When first diving into modern gelling agents and thickeners it can be intimidating. A multitude of white powders that all do the same thing but are wildly different. This is a lot to take in at once. Generally I see that people pick 1-2 ingredients, learn how they work and stick with them indefinitely. I see this so often that people tend to refer to all algae based gelling agents as “agar” and the thickeners as “xanthan gum”. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There are dozens upon dozens of gelling agents and thickeners. This guide will help you understand some of the basics and terms used to describe the multiple properties. Most importantly we will cover the basic steps to use almost all of these ingredients.
“How do I know what ingredient to use?”
Know Your Properties
Gelling agents have two important properties, gel texture and clarity. Gel texture can be broken down into two types as well. A gel falls on a scale between brittle and elastic in texture. A brittle gel is a gel that will have a clean split when cut, bent, or manipulated. Can also be described as crumbly if used at too high of ratios. This can best be seen in gels made from agar. An elastic gel is a gel that is giggly, and can have an almost creamy texture. The elastic gels can be bent and manipulated much easier than a brittle gel. These gels are key to making items like gel noodles.
The clarity of a gel is described in two ways as well. A gel is generally described as clear or opaque. These two descriptors are self explanatory. But just to be sure of it, clear means you can see through the gel and opaque gels are cloudy and light cannot pass through it. Much like the gel texture they fall on a spectrum and can land at various points between clear and opaque. The two best examples of this are gels made from gellan gum F which is crystal clear and Gellan gum LT100 is opaque.
When using gelling agents there are some basic rules you should always follow. First, gelatin is the only hydrocolloid that should be bloomed. The rest of the ingredients can be added in a few ways. The easiest way to add them is by dry blending them into another ground or granulated ingredient. Whether it’s sugar, spices, or salt add the gelling agent to these. Doing this will prevent clumping. If for some reason your recipe doesn’t contain any other dry ingredient the dry powder will need to slowly be sprinkled (slowly) into liquid while it is in a blender. In the interest of clarity, the blender must also be on and blending the liquid. If at any time you are adding one of these ingredients to a liquid do your best to add it while the liquid is in a blender. Clumping is your enemy, and a blender will help prevent clumps.
Thickeners can generally be described in a few ways. The most common is the texture of the final product. This can range from creamy in the case of guar or acacia gum, smooth which is found with Ultra-tex, and even slick or …..snotty, which is commonly used to describe the over use of xanthan gum. One thing that is good to note with thickeners is the usage ratio. Xanthan gum is an extremely effective thickener, usually it is only used in a ratio of 0.1-0.5% of the total weight of the recipe. Something like acacia gum can be used up to 10%! So be sure you read the packaging carefully and even break out the calculator if you need to. Thickeners also fall under the same characteristics as gels when it comes to clarity.
With a lot of these ingredients there is a synergistic quality. This means if you want a slightly clear gel with elastic properties then you can make a mixture of the two. It is often described as 1+1=3, because the sum is greater than the two ingredients. Example Kappa and Iota Carrageenan can be mixed as a specific ratio to make crystal clear gels with elastic properties. This also works with thickeners. Locust bean gum (A thickener) can be added to gelling agents to create an elastic gel. There are even cases where two thickeners can be mixed together to make a brittle gel. This is the case of Xanthan gum and guar gum. Both xanthan and guar gum are thickeners with no gelling properties until they are mixed together.
These are great places to start if you are looking for a new ingredient. Use these steps to get started on your journey to take your recipe to the next level. Until next time we will be here to help you create magical and memorable experiences.