When I was a child, I loved JELL-O. What kid doesn’t? It’s colorful, sweet, fruity, and wiggly-jiggly fun. Like most kids, I also ate marshmallows in my hot cocoa, jams, and jellies with my peanut butter, and chewy candies shaped like bears and worms. Besides being childhood favorites, these foods all have something else in common: they are all made with gelatin. When I went vegan, gelatin became a no-no and many favorite foods were now off the menu. The good news is that there are several ways to make vegan gelatin and you don’t need a degree in chemistry or molecular gastronomy to do it. Here’s how to make vegan gelatin so you can enjoy cruelty-free wiggly-jiggly treats.
1. Why Gelatin is Not Vegan
The first questions you may have are what is gelatin and why is it not vegan. Gelatin is a translucent, odorless, colorless, and almost tasteless substance that comes in sheets, powder, and granules. It’s used as a gelling agent, thickener, and stabilizer in cooking. Gelatin is found in many food products such as jello, marshmallows, gummy bears, jelly beans, cereals, dairy products, and desserts such as panna cotta and trifles. Vitamins and medications that come in capsule form are most commonly made with gelatin to make them easier to swallow.
Unfortunately, gelatin is made by boiling the skin, cartilage, and bones of animals slaughtered for food, leather and other unnecessary reasons. That means we are eating dissolved skin, horns, bones, hooves, connective tissues and other leftovers of cruelty. Yuck! Gladly, there are ways to make vegan gelatin that are cruelty-free.
Agar, also known as agar-agar, is a mix of carbohydrates extracted from seaweed, specifically Red Sea algae. 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. Agar-agar is available in several forms: bars, flakes, and powders.
As a general rule, you can substitute powdered agar for gelatin in equal amounts. 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. 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.
Heat is used to dissolve agar-agar. For smooth results, the agar must dissolve completely and may need to be blended. 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, The Ultimate Vegan Genius Eggs, Almond and Chamomile Panna Cotta, Avocado and Banana Pudding, and Sliceable Cashew Cheese. To learn more, see Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Agar-Agar.
When I was a kid, my mother used to buy pectin to use in place of gelatin. Pectin is made from fruit skins and rinds. They are boiled, filtered, and dehydrated into a soft gel. Because it’s made from fruit, it’s often used to thicken jams, jellies, and marmalades. That thickening power is why pectin-rich fruit can replace eggs in baking. Pectin needs sugar to gel properly, about 5 cups of sugar per package of powdered pectin and 3-4 cups of sugar per pouch of liquid pectin. It also needs a bit of acidity such as lemon juice.
4. Vegetable Gums
Vegetable gums are often used in ice creams and gluten-free baked goods. Examples of vegetable gums include xanthan gum, guar gum, and locust bean gum. You probably know about xanthan gum from gluten-free baking but it can also thicken smoothies and sauces. Some people have difficulty digesting xanthan gum or avoid it because it is derived from corn. Guar gum is also a vegetable-based gum that acts the same as xanthan gum but seems to be easier to digest. It takes very little of either xanthan gum or guar gum, anywhere from 1/8 of a teaspoon up to 1 teaspoon; too much will lead to clumps. Mix the gum into the dry ingredients in the recipe, not the wet.
You can buy other vegetable gum powders which instruct you to use 50 percent more than the amount of gelatin and mix it directly into water. Follow the package directions for the best results. These Tex-Mex Burgers use locust bean gum to give them a chewy, meaty texture.
Carrageenan, also known as Irish Moss, is a type of dried seaweed extract that can be used in place of gelatin. Carrageenan is flavorless and it sets foods but less rigidly than gelatin. Carrageenan is used in jellies, mousses, soups, ice creams, puddings, and dairy products. You’ve probably seen it in the ingredient list of many vegan products as well including plant-based milks and cheeses. To use carrageenan as a substitute for gelatin, one ounce of dried carrageenan will set one cup of liquid.
Carrageenan is a controversial product as it has been linked to mild gastrointestinal problems and other health issues, while others, including the FDA, believe it is acceptable for consumption. The research continues to determine if it definitely needs to be avoided or not. In the meantime, read more about it in Why You Should Check Your Cheese, Creamer and Non-Dairy Milk Labels for This Scary Ingredient and do your own research to decide for yourself if you want to avoid it.
Well, there you go! Gelatin without any animals needed! Whatever we may need to do, we can always count of plants to give us the answer.
Lead image source: Avocado and Banana Pudding