I grew up in the Midwest, where homemade, gelatin-set desserts were a regulars at party tables. (At Easter, we’d make jello shaped like eggs in various hues.) While I know the dessert itself is relatively polarizing, I feel like it’s destined for a comeback. Think of the pros here: This is a seriously easy dessert. A short period of stovetop cooking and just a few ingredients are all that’s required. In the summer, I’m grateful for all its wonderful lack-of-oven-ness, and I’m obsessed with the way it can look incredibly fancy with little effort. I’m not declaring the jellos of my youth to be something crave-worthy, but I will say that I think there are new ways to make it, ways that celebrate the flavor of real fruit.
This is a jello I’d put on my party table. This is the jello I think nostalgic Jell-o lovers will fall back in love with. This is the jello that I think might change minds about jello. The beauty of this recipe is not just its simplicity, but in its amazing, pucker-worthy, fresh fruit flavor. Ready to give it a whirl? Here’s what you need to know.
How gelatin works
Gelatin is made from proteins that are extracted from animals. (Don’t worry, vegetarians—I’ve got your backs with an alternative.) Its history in the kitchen can be traced way back—as far back as the 1400s. It was used in Medieval dessert recipes. While gelatin certainly has a noticeable aroma, it sets colorless and tasteless. Gelatin comes in several varieties, most noticeably powdered and sheet forms. These forms can be used interchangeably with just a few adjustments. Generally speaking, 1 tablespoon of powdered gelatin is the equivalent to 3 sheets of gelatin. However, it should be noted that different types of gelatin, be it porcine (pig) and bovine (cow), have different bloom strengths, which can result in differences in the “set” of your final dessert.
Gelatin must be bloomed in water (or other liquid) to hydrate. The bloomed gelatin then must be melted before use (more on that below). When the melted gelatin is combined with a flavorful fruit base, the structure changes as the mixture cools. The proteins, which flow freely in the base when it is warm/the gelatin is melted, begin to form strands, firming up the dessert. As the strands form, liquid molecules are trapped between the proteins, causing the entire mixture to set to one uniform texture. I’ve found the amount of gelatin to use drastically depends on the diners who will be eating it. Some folks prefer a firm gelatin that is easily sliced and holds a detailed shape. Others might enjoy a slightly softer end result. You can easily experiment with the base recipe provided in this article to discover the level of set that works best for you.
What to use instead
There’s plenty of people avoiding gelatin-set desserts because of the use of an animal product base. Agar-agar, on the other hand, is derived from a plant-based source (seaweed), and can be easily used as a gelatin alternative. Agar-agar is still tasteless and colorless, and is available in many forms. Unlike gelatin, agar-agar should be added to the liquid base and brought to a boil (no blooming or melting required). Only after it is brought to a boil will the powder disperse through the liquid, causing it to set as it cools. Powdered agar-agar can be subbed for powdered gelatin in equal amounts. It should be noted that agar-agar does set slightly more firmly than jello, and doesn’t yield an identical texture—but it’s very similar and works wonderfully in the base recipe provided in this article.
Preparing the gelatin
For my standard jello practices, I use powdered gelatin—the kind that is readily available in grocery stores and is predictable for me in terms of bloom strength and general usage. Gelatin should be bloomed in cool water for about 5 minutes before use. I like to use a wide, shallow bowl to bloom my gelatin, because it provides more surface area. I sprinkle the powdered gelatin over the surface of the water, taking care not to allow too much of it to clump up in one spot. This can make it difficult for all of the gelatin to get hydrated during the bloom time. Once the gelatin is bloomed, it should be melted. In the case of this recipe, I just add it to the warm fruit juice base. But you can also melt the gelatin in the microwave or over a pot of simmering water before adding it to the recipe.
Preparing your fruit base
The key to a really delicious jello is to use really delicious (and really fresh!) fruit. Combine the fruit with the sugar used in the recipe, and cook it over medium-low heat until the juices are released. Depending on the fruit, this can take anywhere from 5-10 minutes. After cooking, the fruit mixture is strained, leaving just the juice behind. While you can get really intense about this and strain the mixture through cheesecloth, I found I quite liked the more natural look and texture of simply straining the juice, even if it left small traces of the fruit itself behind (small seeds, such as in strawberry or kiwi, leave an ever-so-slightly fibrous texture).
