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Vegetarian Gelatin Substitutes

By Cook's Illustrated Published September 2013

Can you swap unflavored vegetarian gelatin for traditional gelatin in recipes?

While traditional gelatin is derived from animal collagen, unflavored vegetarian gelatin substitutes mainly come from vegetable gums and seaweed extracts. We found one vegetarian substitute—Natural Desserts Unflavored Jel Dessert—at a natural foods store.

Because the vegetable gum in this product is made up of polysaccharides versus the protein in gelatin, we weren’t surprised when we found that it required different treatment than gelatin: The vegetarian substitute must be boiled to become activated, it must be added to the other ingredients immediately afterward, and it doesn’t work in highly acidic environments.

There were two critical pieces of information the instructions didn’t give us, however: what recipes the Natural Desserts product might work best in and how much we should use. Any dessert containing lemon was out, but we chose two recipes that—with tweaks—we thought could accommodate this vegetarian substitute’s particularities: panna cotta and a strawberry gelatin mold. We began with a one-to-one swap for gelatin.

For the panna cotta, we boiled the vegetarian substitute in milk (rather than letting it hydrate cold and then gently heating), and it did eventually set—though a bit more loosely than the sample made with traditional gelatin. Increasing the amount of the Natural Desserts product to 1.5 times the traditional gelatin amount helped. The mold made with strawberries (which are mildly acidic) also set—loosely but adequately—with these same adjustments.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Substituting this thickening agent in existing recipes calling for gelatin isn’t a simple swap—and may not even be possible if the item is highly acidic or doesn’t lend itself to the adjustments required. As a starting point for adapting an existing recipe, increase the Natural Desserts product to 1.5 times the amount of gelatin called for.