you normally only get from fatty foods like butter and cream.
But gelatin achieves this by way of lean protein, so it’s a win for people trying to add richness to meals without the addition of excess fat.
A proper gelatin-rich stock can even be reduced by simmering until it forms what we call a demi-glace — a thick, rich glaze that’s amazing on everything from chicken to roast vegetables.
Demi-glace is one of those rare culinary miracles that will make you feel like you’re eating the most decadent, butter-laced sauce imaginable, but is, in fact, high in protein and virtually fat-free!
Gelatin also acts as a binder. It’s a kind of chemical magnet that links other compounds that would normally separate into a more stable emulsion.
That magnetic character also makes gelatin a fantastic flavor conduit. What I mean by conduit is that it binds the various flavor elements of a dish together, forming a harmonious whole that is then transferred to the taste buds in a burst of flavor that coats the palate and lingers in a long, savory finish that leaves you smacking your lips and wondering what it is that tastes so good that you just can’t put your finger on.
It’s the chef’s secret behind so many of those amazing, high-end restaurant sauces that the average home cook puzzles over, wondering what strange alchemy they teach in culinary school.
The Bottom Line
There are myriad wonderful reasons to add gelatin to your stocks. This inexpensive, shelf-stable ingredient is a pantry staple in my kitchen, and once you’ve given it a try, I think it will become just as indispensable in your home.
It enhances flavor without the salt and sugar; it adds richness and body without the fat; and it leaves you feeling full and sated, making this ingredient a healthy chef’s favorite secret weapon.