Choose your fruit well
You can really use any kind of fruit you want, but remember there will be variances from fruit to fruit. For one thing, all fruits vary in the amount of juice they release, so be sure to strain your juice into a liquid measuring cup to ensure you’ve got enough to match up with the amount of gelatin in your recipe. For another, all fruits have differing pH levels, and low pH fruits (highly acidic, such as lemon, lime, pomegranate) can negatively affect the setting power of gelatin when combined directly with it. Counter this by only using a portion of low pH fruits and combining them with others before adding the gelatin. The sweetness of the fruit comes into play, too. Higher sugar levels can prevent gelatin from setting as firmly in one recipe than it might in another. Counter this by reducing the amount of added sugar in the recipe slightly, to account for the very sweet fruit. Some tropical fruits (mango, pineapple, kiwi, etc.) contain a naturally occurring enzyme that can feed on and digest the gelatin. This can be easily countered by ensuring that the fruit is fully cooked, killing the enzyme, before the juice has contact with gelatin. Finally, the naturally occurring pectin in certain fruits can cause certain jellos to set more firmly than others—this isn’t a drastic difference but is worth noting. Counter this by slightly reducing the amount of gelatin in the recipe.
The primary additional ingredient to any Jello set recipe is sugar. Don’t be tempted to alter the amount of sugar in a Jello recipe without experimenting first. Too little sugar and you may not extract enough juice from your fruit, and too much sugar can prevent the gelatin from setting firmly enough. You can also use other fruit juices to create flavor combinations. (I like to add lemon or lime juice in smaller quantities to berry-based jello desserts.) Other flavoring additions are also fair game: vanilla bean or extracts or a hefty splash of your favorite booze. Remember, alcohol added to the fruit juice mixture will be cooked off, leaving flavor but no alcohol content. If you want to go the boozy jello dessert route, no more than 50% of the liquid base should be alcohol (meaning you can replace up to half of the fruit juice with booze, according to your preferences).
Making the jello
After you’ve strained your fruit mixture, leaving the sweetened fruit juice behind, add the gelatin. While gelatin should be melted before use (or bloomed gelatin can be stirred into a warm liquid), its gelling power is affected by too much heat. It’s important that the gelatin doesn’t go over 212°F when you melt it, and it’s best to take a quick temperature check of your warm fruit juice before stirring in your gelatin. If the liquid base is 212°F or over, let it cool off a bit before you add your gelatin.
Simply stir melted gelatin into the base, or you can add bloomed gelatin directly to the warm liquid and stir until it is fully dissolved. That’s it! All that’s left is to pour your jello base into a mold. For me, this is the fun part. You can go the simple route and use something like ramekins or small cups (you can even opt for disposable plastic or paper cups), or you can go fancy and use a large mold, like a cake pan. Gelatin-set desserts have the super fun advantage of being able to hold detailed shapes, so break out your favorite bundt pans, or opt for something with a cool detail, like the ridged edges of a tart pan. Once the jello is inside the mold, let it set by chilling it in the refrigerator.
This is a fun way to add multiple colors and create fun flavor pairings in your dessert. I do this by cutting the basic recipe in half with one fruit, then finishing with a half recipe made using another fruit. Pour your first base into the mold, and chill until the base is just barely set. It will look a bit like a baking cheesecake: set around the edge, but a little jiggle in the very center when you shake the mold. The exact amount of time required will depend on the size and depth of your mold. Once the first layer is just barely set, pour the next prepared base into the mold. While this is pretty simple to get right, it should be noted there are a few potential problems that may require troubleshooting. If the base is too hot, it can melt the base already in the pan where it comes into contact with it. If the set Jello in the pan is too cold, the new layer may not adhere fully, and when you unmold the dessert, they may slip apart. Just be sure to test your jello with a good shake: If it appears at all liquid, give it more time to set, and avoid letting it get too firm if you’re hoping to add another layer.
Unmolding a jello is usually very simple for small molds. You can run a small knife around the outer edge and invert the mold to release the jello. If using a disposable mold, you can snip the mold with scissors and peel it away, leaving less of a chance of marring the exterior of the dessert. For larger molds, heating the mold slightly is usually the best way to go. You can dip the mold into warm water for about 10 seconds, then use a paring knife to release one edge of the Jello from the mold. This action combined with the heat usually causes the Jello to slip right out. If your pan is shallow, you can opt to use a kitchen torch instead of the warm water method. Just don’t be overzealous, you don’t want to melt your carefully molded Jello!
This post is not affiliated with Jell-O, which is a registered trademark of Kraft Foods.
- 3/4 cup cool water
- 3 1/2 tablespoons powdered gelatin (4 envelopes)
- 3 pounds fresh fruit, peeled and/or roughly chopped as necessary
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- pinch salt