Agar agar is a key ingredient in desserts. It is used to set many jelly sweets that we make at home. Here is everything to know about agar agar.
What Is Agar Agar?
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If you search through the recipes on Onolicious, you'll find many desserts made with agar agar. We love to eat all dessert (especially cake!), but at home we lean toward making jelly desserts or sweet soups. Basically, all the Asian desserts ^_^
Agar agar is a vegan gelling agent that is made from seaweed (specifically carrageenan extracted from red algae). It is a key pantry ingredient in our home.
Agar agar was discovered in 1658 in Japan. It has since made its way around the world. The words "agar agar" is the Indonesian name for red algae. Agar agar often touted as health/vegetarian food, but in Hawaii we've always approached it as a popular dessert ingredient.
Use agar agar powder the same way you use gelatin powder. Agar agar is a key ingredient in jellies, custard, marshmallows, and puddings - agar agar is what gives all these desserts their signature texture.
Agar agar (sometimes just called "Agar") comes in several forms:
- Powder - most common and easiest to use
You can purchase agar agar in all Japanese grocery stores (like Mitsuwa, Sunrise Mart, and Nijiya) and online (though the selection and prices are much better in stores).
Agar Agar Vs Gelatin
Some people call agar agar a gelatin substitute. But I like to think of gelatin as an agar agar substitute!
These are the main differences between agar agar and gelatin:
Agar agar desserts set more firmly. This makes for a dessert that is visually attractive and easy to cut/slice and serve. Gelatin sets in a more wobbly and soft fashion.
Agar agar is 100% vegan. Gelatin is made from animal collagen. This is why agar agar is a popular vegan and vegetarian substitute for gelatin.
Desserts made with agar agar hold their shape at room temperature. Gelatin desserts get soft and even melt in warmer temperatures. This is why agar agar desserts are especially popular in Asian countries that get very hot during summer season.
Other reasons to use agar agar:
People turn to agar agar as a diet item because it makes you feel full and is also an appetite suppressant. It is 80% fiber (no fat, sugar, or carbs) and has many minerals like potassium, magnesium, and folate.
No Taste and Odor
Because agar agar has no taste or odor, it completely absorbs any flavors you bring to the dessert. It doesn't try to compete with it's own flavors.
Agar Agar Ratios
My standard go-to ratio is:
- To set 2 cups of liquid, use 4 grams (2 teaspoons) of agar agar powder (or 1 agar/kanten stick).
Agar Agar Vs Gelatin Ratio
If you'd like to replace a recipe that calls for gelatin with agar agar (or vice versa), please note the agar agar vs gelatin ratio:
- Agar agar powder and gelatin: use a 1:1 ratio
- Agar agar flakes and gelatin: use a 3:1 ratio
- Agar agar bar and gelatin: use a 1/2 agar bar for every 1 teaspoon of gelatin
How To Use Agar Agar
To set 1 cup of water, you need 1 teaspoon (2 grams) of agar agar powder.
Agar agar must be "activated" in order to set a dessert. This means you have to cook the agar agar. If you make an agar agar recipe and the dessert doesn't set (eg. it's still liquid after an hour in the fridge), that means the agar agar wasn't fully cooked.
To cook agar agar:
in a small saucepan, dissolve the agar agar powder in a liquid. Keep whisking (to prevent the powder from clumping) while you bring the liquid to a boil. Once it hits boil, turn the heat to low and let simmer for five minutes. Then pour the liquid into trays/molds/cups and let it chill in the refrigerator until ready. Agar agar sets pretty quickly (compared to gelatin). It should be set after an hour or two in the fridge.
Agar Agar Powder Recipes
Below are a few of my favorite agar agar recipes to make at home. We make these all year round, and especially during summer! I hope you enjoy ^_^
Light and never too sweet, Coffee Jelly is a classic. You only need three ingredients: coffee, agar agar powder, and sugar. Serve with whipped cream or a spoonful of sweetened condensed milk. You can even cube the jelly and use it as a drink topping (like all those coffee jelly drinks we love in Hawaii). Find the Coffee Jelly recipe here.
This is a very festive agar agar dessert. We use sparkling apple cider to make this agar agar. We chop and set strawberries directly in the agar agar cubes. The dessert is slightly effervescent (do it right and you can capture some of the sparkling apple cider "bubbles" into the set agar agar). To serve: cut the agar agar into cubes and top with a pour of more sparkling apple cider and more strawberries. Find the Sparkling Strawberry Agar Agar recipe here.
We use TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) in a lot of home cooking, and this refreshing dessert is a good example of that! Tiny osmanthus flowers are steeped in water, agar agar, and sugar to make a flavorful jelly. The goji berries are mixed in later so that they plump up nice and juicy. Serve the dessert with a spoonful of osmanthus syrup (super fragrant) or eat it plain: chilled and cut into large pieces (like at dim sum restaurants). Find the Osmanthus and Goji Agar Agar recipe here.
Almond tofu is a popular dessert in Hawaii. You'll find it on the menus of the big Chinese restaurants, and even at Aloha Tofu Factory (our favorite place to buy fresh tofu and soy milk) serves mini to-go potions of almond tofu. You can make this recipe using gelatin (which will result in a softer set dessert) or agar agar. Find the Almond Tofu recipe here.
You know about the Hawaiian dessert called Haupia? It is a coconut-based texture that we love to eat in Hawaii! Haupia is traditionally thickened with cornstarch, but I actually prefer haupia made with agar agar. I like the lighter texture and how the coconut flavors comes through more clearly. This recipe is for an agar agar haupia with fresh strawberries. So good and refreshing! Find the Strawberry-Haupia Agar Agar recipe here.
Enjoy, enjoy ^_^