Q. What exactly is gelatin?
A. Gelatin is a colorless, flavorless thickening agent that is used to give body to molded salads and desserts. A by-product of meat processing, most gelatin is granulated, although it is available in sheets-known as "sheet" or "leaf" gelatin-in some gourmet shops. The granulated type is sold in regular supermarkets and comes in unflavored and in flavored, sweetened varieties.
Q. How do you measure gelatin?
A. A 1/4-ounce envelope of unflavored gelatin contains 1 tablespoon, which is enough to gel about 2 cups of most clear liquids. Keep in mind that certain foods-figs, ginger root, guava, kiwifruit, papaya, and pineapple-contain an enzyme that prevents gelatin from thickening. Cooking and canning destroys this enzyme so that the gelatin will gel.
Q. How do you use gelatin?
Unflavored gelatin must be softened before using. To soften, place 1/4 cup of the cold liquid used in the recipe in a small bowl or saucepan and evenly sprinkle the liquid with 1 tablespoon gelatin. Let stand for 5 minutes. To dissolve the gelatin, place the bowl in a larger container of hot water. Let stand until all of the gelatin crystals have dissolved. You can also add softened gelatin to a hot mixture, or heat it in a saucepan over very low heat until dissolved. Do not bring the gelatin mixture to a boil; boiling will destroy its thickening powers.
Gelatin salads and desserts are particularly enjoyable in the summertime. They require little if any stove time and offer a cooling refreshment to the palate.