What is the Ultimate Jell-O® Shot?
The purpose of this experiment was to determine the highest possible concentration of alcohol attainable in a Jell-O shot, while still maintaining the structural integrity (i.e., the gelling properties) of the gelatin. For the purposes of our study, structural integrity was defined as the ability of the gelatin to hold its shape when removed from its container. Recipes for Jell-O shots are often accompanied by the explanation that only a certain amount of liquor can be added to Jell-O shots, the reason being that a minimum amount of water is necessary to enable the gelatin to gel, and too much alcohol will prevent this. How much water is enough? Or more to the point, how much alcohol is too much? As you will see, too much is much, much more than we would have guessed.
Lots and Lots of Jell-O Shots
This study utilized 80 proof (40% alcohol) vodka and Jell-O brand gelatin dessert of various flavors, with parallel tests on both the regular and sugar-free varieties. To this end, we made over two dozen batches of Jell-O shots, and exhausted the contents of nearly five 1.75 liter bottles of vodka.
Our initial attempt to prepare gelatin using pure vodka was an out-and-out failure. This experiment, in which we added a few tablespoons of gelatin to 4 oz. of vodka, resulted in a grainy liquid with partially dissolved gelatin sediment which did not respond to chilling. This attempt failed for an obvious reason: Dry gelatin is composed of colloidal proteins. These proteins form chains that require hot water to break them down, so that they can then reform as a semisolid colloidal suspension incorporating the added water. Pure alcohol cannot be heated (without evaporation) enough to initially break down the proteins.
We then undertook the traditional method of Jell-O shot preparation, using a recipe with typical proportions as a control. (It should be noted that we used American standard ounce measurements for this experiment, rather than metric measurements, because Jell-O shot recipes are typically measured in ounces or cups.)
This formula represents a modification of the recipe on the Jell-O box, but simply substitutes an amount of vodka for a portion of the cold water originally called for. The total amount of liquid added to the solution is 16 oz. However, we observed that, when dissolved, the 3 oz. of (lime) gelatin and sugar added approximately 2 oz. to the volume of the mixture, for a total of 18 oz. of fluid. If we calculate the percentage of alcohol, given that the vodka is 40% ABV (alcohol by volume), the percentage of alcohol in 18 oz. of solution is 11%. This is comparable to that of a vodka and tonic containing 2 oz. of vodka and 4 oz. tonic water (13.3% ABV, usually less when ordered at a bar). A taste test of this batch confirmed this finding: the gelatin tasted like a slightly watered down vodka-based drink.
Each of these shots contains at least an ounce of liquor
Our next step was to increase the amount of vodka while decreasing the amount of water, maintaining a constant of 16 oz. total liquid in the mixture. We reduced the total amount of water to 8 oz., or one cup – 4 oz. of boiling water and 4 oz. of cold water. We increased the amount of vodka to 8 oz. (one cup). After adding the boiling and cold water to the (lime) gelatin, we observed some undissolved gelatin residue clinging to the glass measuring cup, and noted that there seemed to be some undissolved sugar crystals in the liquid. Nevertheless, this batch produced satisfactory results, with a less sweet and distinctly pronounced strong alcohol flavor. Comparing these to the original batch of Jell-O shots, we noted a slight difference in clarity: the control batch was crystal clear, while the higher alcohol batch seemed slightly cloudy. The original recipe shots also seemed to have a firmer texture and more defined edges when “broken.”
We continued the experiment by again increasing the amount of vodka to 10 oz., while decreasing the total water to 6 oz. (4 oz. boiling water, 2 oz. cold water, cherry Jell-O). Again, these proportions produced satisfactory results. We then did away with the cold water all together, dissolving 3 oz. of (orange) gelatin in 4 oz. boiling water (stirring for two minutes per package instructions), and then stirring in 12 oz. of vodka as if adding the cold water directed by the package. This batch produced satisfactory results. The gelatin was still firm, if a bit clouded.
There’s Always Room for…More Alcohol
Having established that plain hot water was only necessary in the Jell-O shot recipe to dissolve the gelatin initially, we made an attempt to ascertain the minimum amount of water required for this purpose. We made two separate batches of Jell-O using 3 oz. of boiling water to dissolve the powder. We observed a high amount of sediment in the dissolved solution and noted that it did not seem that the gelatin nor the sugar was completely dissolved. We added 13 oz. and 16 oz. to the grape and blue berry flavored batches respectively. Both failed to gel firmly, producing a cloudy, semi-gelled sludge.
Our next batch, which used 4 oz. boiling water and 13 oz. vodka (lemon Jell-O) proved that the failure of the previous batches was due not to the concentration of alcohol, but due to inadequate boiling water to completely dissolve the Jell-O and sugar. Indeed, we were able to achieve substantially higher concentrations of alcohol while maintaining a good “gel factor” as long as the powder was completely dissolved in 4 oz. of boiling water.
