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The Science of Aspic: How To Make The Perfect Jelly

The Science of Aspic: How To Make The Perfect Jelly

Whether you call it gelatin, jelly or 'aspic', here are some secrets to prepare it at home just using some physic and chemistry rules

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Sometimes, it’s a matter of the movies – American movies, to be specific. These colorful, promising looking snacks – little sweets that looked as if they could make any old day into something special – seemed to play a big part in American movies in a certain era. Since I’m not American, I always found these desserts to be curious and fun. So I decided to study it, discovering that “fruit Jell-o” was just the tip of the iceberg.

First of all, the concept of gelatin is extremely vast: while it’s a preparation commonly used in desserts, gelatin is also the foundation of many savory dishes. Its versatility comes from the fact that gelatin itself has no flavor, but takes on the taste of any eventual aromas present in the dish. Gelatin is a shiny, glimmering package that contains other elements, showing them off in an appealing light. But where gelatin comes from and which kind is used can, in fact, alter its taste. For example, fruit-derived gelatin is best used in desserts; those derived from meat are better for main courses. But if gelatin is prepared as it should be, it shouldn’t feature any unwanted flavors. Which is why fish gelatin can be used in for any purpose, without presenting problems.

The secret of gelatin is in its composition – a series of very long molecules called macromolecules. These are protein compounds, connected to each other so as to form a large grid, and are highly absorbent. This ability to capture water molecules very effectively allows gelatin to store great quantities of liquid. This is why perfect gelatin is so transparent: when it’s made perfectly, it becomes something to the effect of condensed water.

Gelatin can be prepared in any home kitchen by boiling – over a very low flame for several hours – a calf’s foot. When it cools, the filtered liquid becomes a low-cost gelatin that is perfect for savory recipes. But this is one of the cases when a prepared mix works just fine, either in thin sheets or in powder form: these are, in fact, a freeze-dried version of those macromolecules I mentioned before. All you have to do is dissolve a certain amount in water, or in whichever liquid you choose to condense, heat it, add whichever ingredients you choose, and then chill it. Easy, right? Well, yes: but you have to pay attention to the timing. What’s crucial is that the chilling process takes place as slowly as possible. When looking at the warm composition through a microscope, you can see the broken macromolecules ready to encompass the water molecules. But when the liquid begins to chill, all of these elements need the proper time to arrange themselves in an orderly fashion. If the cooling process happens too quickly, the gelatin will look cloudy. Some parts will have a different color than others, and it will not appear appetizing at all.

So when it’s time to chill the dish, don’t rush and do not put it in the refrigerator! Let it chill at room temperature, without moving it too much, and you’ll get a glimmering, clear gelatin. Once it’s done, you can slice into it and eat it on bread along with boiled or roasted meats and vegetables. Or when it’s still warm, pour it over cubed bits of meat or fish (swordfish is especially delicious), in order to “imprison” them into one of the most spectacular dishes ever.

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