Jell-O may not be the most prestigious dessert out there, and serving it to your friends won’t usually result in a whole lot of photos going up on Instagram. In its way, though, it’s a marvel of food science, and you can do some pretty remarkable things with a box or two of Jell-O and a bit of creativity. Some advance planning is involved, however, because ordinarily it takes a couple of hours for the jelly powder to set firmly. There are a few simple ways to speed the process if you’re pressed for time.
Will Jell-O Set Without Boiling Water?
If you want your Jell-O to cool and set quickly, you might wonder if it’s possible to just start at a lower temperature. The instructions printed on the Jell-O package call for it to be stirred into boiling water, and using water that’s not boiling sounds like a logical way to shorten the time you need to have a finished dessert.
That’s certainly a logical question to ask, but in practice, it doesn’t work so well. You need hot water – if not necessarily boiling water – to dissolve the gelatin granules, so they’ll form a smooth and perfect gel. They’ll dissolve more quickly if you’ve softened them in cold water first, but that’s an added step that takes extra time. If you’re looking for Jell-O in a hurry, that’s probably not your best bet. There are other, more effective tricks to make Jell-O set faster.
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Use the Official Ice Trick
The best-known path to quick-set Jell-O is the one that’s described right on the package. Dissolve your powder in hot water as usual, but then, instead of the usual cold water, you’ll add either ice cubes or a mixture of ice and water. After stirring for 3 to 4 minutes, you’ll remove any unmelted ice, and then either pour it into a mold or just transfer your mixing bowl to the fridge. It’ll reach the spoonable soft-set stage in just 30 minutes or so, and it will be firm in another 30 to 60 minutes.
Chill Your Mold
If you’re going to pour your gelatin into a mold, you can use the mold itself to help speed the chilling process. Metal molds, or improvised molds such as Bundt cake pans, can be refrigerated or frozen ahead of time to take away some of the heat from the newly mixed gelatin. Put your mold into the fridge or freezer at least an hour ahead of time; then pour and chill the Jell-O as you normally would. This doesn’t work with plastic molds, unfortunately.
If you aren’t going to use a mold, chill a glass or porcelain bowl instead. Don’t mix your Jell-O in the chilled bowl – pouring boiling water into a cold bowl will often break the bowl – but instead, mix it first and then pour it into the bowl you’ve chilled.
Jello in the Freezer
You may think that another obvious way to make your Jell-O cool faster is to put it in the freezer rather than the fridge. It’s colder there, so it should chill the Jell-O quickly; right? Again, that’s a good idea in theory but less so in practice. The problem is that the Jell-O at the edges of the bowl will begin to freeze well before the rest has set completely.
Once Jell-O freezes, it loses its gelling power, so you’ll likely have a watery layer around the outside of your bowl. In a worst-case scenario, if you forget to take it out, you’ll waste the entire bowl.
A better option is to cool the Jell-O the way professional cooks cool soups and sauces for the storage. Put water and ice into a larger bowl, creating a chilled water bath. Then, nestle the bowl of Jell-O into the water bath, making sure its rim is well above the water level. Stir the Jell-O frequently, but the water bath only occasionally, until the Jell-O starts to thicken. Stop stirring, and transfer it from the ice bath to your fridge after about 30 minutes when it’s nearly set.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.