Ultimately we determined that the breaking point of a Jell-O shot – the point at which the gelatin began to lose its structural integrity (i.e., ability to gel and hold its shape) is somewhere between 19 and 20 oz. of vodka per 3 oz. package of Jell-O powder. That’s at least 14 oz. (1 2/3 cups) more than the 5 oz. of vodka in the original Jell-O shot recipe. The Jell-O shots we made with 19 oz. of vodka (lime) held their shape nicely when unmolded, whereas the shots made with 20 oz. (grape) began to slide apart, and the shots made with 21 oz. (orange) quickly disintegrated. The batch containing 19 oz. of liquor was 76% vodka by volume, and 30% pure alcohol by volume, very close to taking a straight shot of vodka.
The breaking point for Jell-O shots made with sugar-free gelatin came at 24 oz. per 4-serving package dissolved in 3 oz. boiling water. The batch made with sugar-free lime Jell-O and 24 oz. of vodka remained firm after unmolding, while the batches made with 25 oz. vodka and 26 oz. vodka (both sugar-free raspberry) exhibited noticeable softening and rapid disintegration respectively. The batch of Jell-O shots made with 24 oz. of vodka were 88.88% liquor, which translates to 35% pure alcohol by volume.
To determine if any alcohol was being lost due to evaporation or boiling off during the mixing process, we measured the temperature of the Jell-O solution after the powder was dissolved in boiling water, at the point just before the alcohol was to be added. After a few minutes of stirring, the hot water-Jell-O mixture had cooled to around 100F, or 37.7C. Since this is well below the boiling point of ethanol (78.6C), we feel confident that no alcohol was being lost due to the heat of the solution.
Some Jell-O shot recipes suggest chilling the vodka before adding it to the Jell-O mixture. Since alcohol evaporation is not an issue, we see no advantage to this practice other than possibly accelerating the rate at which the Jell-O shots gel. Although we did not time how long it took the Jell-O to gel, in most cases it seemed to take longer than four hours to reach maximum firmness.
This experiment was conducted using 80 proof (40% ABV) vodka only. Higher proofs of alcohol may yield different results.
So How Did They Taste?
The “classic” Jell-O shot recipe (with 5 oz. vodka per 3 oz. Jell-O powder) yields a crisp, clear gelatin with a firm and resilient texture and a mild alcohol flavor. Increasing the amount of vodka to 8 oz. reduced the sweetness and increased the taste of the alcohol noticeably, but not to the point that it was overwhelming. Up to around 14 oz. of vodka per batch, the texture of the gelatin remained relatively firm and the taste of the vodka strong but not unpleasant. At concentrations of alcohol higher than 14 oz., the gelatin began to seem a bit soft and slimy, and the liquor began to overwhelm the flavoring in the gelatin. Differences in taste and texture between the regular and sugar-free Jell-O shots were negligible, especially as the percentage of alcohol increased.
Subjectively, we found the lime and orange Jell-O to taste the best (i.e., most similar to a vodka-based mixed drink), followed by the lemon and cherry flavors. At the highest concentrations of alcohol, the cherry Jell-O began to taste unpleasantly like cough syrup. We do not recommend the Berry Blue or grape flavors of Jell-O for this recipe.
Although the proportion of alcohol to be added to Jell-O shots is partly a matter of taste, the typical Jell-O shot recipe greatly underestimates the amount of alcohol that can be added to Jell-O while still maintaining the gelatin’s setting properties. As long as a minimum amount of boiling water is used to completely dissolve the gelatin powder (4 oz. boiling water per 3 oz. package Jell-O), an amount of 80 proof alcohol up to 19 oz. can be added and the Jell-O will still gel. With sugar-free Jell-O, the minimum amount of boiling water necessary is 3 oz., and up to 24 oz. of 80 proof alcohol can be added and the Jell-O will still gel.
An additional finding of this experiment was that more liquid in general (i.e., more water) can be added to Jell-O than is recommended by the package instructions, and the gelatin will still gel. That is to say, you can add a total of 3 cups or 24 oz. of water (as opposed to the 16 oz. called for in the package directions) to a four-serving package of regular gelatin (27 oz. of water if the Jell-O is sugar free) and the gelatin will still gel. This means you can potentially get one third more servings from a package of Jell-O by adding extra water.
A Word of CautionAs a word of warning to those who might attempt to duplicate this experiment at home, be aware that it produces Jell-O shots that have four or more times the alcohol content of regular Jell-O shots. They are essentially the equivalent of taking a straight shot of vodka. If you choose to test the results of your own Jell-O shot experiment by ingesting them, please do so responsibly.