How to Use Agar Agar in Your Cooking
So why would you want to use agar agar in cooking? Well, Vegan, vegetarian, and halal baking can sometimes feel more complicated than it needs to be. This is because meat and animal byproducts can sneak into the strangest things. Even beer, non-dairy creamer, and Altoids® might have animal byproducts. It's enough to have you looking twice at a S'more.
Above. Agar agar is a fine white vegtable powder used in place of animal gelatin.
Why You Might Not Want to Use Gelatin
Gelatin is a notorious offender for hiding animal byproducts in the weirdest things. It makes jiggly things wiggly. Gelatin brings the bounce into panna cotta, gummy bears, and your squishy toasted marshmallows. However, the problem lies with what is in gelatin. Gelatin is made from animal collagen. Collagen is a protein that makes up connective tissue.
All this fancy speak is to say that gelatin is made with animal skin, tendons, ligaments, and bones that are boiled up, soaked in acid, and then filtered for their collagen.
We'll pause while you take some deep breaths and try to stop turning green.
The widespread use of gelatin means some of your favorite sweets might not be available to eat if you're living a lean green life or have other dietary concerns.
So, what to do? Well, we would never recommend giving up the true spice of life, sweets. Instead, the world's best and most bright have come up with agar-agar, which you can use as a substitute for gelatin. Made from plants, this substitute is vegan, vegetarian, and halal-friendly, although there are mixed reviews on exactly how to best use agar-agar.
So, to help you with your baking efforts, we wrote a quick guide on where to buy agar agar, what it is, and how to use agar agar in your cooking.
What is Agar Agar?
Agar agar also simply called agar, is a vegan substitute for gelatin. Because agar agar derives from seaweed instead of animal byproducts, it's a perfect option for those of us who avoid having animal skin and bones in our Jell-O®. In addition, agar agar acts just like gelatin when you're using it. This makes it perfect for home vegan, vegetarian, and halal baking.
Agar agar is the answer to many vegan peoples' sincere thoughts and prayers and deals with demons; finally, a substitute for gelatin that perfectly copies gelatin elastic joy.
The record-screeching truth is that agar-agar merely comes the closest to perfectly copying gelatin. It's not an exact match for texture, but it's close enough to count.
Agar agar is a thickening or gelling agent most popular in firm and wiggly dishes. Some of the things it's most popular in include jelly sheets, ice cream, or the wonderfully accurately named raindrop cake (See the image below. It's like something from Alice in Wonderland).
Raindrop cake: 2 cups water, 1.20g agar powder. Boil 2 cups water, sprinkle in agar so it does not clump. Boil until completely dissolved. Try not to evaporate too much water. Let the boiled solution cool to about 150°F. Pour into mold and let set for at least 2 hours.
The Difference Between Agar-Agar and Gelatin
Other than the obvious differences we've harped on, gelatin and agar-agar have a few other differences. Most notable is the difference in texture. Too much gelatin for the liquid it dissolves in produces a Jell-O so thick you need a chainsaw to make a dent. Whereas too much agar-agar makes a new rubber sole for your shoe.
Another difference is the amount of agar-agar you'll use for a recipe. Unlike other substitutes, you don't want to exchange agar agar for gelatin in a 1:1 ratio. (More on that later. But first, a history lesson!)
Interesting Fact- Agar Agar's Origin Story
Legend has it, back in the 17th century in Japan (think Samurais), a traveling emperor got hopelessly lost with his entourage in the mountains. Hiding from the terrible snowstorm that made them get lost, they were able to find room in the inn and were served an algae soup by the innkeeper. However, emperors apparently weren't very hungry because some of this soup was left over and gelled during the frigid night.
The following day the innkeeper discovered the algae gelatin and realized how strong the algae he had used to prepare the soup was. So he also figured he could throw more water on the gelatin and make more soup.
This legend is why people also refer to agar agar as Kanten, or "frozen sky" in Japan. Although we obviously have no way of confirming this, it does lend a mystical slant to agar-agar, giving it a depth that only history can.
Agar Agar Gel
Like gelatin, which has a gelatin gel product, agar-agar has a much firmer option in a gel form. However, these two products' consistency varies greatly, like agar-agar and gelatin. Gelatin gel gives a soft and consistent jiggle, whereas agar-agar gel has a more flaking and cleaving effect, depending on whether you're cutting vertically or horizontally. See the image below of zephyrs and fruit jellies made with agar agar.
Above: Zephyrs and fruit jellies made with agar agar.
Where To Buy Agar Agar for Cooking
We may have been talking about agar-agar like it's this revolutionary new thing that scientists only recently made a discovery of at the bottom of the sea, but it's had use in Asian dishes for hundreds of years (ever since a 17th-century emperor had a poor sense of direction in a snowstorm. Silly emperor.)
So, when you're looking for where to buy agar-agar, start with an Asian specialty food store or health food store instead of starting with your regular vegetarian stores. You can buy it in either powder or flake form, giving you several options for how you combine it. It is also available on- line here.
How To Use Agar Agar for Cooking
What To Make
The "frozen sky" is the limit. (Please laugh, or we'll start to worry our jokes aren't funny)
Agar agar is perfect for making firm foods. When thinking about consistency, think about Santa's belly. Agar agar is ideal for making Jell-O-like foods that ripple through a mostly-solid substance.
Another great way to use agar agar is for jam. Again, using a minimal amount for your liquid creates a jam-like consistency that's great for your preserves.
All in all, you can use agar-agar for just about anything you would use gelatin for.
What To Do
The great thing about agar agar is that you use it the same way you would use gelatin. First, dissolve the correct amount of agar-agar into a warm liquid, then leave it to set.
What Amount of Agar Agar for Cooking Should You Use?
And so, we start the great debate. "Can we just throw as much of the substitute in as we would what the recipe calls for?"
It's hard to tell because most people have a strong opinion on how much agar-agar you should use at any given time. However, most people say that it's safe to use it in a 1:1 ratio. So, looking at that in perspective, if your recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of gelatin, you'll use one tablespoon of agar-agar.
Now, buyer beware because we've heard harrowing tales of rubber consistencies and a plasticky taste. So, depending on whether you're making a thicker food that requires a lot of agar agar to hold the structural integrity together or something you need a loose hold for, you'll want to temper the amount you put in.
The more agar agar you add to your recipe, the better the chance you'll get gelled food that lodges to the roof of your mouth unpleasantly. There are even horror stories of agar agar taking over liquids people didn't intend it to combine with to create even more gel, like some alien monster coming for your world leaders.
Some reports say that the best plan with agar-agar is to cut it down by as much as ⅓. So, for example, if you're making something and the recipe calls for 1 ½ teaspoon of gelatin, try using ½ teaspoon of agar-agar instead.
Agar Agar for Cooking is a Great Substitute
We all recall those days in school when we would pray to get a substitute instead of our regular teacher because the regular teacher smelled weird or said things that made us side-eye them.
Agar agar is that kind of substitute. Free of animal byproducts and time-tested, agar agar is your next vegan, vegetarian, or halal gelatin substitute.
- Chef Edmund