By Lisa Golden Schroeder and Mary Holloway
Okay, so we’re exaggerating a bit here, but the point is we like this clear sticky stuff to help us style our food.
For those of you who haven’t used it, clear gel (also known as clear jel, piping or decorating gel, modified food starch or agar agar) is a food grade cooked starch or gelatin substance that can be used to thicken sauces or puréed foods, to maintain a glossy, moist look, and to create a barrier from air on cut surfaces of food, etc. Its applications for food styling are endless, and because gels are edible, you can use them even if your client prefers “natural” styling. My favorite example for this is using clear gel to repair cracked piecrusts, versus using another styling favorite, Vaseline (petroleum jelly), which is not acceptable to many clients.
Clear gel comes in several different forms and each is handled a little differently. We spoke to Dr. Julie Jones, a food technologist and professor at St. Catherine’s University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She explained the process of modifying food starches so they become very stable food thickeners. We won’t bore you with the food science (go to www.foodstarch.com for more technical information), but it helps to think of instant and cooked packaged puddings. Instant puddings have a modified food starch (based on corn, and chemically treated to make the starch very stable—in other words it won’t break down easily) added that has been “gelatinized” (cooked to evaporate the water, then dried to granule form). The starch in the pudding is now instant; just add liquid to rehydrate the starch and you’re ready to go.
Cooked puddings contain modified food starch that has not been gelatinized, so sugar is added to keep the starch granules separate (to avoid lumps when cooking), and the pudding is cooked with the liquid until the starch gels.
Clear gel powders come in instant and cooked varieties. The instant gel requires no addition of sugar to rehydrate it, it can be stirred into sauces to help thicken them and bind excess water (i.e. spaghetti sauces that bleed). Cooked clear gel requires some sugar to be added to avoid lumping (but don’t add too much, as sugar can decrease the starches thickening power), and then the gel is cooked until thick. It can take some experimentation depending on the kind of clear gel powder you can find.
For a really handy option, we like decorating or piping gel. It comes already prepared in tubs; its traditional use is in cake and cookie decorating and comes in colored forms, too. A large tub of piping gel will keep for several months, unrefrigerated. Commercial piping gel is made from agar agar, a gelatin derived from seaweed. This gel can be stirred into sauces to help thicken and bind them or to maintain a glossy surface. Following are more uses for clear gels, and no doubt you will have a few more ideas of your own.
MARY’S RULE #1: Always make up a supply of gel for a shoot - even when you don’t know that you might need it…because you might need it! (Isn’t this always a basic rule for all food styling—be prepared?)
*Mix a small amount of prepared gel in water to brush on sliced vegetables and sliced meats to maintain a fresh look.
*Use gel in pie fillings: this is the most common real-life use for clear gel, as a stable thickener for baked pie or pastry fillings. It will keep fruit fillings looking glossy, bright, and fresh—stir into fresh berries, sliced peaches, etc.
*Stir into cooked converted rice to keep the grains moist, but not oily. It allows the rice grains to hold lightly to each other. The grains can be moved as needed, without the grains lumping up.
*With shreds of cheese in the palm of your hand, thinly coat both sides of each shred. Place on foam plate (also lightly coated with gel.) Place individual shreds on styled food. Steam, if a melt is desired. This can be done ahead for pizza shoots—keep the cheese refrigerated until needed.
*Dilute gel to a medium-thin consistency and toss with pasta to keep pasta moist but not greasy.
*Add prepared gel to cheese sauce to keep sauce “spoonable” and glossy. This is particularly good for something like macaroni and cheese.
*Add gel to a white sauce - great for using on scalloped potatoes with a cream sauce, Alfredo pasta sauce, etc.
*Use when styling frozen convenience entrées—gel can enhance the sheen of sauces or re-create the look of a smooth, warm sauce when the sauce is actually at room temperature.
*Use gel to help adhere crumbs to breaded foods, or to repair broken or cracked piecrusts.
*Use to “crumb” sliced cakes or repair holes in baked goods by adding a touch of gel and added crumbs if needed to fill holes or give a more textured appearance.
*Stir instant clear gel into tomato or pasta sauces. It will bind up excess liquid that usually separates from sauces and pools on the plate.
*Stir into yogurt or puddings if you need them to mound nicely on a spoon for a lift shot.
I buy powdered Mira Clear Gel in 1# plastic bags from Glen’s Bulk Foods of Hutchinson, Kansas. Glen’s Foods is a bulk foods store frequented by the Mennonites of the area (telephone: 620-662-2875). They will fill orders by mail order and the gel is very inexpensive. I make up the gel, using about 2 rounded tablespoons per cup of water and cooking it in the microwave until bubbling and thick. It can then be thinned with hot water to desired consistency. It sometimes gets watery when kept in the refrigerator longer than a few days and will grow mold if left at room temperature for several days, so I make up a fresh supply every 2 to 3 days.
*www.sweetc.com (Sweet Celebrations; prepared clear piping gel from baking supplies)
*www.thestylingstore.com (they carry instant Clearjel powder + other thickeners)
*www.sugarcraft.com (Sugar Craft; prepared clear piping gel in a small tub)
*www.barryfarm.com (Barry Farm; instant Clearjel powder)
*www.foodstarch.com (National Starch & Chemical Company; order a sample of powdered Clearjel)
*www.kitchengifts.com (Kitchen Collectables; piping gel in tub)
*Local bakery suppliers or distributors
*Check out craft stores that carry cake decorating materials (especially for prepared piping gel)
DECORATING OR PIPING GEL
Try making this easy version of gel…
2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin (Knox)
2 tablespoons cold water
2 cups (500 ml) light corn syrup (Karo)
- Soak gelatin in water. Heat over low heat until clear and dissolved. Do NOT boil.
- Stir in corn syrup and cook just until simmering, but not boiling.
- Cool completely. Store refrigerated for up to 2 months.
Mary Holloway, a veteran food stylist in Orlando, Florida. She has styled for magazines, cookbooks, and major food companies for nearly 30 years. She’s also written, produced, and distributed 20 educational videos on ethnic foods and cooking equipment.