Gelatin is used as a thickener in a multitude of desserts and sauces. Because gelatin is derived from animal sources, however, it's not suitable for those who follow a vegetarian diet. An alternative is seaweed, which has a gelling power even stronger than that of gelatin. Manufacturers use it in products such as yogurt and ice cream. Vegetarian or not, anyone can benefit from the culinary and medicinal characteristics that this substitute offers.
For hundreds of years, cooks have used the gelatin extracted from animal bones and cartilage to turn liquids into jellies. Modern, commercial gelatin is usually manufactured from pig skin. The final product is sold in the form of transparent sheets or powder. It must be soaked then heated in the liquid to dissolve completely. When the liquid is chilled, it sets in a semi-solid consistency, but will melt again if rewarmed.
Seaweed has also been used for generations to solidify or thicken liquids. With a modern ingredient called “agar,” you can easily harness the gelling power of seaweed. Agar is derived from a mix of seaweeds that are refined to remove their color, flavor and odor. Sold in the form of flakes or powder, agar is also referred to as “agar agar” or “kanten.” Look for it the baking or the Asian foods sections at your grocery store.
As with gelatin, agar must be soaked and heated to dissolve and thicken the liquid. Powdered agar dissolves more easily than flaked, but straining the liquid after heating removes any flakes that are not completely dissolved. You may grind flaked agar in a clean spice grinder to approximate the powdered form. One teaspoon of powdered agar will gel 2 cups of liquid. Use it to replace powdered gelatin in a 1-to-1 ratio.
A liquid set with agar will not melt unless it is heated to 185 degrees Fahrenheit, much higher than the melting point for gelatin. This characteristic makes agar suitable for dishes that will be served warm or in hot weather. The trade-off is that agar gel does not melt in your mouth as gelatin does. Nevertheless, agar has additional health benefits. It can help soothe the digestive system and expel toxins. It also creates a feeling of fullness without adding any calories to the recipe.
- The Deluxe Food Lover’s Companion; Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst
- On Food and Cooking; Harold McGee
- The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia; Rebecca Wood
- Photo Credit Eising/Photodisc/Getty Images