Agar is a colorless, odorless and tasteless vegan alternative to traditional gelatin.
A common gelling agent in several Southeast Asian cuisines, Agar, Agar-Agar, or Kanten (in Japenese), is derived from algae and can be used as a substitute for gelatin to thicken soups, make jams and jellies, savory aspics, and other club member favorites like ice cream and cream pies.
There are a few key differences between agar and traditional gelatin. First, agar sets very quickly at room temperature. It also sets up firmer and stays more stable than gelatin—up to 185°F—which is great for hot weather and outdoor events.
Club chefs need to be careful when adapting recipes using agar, as it is not a 1 to 1 substitute for gelatin. It is recommended to start with between 1/3 to 1/2 of the amount of gelatin called for in the recipe and keep in mind that no matter what kind of recipe you’re using agar in, you’ll need to experiment to get the texture just right.
Agar comes in powder, strands, flakes and bar form.
The powder is the easiest medium to work with. Mix all the room temperature ingredients along with the agar and let it sit for 5 minutes, then bring to a simmer making sure the agar has dissolved.
If using the strands or flakes, soak it in room temperature water for 10 minutes to soften it, then bring to a simmer while stirring until it dissolves completely. If there are still grainy bits of agar floating or sticking to the bottom of the pan, the recipe will not set properly.
If you can only find bars, use a processor or a high-speed blender to make your own flakes or powder.
There is not a clear consensus on how to activate agar after soaking. Some recipes suggest gentle simmering for just a few minutes, while others call for bringing the agar-liquid mix up to a rolling boil before removing it from the heat and pouring it into a mold. Most sources point to constant whisking over low to medium heat to fully dissolve the agar. And, if it doesn’t seem like it’s starting to set up as soon as it’s off the heat, return it to a gentle simmer for a few more minutes.
But, like traditional gelatin, if using agar in recipes that include highly acidic ingredients (lemon, oranges, strawberries, kiwi) and/or those that have enzymes that prevent gelling (pineapple, papaya, mango, peach) the chef may see that they may need more agar than the recipe calls for.