Thickening It Up: Instant Clear Jel vs Gelatin

Instant Clear Jel vs Gelatin

Aside from being delicious, what do Jello and apple pie filling have in common?

If you guessed gelatin, you’re half right.

While it’s true that gelatin is the main ingredient in everyone’s favorite fruit-flavored treat, it’s not the only thickening agent out there.

There’s no doubt that gelatin is a miraculous ingredient that has a wide variety of uses, both in and out of the kitchen. However, over the years, there have been many derivatives of it that have become available, each with specific uses.

And while it’s true that both Instant Jel and gelatin are thickening agents, the two are not the same and should not be used in the same way.

In this article, we’ll talk about why that is and what the best uses are for each of them so that by the time you’re done reading (hopefully) you’ll understand exactly why that is.

That said, the primary difference between Instant Clear Jel and gelatin is that Clear Jel does not require heat to thicken, but only the addition of liquid whereas gelatin must have liquid added to it and be heated. In addition, Instant Clear Jel is not intended to be used in recipes that require high heat or reheating (like canning) but do best at room temperatures, refrigeration or freezing for things like pie fillings.

So now that we’ve got the basics out of the way, let’s take a deeper dive into each of these two amazing ingredients!

Differences in Origin

The forerunner of Instant Clear Jel was Clear Jel.

It was developed in 1948 by the National Starch and Chemical Company (now Ingredion) which was originally founded in 1895 by a man with the unusual name of Alexander Alexander. 

It is a byproduct of waxy maize (corn) that has a special property which allows the cornstarch to turn sticky or glue-like when heated. The strain of corn possessing these properties was first discovered in China at the turn of the 20th century.

Gelatin has been a part of human history for at least 8,000 years, but it was the ancient Egyptians who first perfected methods to reliably extract it from the bones of animals. Once it cooled, it could be consumed and, from that point on, the use of gelatin spread.

The first known mentions of it as a food additive appeared in Great Britain during the Middle Ages, where the extracts were used in the flavoring of meats and sweetened desserts.

As ingenious as this discovery was, it proved to be very expensive and time consuming, which limited the use of gelatin to the wealthier members of society.

However, thanks to the invention of the pressure cooker in 1862 by a Frenchman named Denis Papin, there was at last a method that helped to rapidly accelerate breaking down the bones for the gelatin.

By this time, the popularity of gelatin had already spread to America and in 1845, the first patent for producing gelatin powder was granted. 

From there, things continued to speed up and by the end of the 19th century, gelatin was in widespread production and available in a variety of different forms, including powders, blocks, sheets and leaves.

The largest producer of gelatin at that time is a name we all still recognize today – Knox. Since the mid-1800s, the company has been producing and marketing gelatin powder and continues to be a leading manufacturer to this day. 

Product Year Developed Developed by Raw Material History Availability
Instant Clear Jel 1948 National Starch and Chemical Company (now Ingredion) Waxy maize (corn) Discovered in China at turn of 20th century N/A
Gelatin 8,000 years Ancient Egyptians Animal bones Used in flavoring of meats and sweetened desserts in Great Britain during Middle Ages; Expensive and time consuming, limited to wealthier members of society Powders, blocks, sheets, leaves

Differences in Ingredients

As mentioned earlier, Clear Jel is a byproduct of a variety of corn known as waxy maize.

The corn contains a substance known as amylopectin, which is what allows it to be more stable and hold its texture during cooking. This is in contrast to regular cornstarch, which as most of us know, gets runny when heated excessively.

Digging a little deeper into the science behind this product, what’s important to understand is that the amylopectin creates strong chemical bonds with the starch polymers. Because of this, the starch granules in Clear Jel will not disintegrate like corn starch.

Later, Instant Clear Jel was introduced. While it contains similar properties to Clear Jel, the two are not the same and are intended for separate purposes.

While Clear Jel is best suited for high heat cooking, Instant Clear Jel is not intended for that purpose since no heat is required to activate it. Rather, it will thicken without the help of heat. Only the addition of liquid is needed, and as such, is best suited for room temperature, refrigerated or frozen recipes.

Most commercial gelatin is a byproduct of animal tissue collagen. It’s extracted via an acid mixture that acts to break down protein bonds within the collagen. Once the collagen is broken down, it’s then further refined through a complex filtration process which involves purification and drying before being converted into a usuable powdered form.

Product Ingredient Properties Best suited for Activation Method
Clear Jel Byproduct of Waxy Maize (amylopectin) Stable texture during cooking, strong chemical bonds with starch polymers High heat cooking Heat
Instant Clear Jel Byproduct of Waxy Maize (amylopectin) Stable texture, does not require heat to activate Room temperature, refrigerated, or frozen recipes Addition of liquid
Gelatin Byproduct of animal tissue collagen Extracted via acid mixture and refined through filtration Cold and room temperature Soaking in cold water and heating to dissolve

Differences in Usage

Instant Clear Jel works best for thickening pie fillings. It’s not well suited to heating or canning. For heating applications, the regular type of Clear Jel is better. Last, using Instant Clear Jel for any kind of jams or jellies is also not a good idea.

Because there are so many kinds of gelatin, we’ll limit our focus to uses in food. Most often it’s used as a thickening agent, especially in desserts, confections, and candies. Everything from Panna cotta, to gummy bears, and marshmallows. It’s also used as a stabilizer in some dairy products and as a mouthfeel enhancer for low-fat and fat-free foods. 

Product Best Suited for Not Suited for
Instant Clear Jel Thickening pie fillings Heating or canning, Jams or Jellies
Clear Jel Heating Applications Thickening pie fillings, Jams or Jellies
Gelatin Thickening agent in desserts, confections, candies, Stabilizer in dairy products, Mouthfeel enhancer in low-fat and fat-free foods Heating or canning

Where Can I Buy Instant Clear Jel?

Unfortunately, Instant Clear Jel is mostly used in commercial baking operations and as such, isn’t often carried in grocery stores. However, there are several places you can order it online including:

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