The Chemistry Behind Making the Best Jello Shots

Flickr User hippiebus1970
Flickr User hippiebus1970 / Flickr User hippiebus1970

Almost everyone I know has at least one Jello Shot story. Though most of these tales don’t have happy endings, the slurp-able alcoholic gelatinous shooters are a party staple. Nowadays, even upscale bartenders are reimagining these easy-to-consume solids.

Some have even gone so far as to write books on the subject. One of our favorites, the Jelly Shot Test Kitchen, gives precise instructions for turning cocktails into sophisticated gels.

Solid, liquid, or gel?

Much of the magic of Jello Shots is in their apparent transition from liquid to solid. In reality, gelatin is a gel rather than a solid. Put simply, this means that the jello is mainly liquid by weight, but this liquid is thickened by the addition of long molecules (polymers) and tiny particles (colloids).

Within a gel, these particles link and stick together in a process called cross-linking. Once linked, the particles can no longer flow past each other, making the resulting mixture appear solid. In Jello Shots, the liquid portion is made up of the water and booze, while the gelatin supplies the polymers and colloids.

Gelatin, the main gelling agent in jello, is a collagen derivative. Collagen, a tough, flexible protein, is found primarily in animals’ connective and protective tissues. When heated in water, it becomes gelatin, a versatile substance with a surprisingly wide range of applications.

Gel well

At a certain point, adding more booze to Jello Shots just makes them gross. However, there are a few ways to strengthen your shots without sacrificing taste.

One of the biggest factors is creating the strongest gel possible. The water binding power of any substance is measured in what’s called “bloom.” Though the term may sound like it comes from gelatin’s tendency to bloom (soften and expand) in water, it’s actually named for Oscar T. Bloom, the scientist who came up with the test that measures gel strength.

A bloom of 50 is considered weak while one of around 200 is on the strong side. For comparison, Knox brand gelatin has a rating of approximately 225. Using a stronger gelatin will result in a stronger gel.

Take your best shot

One way to make the gel stronger is to hydrate it in two steps. Grocery store gelatin usually comes in powder form. This powder is made up of tiny granules that must fill with water before the colloids and polymers can begin to spread and cross-link into a gel.

First, soak the gelatin powder in a bowl of cool or warm water. This step helps ensure that no dry gelatin gets trapped within a bubble of hydrated gelatin. Once it’s a thin, pasty texture — known as a slurry — heat it until the whole solution becomes consistent.

Another way to incorporate all of the powder is to boil it in water until it is hydrated.

Hit the Lab

Since gelatin is an animal by-product, your vegetarian or vegan friends might need another option. One is agar-agar, a seaweed derivative that’s often found in Asian candies. This substance tends to be more crumbly and less chewy than gelatin, so some experimentation may be necessary to craft the perfect agar-agar shot.

Only you can discover the exact ratio of booze to water that’s perfect for you. Since one of the easiest ways to improve your Jello shots is to improve the quality of your liquor, start with a mid-range spirit.

Then, decide your ratio of water to booze. Many sources suggest 2/3 cup hot water to 2/3 cup booze, so this ratio can be a good starting point. Others propose using 4-5 oz of water and anywhere from 9 to 14 oz of booze. Internet Jello enthusiasts also gives some more specific pairing ideas such as using lime Jello with tequila, pineapple with coconut rum, or cherry with whipped cream vodka.