What is agar agar?

Yep, when I heard the word agar agar for the first time, I really thought that it was some ‘neighbor country’ of Tolkien’s Mordor or something like that. Or the sound of the call of a Siberian forest cat …that sort of things.

How wrong could I be! 😉

No seriously: agar agar (or ‘agar’ in short) happens to be an odorless, tasteless and 100% vegetable extraction from the cell walls of certain types of red algae (seaweeds). These red algae are mainly from Asia. It has a strong gelling effect, similar to gelatin and pectin.

Agar agar can be used in many ways (for instance as a binder in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industry) but is certainly suitable for food preparations. Both on an industrial scale and in your own kitchen. Agar agar is listed on ingredient lists under the E-number E406 (at least in the European Union ).

It is available in the form of pressed rods, flakes (both rather rare) and as a concentrated powder. Personally, we prefer the powder because it’s a lot easier to use.

You can use agar agar in both sweet and savory dishes and for the following reasons:

  • as a pure vegetable alternative to gelatin (for desserts, terrines and pates, cheese croquettes, …)
  • as an alternative for pectin (for jams, marmalades, …)
  • as a binder in soups and sauces

Another nice fact: ‘agar’ simply means ‘jelly’ in Malay language.

agar agar powder

Why using agar agar instead of gelatine?

The biggest advantage of Agar Agar over gelatin (even besides the fact that gelatin comes from animal skin, bones and cartilage … yuck!) is that you need very little of it. The binding power of concentrated agar agar powder is 4 x larger than gelatin!

The gelling effect of the rods and flakes is reportedly slightly less but still yet 2 x the binding power of gelatin. Of course: depending on the brand (read: its quality), the binding power can vary a bit.

You can find the ratios for the use of agar agar later in this article

Another important difference is that agar agar, unlike gelatin, must be brought to a boil to activate the gelling effect. Nevertheless, a few minutes of cooking will do and it will also start to stiffen as soon as the liquid or mass begins to cool. Even at an average temperature of about 40 °C Celcius/104 degrees Fahrenheit.

Furthermore, this really doesn’t matter that much. For most dishes in which gelatin is used, heating/cooking is nearly always necessary. The only difference with gelatine is that you must add the agar during the cooking process. Not afterward.

In comparison to pectin (a more or less likewise vegetable gelling agent from the cell walls of plants and fruits), agar agar has yet another advantage; the addition of sugar is not a requirement to activate the binding force. So it’s easy to make excellent jams or marmalades using agar agar with a lot less (or none) sugar.

Certainly, agar agar has some drawbacks as well. Check out “what are the cons of agar agar?” for that matter.

Where to buy agar agar?

Nowadays, you can find agar agar in nearly every food store or supermarket. At least as far as we know. And of course, there is always the internet. Make sure that the ingredients list only mentions “agar agar” and/or “red seaweed extract”. Just to be sure there are no arguable ingredients involved. Oh, and buy organic of course (as if we really need to tell you ;)).

Is agar agar safe and healthy?

Absolutely. You might expect a lot of processing when it comes to powdered food products but that is definitely not the case. For the production of agar powder, algae are simply dried and then ground … that’s it. It is also good to know that agar agar is rich in proteins, minerals, and digestive fibers. Once agar agar has entered your stomach, it will also swell up and make you feel satisfied faster. Last but not least; agar agar contains no fat or calories and is – obviously – gluten-free.

Attention: because of the huge amount of fibers, excessive use of agar agar might have a laxative effect. The intake of maximum of 3 grams of agar agar per day/per person is therefore recommended.

What are the ratios of agar agar?

When using agar agar, the ratio is very important. Especially when it comes to delicate (dessert) recipes such as pannacotta, too much (or too less) agar agar will definitely make or break it. Too much agar agar results in a too thick, blubber-like pannacotta, while too little agar agar will irrevocably make your dessert collapse. Fortunately, agar agar is often packed in bags of 2 grams which makes it easy to dose.

You can use this ratio for agar agar:

4 grams of agar agar powder on 1 kilogram of fruit (for jam, marmalade)
or
4 grams of agar agar powder on 1 liter of liquid of your choice (water, plant-based milk, fruit juice, …)

Of course, that ratio can vary a bit for each type of dish but it’s a good starting point anyway.

Also, check the topic “what are the disadvantages of agar agar?” before you start cooking.

How to use agar agar?

As mentioned, agar agar must first be brought to a boil to activate the gelling agent. Put a liquid (eg. plant-based milk or cream for a pannacotta) in a pan together with the agar agar and bring to a boil on low heat while stirring. Keep stirring continuously and let it cook for 3 to 4 minutes so that the gelling agent activates. Then let it cool down a little.

The same applies more or less to making jam and marmalades. With the exception that you work with (fresh) fruit instead of a liquid.

The remaining cooking instructions obviously depend on the dish you’re making. This article ends up with a couple of links to agar agar recipes. Check them out!

What are the cons of agar agar?

There are certain ingredients that can reduce or even eliminate the binding power of agar agar. This might happen with:

Acid: ingredients with a high acidity, such as lemon, lime or other citrus fruits, strongly degrade the binding force. You can solve this by simply adding more agar agar.

Enzyme: ingredients such as spinach, mango, pineapple, and chocolate contain an enzyme that completely breaks down the gelling agent of agar agar. You can prevent this by cooking these ingredients as well, after which the enzyme is neutralized.

Another disadvantage that is often mentioned is that the binding / gelling strength of agar agar is rather short. At least in comparison with gelatin. However, opinions about this have been divided and, frankly, we have never really experienced any problems with it. Although the brand and the quality of the agar agar may have some influence.

Anyway, sometimes it is said that the binding power starts to decrease after 3 to 4 hours. We never noticed anything like that in practice. Especially when you cool and store the dish in the fridge, it will remain ‘in shape’ for at least 2 days. As far as we know, 2 or 3 days of storage time is as always the case of freshly made foods.

When it comes to freezing; it is not advisable to freeze food that contains agar agar. Big chance your pudding or vegan cheesecake falls apart after thawing it.

Agar agar recipes

Now that you know almost everything about agar agar, it’s time to start cooking! Below you’ll find links to various agar recipes on our website. Both sweet and savory.

Enjoy!

Like agar agar and/or have another great tip about it? Be sure to leave a comment.

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