Time To Bring Back the Jello Mold

It might feel like a relic, but Jello is a refreshing and endlessly customizable treat — and a great way to end a summertime meal.

Mid-Century style's present-day popularity begs the question: Did the aesthetics of the 1950s and 1960s ever actually fall out of fashion? Well, maybe not in terms of chic furniture and rejuvenated vintage duds...but as far as dining trends go, it's definitely true that certain dishes that were all the rage in the '50s and '60s don't enjoy the same acclaim these days. However, we think that it's time to reexamine a dessert that constantly appeared on potluck tables and dinner party spreads in the middle of the 20th century (and has been notably absent from the culinary scene ever since). That's right...we're talking about the Jello mold.

This gelatin-based treat might feel like a Mad Men-era relic, but if a refreshing and endlessly customizable dessert sounds like a great way to end a summertime meal, then the Jello mold might be worth a second look. We asked dessert chefs and self-proclaimed Jello enthusiasts to offer advice on how to bring the Jello mold into the 21st century, and they provided us with several useful tips for making the most of this classic dish.

Layered cranberry jello salad mold

What is a Jello mold?

In its simplest form, a Jello mold is a shaped dessert made with flavored gelatin and often layered with other ingredients like fruit and condensed milk. This item became famous for its ease of assembly and travel, resulting in its Mid Century status as a potluck staple.

Jello molds found themselves firmly sorted into the dessert category once Jell-O (the branded boxed gelatin mix) evolved into a household name; because Jell-O products were invariably sweet, the molds made with them largely followed that flavor theme. However, prior to the invention of Jell-O, many home cooks experimented with savory gelatin molds inspired by European gelatin dishes like aspic (and some daring foodies still dabble in the Savory Jello Mold arts today).

Savory jello salad with cucumbers, green onions, and celery
Savory Jello salad with cucumbers, green onions, and celery. Meredith

Ready to give the Jello mold a try in your own kitchen? Follow this guidance from pro dessert makers who believe that this treat is due for a comeback:

Think beyond boxed Jell-O

As we mentioned previously, the "Jello mold" existed prior to Jell-O's invention, and present-day Jello mold makers can (and should) use unbranded gelatin to get creative with flavor and ingredient combinations. According to pastry chef and food blogger Carolyn Truett of Caramel & Cashews, "The most exciting aspect of the retro Jello mold is that you can turn any delicious liquid into one. Kiss boxed Jell-O goodbye and say hello to wine, your favorite juice, sweetened condensed milk, or even ice cream."

Embrace the urge to customize your mold

"I do think the fun part is that Jello molds are so customizable. All you really need for a basic Jello mold is dry unflavored gelatin, water, sugar, and your liquids of choice," Truett insists. When it comes to a specific suggestion for making a memorable (and contemporary) Jello mold, Truett's got you covered: "An excellent way to modernize it is to make two layers — one a citrus or bright colored juice layer and another opaque creamy layer (think ice cream, half and half, eggnog, or sweetened condensed milk)."

Have fun with your mold's shape

A Bundt pan may be the traditional vessel for a Jello mold, but Truett urges home cooks to "change up the mold. There are plenty of gorgeous round cake pans that would look amazing." Feel free to play around with pans that feature spirals, crimped edges, smooth tops and sides, or even a fully-rounded silhouette — the possibilities are limitless.

Owner and chef Erin Emmett of Pistachio Culinary Studio & Experiences in New York City sees a great deal of potential in the notion of a Jello mold renaissance; she tells us that Jello molds "offer a more elegant presentation for a dessert spread than typical Jello squares. Jello comes in so many different color shades that I could imagine it adding some beautiful height in a custom color on a dessert table. Some of the molds can also be way more intricate than the classic bulbous Bundt cake-like shape. I've seen vintage molds that resemble castles or an ornate crown." Another of Emmett's favorite ways to update a Jello mold? "Make it mini! I've done some beautiful individual pyramid Jello molds in vibrant colors. The great thing is there is no cutting involved! Just pick it up and eat!"

Get creative with your flavors

For a modern take on the Jello mold, Emmett recommends more upscale techniques like flavor infusions and creative ingredient layering. "I like to play with infusing herbs and teas into the liquid prior to the Jello being set. I think some herbal infusions would really add some intrigue to the otherwise monotonous flavors of classic Jell-O. Playing with various flavor and texture layers within the Jello mold would also be a great way to take them to a new level. Right now, I'm imagining a strawberry thyme gelatin layered with a tart rhubarb layer and then a creamy ricotta/cream cheese layer at the bottom. Garnishing with some edible flowers and maybe some thyme crispy meringue would be so nice," she says.

Let the Jello mold's retro charm shine

The key to modernizing an old-school favorite involves both a willingness to incorporate new ideas and a commitment to understanding and celebrating the appeal of the original. For instance, Emmett sees a lot of parallels between the high-style bashes popular in the 1950s and 1960s and the kinds of house parties that people will throw post-pandemic: "Parties are definitely going away from the rustic and towards a more opulent approach. I've gotten multiple requests for a Bridgerton or Marie Antoinette aesthetic for the client's dessert table. Bringing back Jello molds would be a perfect fit for this shift!" Emmett explains.

Try these Jello mold recipes:

Check out our complete collection of Jell-O Salad Recipes.

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