Agar powder is a natural gelatin that is plant based, from marine red algae. Unlike “traditional” gelatin which is made from boiling down animal products, this is entirely plant based and vegan. It is an oustanding alternative to traditional gelatin and is used for vegan desserts, cheeses, jellies, puddings custards, and gummy candy (i.e., gummy bears). On the savory end of the spectrum, Agar Powder (Agar-Agar) is excellent in soups and gravies as a thickening agent for starch-free soup/gravy base thickening.
When substituting for gelatin in a recipe, agar powder can be used in a 1:1 ratio. Before Agar powder can be added to a recipe, it needs to be dissolved in water and then boiled. This powder cannot be simply dissolved in a liquid or added directly to your dish. Dissolve the Agar powder in a liquid in a saucepan over medium-high heat, bring it to a boil, and then simmer until the liquid is slightly thickened, usually it will take about five to seven minutes. Once the Agar powder is dissolved add it to your recipe. The dish you’re creating should take approximately one hour to set, and it will do so at room temperature. (Note that if the dish you’re creating has other ingredients requiring refrigeration to do so, but Agar itself does not need refrigeration to set). You may need to use more Agar powder to set dishes that are high in acidity levels, so consider that when your dish contains acidic ingredients like citrus fruits, strawberries, etc.
Agar powder is colorless, odorless and essentially tasteless also making it very versatile for cooking. Agar powder allows you to tweak recipes to suit your diet by allowing you to thicken food and/or “gelatanize” your dishes without incorporating animal ingredients, sugar, or starch.
Unlike traditional animal-based-gelatin desserts, Agar powder desserts stay firm outside of the refrigerator and set quickly during preparation. Agar powder also outperforms traditional gelatin to set acidic and alcoholic liquids. Note also that comparatively, the two setting agents involved in traditional gelatin vs. Agar powder behave differently and need to be prepared in distinct ways when incorporating into a recipe. Agar powder needs to be boiled in order to set it, while traditional animal based gelatin can simply be dissolved in warm water. In short, that is because Agar has a higher melting temparature (it melts at 185 F), whereas traditional gelatin has a lower melting temperature (it melts at 95 F). Agar powder dishes will also set more quickly than traditional gelatin, and it doesn’t need any refrigeration.
Store Agar Powder in an airtight container in a cool, dry spot such as the pantry. It will last at least up to one year if stored properly.
History of Agar:
Agar may have been discovered in Japan in 1658 by Mino Tarōzaemon, an innkeeper in current Kyoto, who, according to legend, was said to have discarded surplus seaweed soup and noticed that it gelled later.
Around the time of World War II, approximately 2,500 tons of agar were produced annually. By the mid-1970s, production worldwide had increased dramatically to approximately 10,000 tons each year. Since then, production of agar has fluctuated due to unstable and sometimes over-utilized seaweed populations.