Think about some of your favorite treats from childhood – squishy marshmallows floating in your hot chocolate or melted into chocolatey s’mores; fruit-flavored jams and jellies that go perfectly with peanut butter; chewy candies like gummy bears; and wiggly-jiggly desserts like JELL-O. Besides being part of many of our childhoods, these foods have something else in common – they are all made with gelatin. That may sound innocent, but gelatin is made from the animal by-products. Yuck!
Luckily, there is a plant-based alternative to gelatin and it’s called agar-agar. Agar is a type of seaweed that has extremely powerful thickening and gelling properties. Agar is commonly used by modernist chefs who specialize in molecular gastronomy, but you don’t need a chemistry degree to use it. Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about agar-agar, the plant-based answer to gelatin.
1. What is Agar-Agar
Agar, also known as agar-agar, is a mix of carbohydrates extracted from seaweed, specifically Red Sea algae. It’s also known by its Japanese name, Kanten. Agar-agar has no flavor, odor or color so it’s helpful as a culinary ingredient. It can be used to substitute for gelatin, thicken soups, and make jams and jellies, ice cream, and other desserts that need to set.
There are a few differences between agar-agar and gelatin. Agar sets more firmly than gelatin so recipes will be less jiggly and less creamy. It stays firm even in high temperatures so on hot days, you don’t have to worry about your Peanut Butter Creme and Raspberry Chiffon Pie collapsing during the summer.
2. Where To Find It
Agar-agar can be found in Asian markets, health food stores and online. Some supermarkets that have a health food section or specialty cooking supplies may carry it.
Agar-agar is available in several forms: bars, flakes, and powders. Powder is less expensive and the easiest to work with as it dissolves almost immediately so try to find that if you can. Flakes require a few minutes to dissolve and then need to be blended for smooth results. If you can only find bars, just throw them in a food processor or high-speed blender and make your own flakes or powder as suggested in this recipe for The Ultimate Vegan Genius Eggs. You can also turn flakes into powder with a high-speed blender.
3. Is It Healthy?
Agar has no calories, no sugar, no carbs, and no fat. It is free from soy, corn, gluten, yeast, wheat, starch, milk, egg, and preservatives. It is a good source of fiber, calcium, and iron.
Agar is said to help digestion and help detoxify the body by acting as a mild laxative. It absorbs bile and is believed to help the body dissolve more cholesterol. It passes through the digestive system quickly and inhibits the body from storing excess fat. Other health benefits associated with agar are inflammation reduction and improved respiration.
4. Agar Ratios
As a general rule, you can substitute powdered agar for gelatin in equal amounts. So if a recipe calls for one teaspoon of gelatin, you can use one teaspoon of agar powder and this will set one cup of liquid.
However, if you have agar flakes or bars, it is NOT a 1:1 ratio because the powder is more powerful than the flakes and bars. Basically, one tablespoon of agar flakes is equal to one teaspoon of agar powder or half of an agar bar.
So if you are trying to set one cup of liquid, use either: one teaspoon agar powder, one tablespoon agar flakes or half an agar bar.
5. How to Use Agar
Basically, heat is used to dissolve agar-agar. For smooth results, the agar must dissolve completely and may need to be blended.
The bars and flakes are harder to dissolve so it’s best to break them up into a powder or dissolve them in water first. Add the flakes to liquid over medium heat and stir for a few minutes, bringing it to a boil until it is dissolved, then blend this mixture until smooth. Agar powder dissolves much faster and doesn’t need to be blended. Add the smooth mixture to your recipe.
Once you add the agar-agar to a recipe, it should set at about an hour or so at room temperature – no refrigeration necessary. Before you know it, you could be enjoying these Healthy Vegan Rice Krispie Treats!
6. Special Considerations
Foods that are highly acidic may require more agar-agar than the recipe calls for. This includes citrus fruits such as lemons and oranges, strawberries, and kiwis. These Lemon Coconut Curd and Cupcakes are a good example of how to work with acidic ingredients.
Some foods, such as pineapples, fresh figs, papayas, mangos, and peaches, have enzymes which prevent the gelling from happening. Chocolate and spinach also seem to do this. The way to get around this is to cook these ingredients first which will neutralize those enzymes and allow the setting to happen.
Now that you know everything you ever wanted to know about agar-agar, what will you make with it? We have lots of delicious recipes for you to use and get acquainted with your newest cooking ingredient.
One yummy way to use agar-agar is to make vegan cheese. The agar-agar helps the cheese to firm up so it can be sliced. Try making this Paprika Cheese that is nut- and soy-free and can be sliced or grated. This Date and Walnut Cheese would be a lovely addition to a cheese and fruit platter. It only takes a handful of ingredients to make this Herb and Garlic Almond Cheese, Nut-Free Sesame Cheese, and this Sliceable Vegan Cashew Cheese. Check out these other 20 Amazing Vegan Cheeses You Can Make at Home.
Let’s talk desserts. Panna cotta is an Italian custard dessert that is usually thickened with gelatin and put in the fridge to set. Now you can use agar powder to make this Strawberry Rhubarb and Coconut Panna Cotta, Almond and Chamomile Panna Cotta, and Coconut Panna Cotta. Try this Almost Raw Panna Cotta, Lime and Coconut Panna Cotta, and Panna Cotta with Caramel Sauce.
Puddings and custards are smooth and creamy, and agar can be used instead of cornstarch or gelatin. Try making this Pumpkin Pudding, Pumpkin Pie Custards with Brûlée Topping, and this Saffron Custard Tart With Figs and Blackberries.
There are so many delicious ways to use agar-agar in your recipes. Get started today and you’ll see the never ending possibilities!
Lead image source: Strawberry Rhubarb and Coconut Panna Cotta