Gelatin, a collagen-based pantry staple made from pig skin, gives structure and thickness to an array of dishes. Panna cotta, aspic, molded fruit desserts, cheesecake, marshmallows and mousse may contain this nonvegetarian protein. While no vegetarian product gives identical results to gelatin, a seaweed called agar makes an excellent substitute. Other vegetarian thickening agents such as cornstarch, eggs and pectin won’t produce a firm, translucent gel and aren’t ideal gelatin substitutes.
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Agar to the Rescue
Agar (also called agar-agar) is a colorless gelling agent made from seaweed. You can buy it as blocks, strands, granules or powder at Asian markets and natural-foods stores. If you have a choice, choose the powder version, which dissolves the most readily. To use agar, gently simmer it in liquid until completely dissolved and use the mixture immediately. If you let it cool, small bits of gelled agar will form and spoil your recipe. Unlike gelatin, agar firms up at room temperature, so you must work rapidly with the hot agar solution.
Agar Substitution Amounts
The standard substitution is 1 tablespoon powdered agar for each tablespoon of powdered gelatin and 1 teaspoon of agar powder to set 1 cup of liquid as a jelled dessert. If you’re using agar flakes instead of powder, use three times as much. Different brands of agar vary in their strengthening power, so you may need to experiment to achieve the right texture. Agar produces a firm gel, so use a light hand for creamy, lightly thickened results.
Agar, like gelatin, won’t gel in the presence of certain raw fruits. Papaya, pineapple, kiwi, peaches and mangoes contain an enzyme that doesn’t play well with gelling agents. Cook these fruits before using them to break down the enzymes. Acidic fruits, such as oranges and lemons, also will weaken agar’s action. Like all sea vegetables, agar is highly nutritious, with significant amounts of dietary fiber, calcium, magnesium, potassium and other minerals -- though you’ll only consume a small amount of it in most culinary applications.
Some health-food brands sell animal-free jelled dessert mixes. These products aren’t easy to find, but large natural-foods markets and online vendors may offer them. They contain thickeners made from mixtures of vegetable gums, tapioca and seaweed. While worth trying if you want a fruity jelled dessert, these products are more expensive and less versatile than agar powder.