In our monthly column, One Curious Ingredient, Michelle Peters-Jones explores the history and culinary use of ingredients or dishes that are unfamiliar to her — and probably many of us! We also invite you to share your own stories and recipe links in the comments. Today, Michelle explores agar agar. We bet you’re curious to learn more about it!
A popular place in my small town when I was growing up was this incredible ice cream parlour. Three stories, and it served nothing but their own ice cream concoctions. One of my favourite was their jelly and ice cream combo. It wasn’t until a long time later, when I took my vegetarian husband and daughter there, that I found out that their jelly is actually vegetarian. In fact, a lot of jelly in the subcontinent is vegetarian or gelatin-free, probably because of strict religious traditions.
Which brings me to today’s curious ingredient, agar agar. Agar, also known as Japanese Gelatin, Kanten and, curiously, China Grass, is one of the best-known substitutes for animal gelatin, and is commonly used as a vegetarian substitute for it. It's also sometimes known as vegetarian gelatin.
What is Agar Agar?
Pronounced ah-gur, the name agar agar literally means jelly in Malay. Agar agar is a flavourless vegetarian gelatin substitute made from a certain kind of algae, which works as a gelling agent when heated up and then left to cool. The higher quality agar comes from red algae, which is hand-harvested in countries like Japan, Spain, South Africa and Mexico. An inferior quality of agar is also produced from a different species of algae. Originally, agar agar was expensive, thanks to the labour-intensive practices; however, new forms of aquaculture have made it more accessible and cheaper to use in food production.
How Is Agar Agar Used?
Agar agar can be used as a direct substitute for gelatin; however, unlike animal gelatin, it needs to be heated and cooled to start the setting process. It comes in three forms: flakes, powder and bars. Flakes and powders are more commonly seen in our markets, and the general culinary recommendation is to use agar agar in its powdered form as it's easier to use.
It's straightforward to use agar agar, and the substitution for gelatin is like for like (except when gelatin is used in sheets). Two teaspoons of powdered agar sets approximately two cups of liquid. Two tablespoons of agar flakes are a substitute for two teaspoons of powder, or one small bar. Add the agar agar to the liquid that needs to be set and bring to a gentle boil, stirring constantly to dissolve. When dissolved, take off the heat and let it cool.
The agar agar will start setting and gelling the liquid almost immediately, and does not need refrigeration. As with most cooking instructions, though, you'll need to experiment to find the ratio that suits you best, especially if you want a softer or harder gel.
What makes agar agar useful is that you can fix any mistakes by just reheating and starting over again, thus, reducing food waste. This is definitely useful to a kitchen tinkerer like me.
Agar Agar and Acidic Foods (Like Citrus)
One thing to note about this gelling agent, however, is that it's similar to gelatin in the sense that acidic foods like lemon or orange and other citrus fruits will need more agar agar to set firmly. Some fruits like pineapple, mango and kiwi contain an enzyme that inhibit setting. This issue can be solved by cooking or blanching the fruit first, which destroys the enzymes and lets the puree set. Canned fruits do not need to be precooked before adding agar agar, as they're usually cooked before the canning process.
It's very popular in Japan and a lot of the desserts found in the country are versions of kanten, particularly as it's assumed to be a low-fat ingredient.
Interesting Facts About Agar Agar
Did you know that agar agar is more commonly used in laboratories than in the culinary industry? The story goes that a lab assistant to Robert Koch noticed his wife using agar agar to set a pudding. He and Koch then successfully used it to suspend and cultivate the tuberculosis bacteria, making great strides in finding a vaccine for the disease.
Have you ever used agar agar in your cooking? What made you use it, and how do you use it? Let us know in the comments!