Aspic is a savory jelly typically made from meat stock that has been boiled long enough to release natural gelatin. Cooks have been using aspics as a means of preserving meats for centuries, but most modern recipes have their roots in French cuisine. The dish can be prepared as a mold, as a garnish, and as a glaze. It is notoriously challenging and sometimes smelly to work with, leading some cooks to avoid it — or at least simplify the cooking process by adding prepared gelatin.
How It's Made
The base of a traditional aspic is meat. Though nearly any variety will work, beef, pork, poultry, and fish are the most common. Cooks often use scraps or pieces that would otherwise be considered waste, and cook them slowly to make a dense broth or consommé. The broth is strained and clarified with egg white until it is clear. Depending on the meat used, the broth may be supplemented with a commercial gelatin to complement the natural pectin present.
Proportions are very important to an aspic’s success. Too few pieces of meat, and the jelly will never set — but too many and the flavor may be overwhelming. Most cooks have to experiment with different ingredients and combinations a few times in order to get good results.
Meat is not strictly required for aspics. Vegetables with high natural gelatin levels will often work as well; tomatoes are often a favorite for this purpose. The process for making a vegetable gelatin is essentially the same as with meat, as the vegetable must be boiled into a broth, then thickened and left to set.
Cooks often find that they have to add at least a bit of commercial gelatin to a vegetable aspic, which can make it unsuitable for some vegetarians since gelatin is most often derived from animals. Though it is not usually considered a meat, some vegetarians — and all vegans — seek to avoid any foods that contain animal products.
Flavor Profile and Appearance
Most aspics are savory and rich, as they take on concentrated flavors from the meats and vegetables they were made with. Cooks can often boost or highlight certain flavors by adding herbs and spices to the broth as it boils.
Aspic is not always the most visually appealing dish, however, since it usually takes the form of a solid block with murky inclusions of meat pieces and vegetable chunks. Working with aspic is a good learning experience for cooks who want to explore traditional culinary arts, since it takes time to learn to handle it well and make it look as good as many say it tastes.
Molds and Presentation
Many cooks elect to serve aspics in decorative molds, which often improves their aesthetics. Depending on the occasion, a large mold can be used as a centerpiece, or each diner can be presented with an individually portioned aspic. In either case, the broth must usually be poured into the molds while still hot in order to retain the best shape, though aspics that come out oddly shaped or that do not set up properly can always be used as a garnish. Cooks simply cut small chunks of the jelly, then serve them decoratively alongside a main dish. When warm, the nearly-set jelly can also be used as a glaze for a number of different meats. As the meat sits, the glaze will solidify.
Use in Cat and Other Pet Food
Some pet food brands also use the aspic culinary technique when packaging meats destined for domestic animals, particularly cats. In these instances, the idea is usually convenience more than it is gourmet. Jellied broth is almost always less expensive than pure meat, and industrial machines can achieve the right temperature and gelatin mixture very quickly. The finished product is portioned into individual tins, sealed, and left to set. Cats tend to get similar nutrition from jellied food as they would from standard cat food, and manufacturers can often save money in the process.