"Irrespective of what aspic actually tastes like — and it's not for everyone — there's something incredibly compelling about that jiggle. It's a food for voyeurs," food writer and graduate of the International Culinary Center, Hannah Selinger says.
But what actually is aspic, and how is it made?
What Is Aspic?
Encyclopaedia Britannica defines aspic as savory clear jelly prepared from a liquid stock made by simmering the bones of beef, veal, chicken or fish. The aspic congeals when refrigerated because it contains natural gelatin that dissolves into the stock that's from the tendons of the bones. Commercial sheet or powdered gelatin is sometimes added to ensure a stiff set.
"In the Western tradition, aspic refers to any gelatin sweet or savory, made from the collagen in connective tissues and skin of animals or fish," Ken Albala, professor of history at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, says via email. "That means it can be made from chicken bones and gristle, pig skin or beef or even fish." Albala is currently writing a book that will likely be titled "Gelatin: Past and Future" that will be published by The University of Illinois Press.
"Aspics can be clear or contain bits of vegetable, meat or fruit. Jell-O is the brand name of an instant gelatin, but powdered instant forms go back to the 19th century and were sold as being quick and convenient," he says.
Aspic Throughout History
In the past, even deer antlers were shaved down to make hartshorn gelatin, and the swim bladders of sturgeon were used to make isinglass, both of which were nearly instant, Albala explains. Other similar iterations to aspic include carrageenan made from seaweed, as well as agar agar, which is a plant-based alternative to gelatin used throughout Asia to make gelatinous desserts.
"Obviously aspic has spurred passionate defense over the course of culinary history — gelatin, as a whole, has gone through a lot of permutations, if you look back to old copper molds," Selinger says. "In the 1970s, there was this resurgence of setting things in aspic and this confluence of savory and sweet types of aspic."
Albala had similar thoughts about the waves of popularity for this dish over time. For example, colored and layered gelatin was very popular during the Middle Ages, then there was a relative lull until the late 18th and early 19th centuries and then another lull. There was yet another boom in the mid-20th century, especially with instant gelatin.
"As often happens, the fashion started at the top socially and was imitated by those below, until it went completely out of fashion in fine dining, which is where we are now. I do predict in my [forthcoming] book that it will come back again," Albala says.
Aspic differs around the world, both in taste and popularity. It's still pretty common in Eastern Europe and Germany, especially cold meat aspic and headcheese, though Albala says it's not very prevalent in Western Europe or North America anymore "except of course in home cooking and for intrepid cooks on the borders who like doing strange things."
Selinger says she thinks there is a certain appeal to aspic that has more to do with a "retro enthusiasm" and how it looks, not how it tastes, because aspic can taste like whatever you want it to.
What Does Aspic Taste Like?
Speaking of how it tastes, Albala says when aspic is made right, it shouldn't taste like anything. "Whatever flavor you add should dominate, though there are meat gelatins made from meat and bones that taste like solid soup," he says. So there's a lot of room for culinary creativity in the quirky aspic realm.
That means if you made your aspic from meat, it will likely have a slightly meaty flavor. When you eat aspic, it literally melts or dissolves in your mouth — almost into a broth. So you'll likely taste whatever foods have been congealed into the aspic as well. For instance, if you're eating tomato aspic with vegetables, it should taste like tomatoes and whatever else is in the mold.
Ways to Use Aspic
As we mentioned, aspic was most recently popular in the 1950s and '60s when it made a resurgence in the U.S. It has lots of uses, though using it to set foods into molds is the most common.
These molded foods could be anything from meats and vegetables to fruits or even eggs. The ingredients are all combined into the mold and the aspic is added. Then the mold is chilled. To serve, it's usually sliced or scooped out with a serving spoon.
Aspic is also used to coat and glaze foods, such as cold meats and fish, eggs, poached or roasted poultry, and vegetables; plain aspic chopped or cut into shapes is also used to garnish cold dishes. Various foods can be combined with aspic in decorative molds, as well. Mayonnaise or sauce velouté mixed with liquid aspic yields chaud-froid, a sauce that can be colored and used to decorate cold foods.
The two most common uses of aspic today are likely for terrines and patés — both traditional French food. "I'm old-fashioned. I think the best kind of aspic is the gel on top of paté," Selinger says.
Perhaps the most entertaining thing about aspic in these modern times are the online communities dedicated to its jiggly consistency. While working on his aspic book, Albala says it was a "perverse aberration that for about a year or more I made an aspic almost every day, became obsessed with it, and then stopped completely when I finished writing the book. It was a lot of fun though, a great technical and gastronomic challenge, mostly for the entertainment of a Facebook group called Show Me Your Aspics that apparently adored what I was doing."
So while aspic might not be the most crave-worthy of culinary creations, it does inspire a sort of cultlike devotion among ardent supporters.