Vegan or not vegan~ If you are like me, you are here because you are looking for a thickening alternative to gelatin for cold preparation desserts.
Even before my vegan days and way back to my vegetarian days I always thought gelatin was disgusting.
Whenever I made cold preparation desserts with gelatin, the smell of it upon melting was just so off putting.
But it makes total sense since after all gelatin is nothing more than a protein obtained by boiling skin, tendons, ligaments, and/or bones with water. Usually obtained from cows or pigs.
Hence the smell when you melt it.
Once I discovered the wonders of agar it was on like Donkey Kong and my vegan desserts have been transformed.
But not without some trial and error and a bit of knowledge of what this gelling substance is made of and how to adjust it for the best results in your recipes.
At a glance, agar is made from seaweed, technically red algae.
It comes in three forms: Powdered, Flakes or Bar.
I will only be using the powdered form here in my recipes.
The only real difference between the three kinds is their composition when you buy it and then the ease of preparation with each form.
Essentially we want to end up with powder before adding to the recipe so why not just buy it already powdered, but for those who can’t get it you will just have an extra step.
I use this one here it is available from Amazon but Asian Food Markets have comparable brands and styles.
The Bars are freeze dried agar and can be ground to a powder in a coffee or spice grinder. One bar is equal to 2 teaspoons of powder agar.
The Flakes are less concentrated than the powder so this right away will pose a problem for easy conversion of recipes that call for powder.
As we know measuring errors are the number one cause of recipe failure so just be sure to double and triple check your conversions and measures before beginning. 2 Tablespoons of flakes is roughly equal to 2 teaspoons of powder
In a nutshell, to thicken 1 cup of liquid, use 1 teaspoon Agar powder (approximately 3.5g), 1 tablespoon (15 ml) Agar flakes, or a ½ Agar bar.
But stay tuned, I’ll get to more about conversions and strengths and how this can all mess with your recipes if we are not all using the same thing.
If you are substituting Agar for gelatin in a recipe you can use the same amount of Agar powder however unlike gelatin that gets mixed with cold water then melted and added to a recipe; agar is added to a warm or hot liquid, brought to a boil then cooked for about 2 minutes at a simmer.
Once the agar solution starts to get cooled (and don’t confuse cooled with COLD because agar will start to set as hot as 113°F !) So you definitely have to work faster and be more wary of temperatures when working with agar.
Similar to gelatin though, some fruits are highly acidic and have enzymes (bromelin) that will interfere with the gelling properties of Agar.
This can be counteracted by first boiling the fruit puree you are using in the recipe to deactivate those enzymes.
Additionally you may want to increase the amount of agar slightly in those fruits. Specifically kiwi, pineapple, mango, papaya and peaches.
However if you are using canned versions of those fruits, cooking is not required since the canning process has already done that.
Now let’s get to the topic at hand.
How do I know what my Agar strength is?
Hopefully your package of Agar will list its scientific properties of gel strength to give you a starting point.
The one I recently bought listed “Excellent Gel Strength 900g /cm2+”
What the heck does that even mean!?
Well, basically this is science. And you know me and my love of science (well…baking science….) so I had to dig further.
Gel strength is listed as grams per squared centimeter. This is a unit that measures pressure. The pressure that these molecules endure during a cooking process thus determining their absorption, expansion and gelling levels.
Ok so what does THAT mean!?? And why do I have to know this!?
Well, you don’t really have to know it, but you DO have to know where your agar strength lies.
Typically you will find Agar sold in strengths from 700g/cm2+ to 1000g/cm2+
Similar to the way gelatin strengths are sold, they range from bronze to silver to gold.
Most people (and pastry chefs) will pick the mid range and go for silver and the same applies here with Agar.
The most common strength sold will be 900g/cm2+ and this will most likely be the strength used in recipes as well.
But when in doubt do a quick test.
Boil up 2 cups of water. Add 2 teaspoons of agar powder. Boil it and then simmer it for 2 minutes, then cool it.
See how it sets. If it is too firm or too soft in comparison to what the recipe suggests to use, you can easily adjust your recipes from there.
I hope this takes some of the mystery and fear out of using agar.
I know the first time I used it in my vegetarian version for Mirror Glaze, I was like “What the…….?!”
Since working with new ingredients can often be daunting it will take some trial and error so don’t get too frustrated!
I hope you will give good ol’ agar a chance! Leave that gelatin alone! It is so disgusting! LOL
Oh yeah and one more thing if I have not yet sold you on converting to Agar~
Unlike gelatin, you can re-melt the gelled mixture.
For example if you wanted to add another ingredient to the recipe or pour it into a different mold or add more agar to make the gel more firm or add more liquid to soften it.
Just bring it all to a boil again, then cool it again without compromising its gelling abilities.