Unfortunately, gelatin is sometimes the ingredient of choice when it comes to making puddings, marshmallows, cakes, yogurts, ice cream, supplement capsules, and several other products.
Vegan and vegetarians avoid gelatin as it’s made from animal bones and cartilage, so they turn to agar-agar, a plant-based thickening agent that replaces gelatin in many recipes.
Finding agar-agar is fairly easy nowadays, but if you don’t have it on hand, then you might have some of the alternatives we will be covering in this article.
What is Agar Agar?
Agar-agar is a gelatinous substance from red algae that has been popular across Asia for many centuries.
Because it has no taste, odor, or color, agar-agar can be safely used in desserts and other cooking without altering the taste, smell, or color of the final product.
Agar has several uses in addition to cooking, including as a filler in sizing paper and fabric, a clarifying agent in brewing, and it can also be used for scientific purposes.
Agar-agar is also known as China grass, China glass, China isinglass, Japanese kanten, and dai choy goh, and is also used in certain Japanese dessert recipes.
You can find agar in the form of flakes, powder, bars, and strands. The red algae get boiled into a gel, pressed, dried, and crushed to form agar flakes, blended into a powder, frozen into bars, or made into strands.
Agar powder is usually cheaper than flakes, and it’s also easy to use as it dissolves easily in liquid. Some people actually convert flakes, bars, and sticks into powder by processing them in a blender.
What Is The Difference Between Agar and Gelatin?
The most significant difference between agar and gelatin is the source from which they are derived.
Gelatin is literally made from a protein obtained by boiling skin, tendons, ligaments, and/or bones with water, while agar-agar comes from sea plants, more specifically red algae.
They both behave differently and must be prepared in a different way to be incorporated into recipes. While gelatin can easily dissolve in warm water, agar-agar must boil to set, and that’s because they melt at distinct temperatures. Agar-agar melts at 185 F, whereas gelatin melts at 95 F. Agar also sets more quickly than gelatin and doesn’t need to be refrigerated.
Even though agar-agar is meant to replace gelatin in recipes, the result is not quite the same. Agar-agar often leads to firmer, less creamy dishes, and it also tends to keep its firmness at higher temperatures, unlike gelatin.
Is Agar Agar Vegan?
Agar-agar, fortunately, is suitable for both vegans and vegetarians.
It’s derived from the red algae plant, and no animal by-products are used to convert the algae into agar-agar and its respective forms.
Fortunately, no ingredient is irreplaceable in a recipe, which means you’re able to find suitable substitutes capable of playing a similar or equal role.
You might not be able to find a replacement that renders a dish with an equal taste or texture, but it’s still possible to use a replacement in a way that makes a dish delicious.
We have found some agar-agar substitutes which we believe can play the same role.
Cornstarch is an agar-agar substitute that it’s quite easy to find; it’s a starch derived from the endosperm of the corn kernel, and it’s usually available as a powder.
Cornstarch is flavorless and it can add texture to your recipe, so if you have a mixture, you can make it thicker by adding a tablespoon of cornstarch, like you would with agar-agar. It’s often used as a thickener for stews, soups, and gravies.
It’s quite favored among individuals with celiac disease, as it’s from corn (not wheat), which makes it gluten-free, though it’s also an alternative that is suitable for vegans and vegetarians.
If you want to use cornstarch in place of agar-agar, you can use 1 tablespoon of cornstarch to substitute 1 tablespoon of agar-agar, or in other words, a 1:1 ratio.
Although not as affordable as cornstarch, xanthan gum is another product that you can use to replace agar-agar in your recipes.
Xanthan gum is made from fermenting a carbohydrate with Xanthomonas campestris bacteria, then processed from a broth or goo-like substance into a solid form by using alcohol.
When xanthan gum powder is added to a liquid, it creates a thick and stable solution, which is essentially the role agar-agar typically plays in recipes. Therefore, xanthan gum is a great thickening, suspending, and stabilizing agent that it’s useful for a wide range of products.
Xanthan gum is also suitable for vegans and vegetarians, as it’s lab-made using sugar and bacteria as forming agents.
Like agar-agar, carrageenan is an additive used to thicken, emulsify, and preserve foods and drinks.
It derives from red seaweed (also called Irish moss), and you’ll often find it being used in nut-based milk, meat products, and yogurt.
Unfortunately, there’s been some controversy surrounding carrageenan, as some evidence suggests that carrageenan might trigger inflammation, gastrointestinal ulcerations, which might damage your digestive system, however, it’s not 100% proven.
It seems that it might be safe in small amounts, but increasingly dangerous in larger amounts.
Regardless of its potential negative health effects, carrageenan acts as a thickening agent and emulsifier, so you can use it as an effective substitute for agar-agar. However, it’s not as easy to find.
Arrowroot powder is quite similar to cornstarch, but it’s not as easy to obtain, and it’s not as affordable.
However, like cornstarch, it is a starch and is extracted from the West Indian Arrowroot plant (Maranta arundinacea), so it is bound to produce the same thickening effects.
It’s also gluten and grain-free, and it’s regarded as a healthier option simply due to how it’s harvested and processed, which is more traditionally.
To substitute 1 tablespoon of agar-agar powder you will need 2 tablespoons of arrowroot powder, so it’s a 1:2 ratio.
Pectin is another ingredient that is often included in products to give them structure. In fact, pectin can be found in the walls of fruits and vegetables doing exactly that – providing them with structure.
Without pectin, jellies and jams won’t gel, and won’t be able to develop a semi-solid structure upon cooling down.
Commercial pectin is typically made from citrus rinds, and it’s often sold as a dry powder as the liquid form can be quite expensive.
Guar gum is a natural thickening agent derived from guar beans, which are mostly grown in India.
It’s often used as a replacement for wheat flour in processed products and recipes, but it can also be used as an effective agar-agar replacement.
However, it can also be used as a health food to treat constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.
Fortunately, there are several alternatives to agar-agar, including:
- xanthan gum
- arrowroot powder
- pectin powder
- and guar gum.
However, keep in mind that when using these replacements, you have to adjust the number of tablespoons, as it’s not always a 1 to 1 ratio.