Agar-agar or simply agar is a plant-based, vegan substitute for gelatin. It’s suitable for use in a wide range of desserts, vegan and non-vegan recipes, beauty products, and medicine.
If your recipe calls for gelatin, substituting it with agar-agar is probably the easiest option. But what happens when you need a substitute for agar-agar? The good news is these two ingredients are interchangeable. Substitute unflavored gelatin for agar-agar if you have it. If you don’t, look no further as we’ve got some easy pantry staples, or vegan swaps when you haven’t got the time to hit the stores.
What is Agar-Agar?
Agar-agar is a gelatinous product processed from red algae Gelidium and Gracilaria (a type of seaweed, division Rhodophyta) sourced from the ocean. Said to be discovered by Tarazaemon Minoya of Japan in 1658, agar-agar is derived solely from plant-based ingredients, making it free of any animal products. This clear, odorless, and tasteless ingredient can safely be used in recipes without altering the dishes’ taste or smell.
It’s been popular across Asia for centuries and is commonly used as a home remedy for upset stomachs. Agar is approximately 80% dietary fiber and figures in many Asian recipes – Philippine samalamig and gulaman at sago (cold refreshments usually of sweetened liquid with flavoring, fruit pulp or shavings and pearls), Japanese anmitsu (a dessert likened to a parfait with toppings such as agar-agar jelly also known as kanten), Vietnamese Thạch Rau Câu Cà Phê Sữa (coffee jelly), Indian Thandai Mousse, or Turkish Delight.
Agar-agar is often compared to gelatin because they serve similar purposes — as thickening agents. It helps stabilize, gel together, and add texture to many recipes; its exact purpose depends on the amount used. Unlike agar, gelatin is made from animal bones, so agar is also a great vegan replacement for gelatin.
Agar is also more potent and sets more firmly than gelatin, so you need to use less in your recipes. It produces a slightly gummier consistency than gelatin, resulting in a finished product that’s more velvety. Agar byproduct is isolated from the red seaweed as an amorphous and translucent product, and once processed it comes in sheets (strips or bricks), flakes, or powder form.
It gives a sensation of fullness and is a known laxative with numerous minerals and fatty acids essential for optimal health. Some of the nutrients found in agar are manganese, magnesium, iron, calcium, potassium, zinc, copper, choline, folate (B9), and vitamins E and K. You can increasingly find this vegan substitute for gelatin in Asian supermarkets, health food stores, or online food marketplaces.
How to Use Agar-agar
Best known as a solidifying agent, agar is most commonly used as a food additive in culinary and pastry applications. It works great as a thickening agent in ice cream, soups and stews, gravies, and pie filling, as a clarifying agent in brewing and wine-making, and as a binder for baked goods and confections.
More importantly, agar enhances the mouthfeel and texture of recipes. While this gluten-free gelatin-like product can be used as a gelatin substitute in both sweet and savory applications, the consistency of agar-agar is more prominent in baking and pastry recipes that call for gelatin as a thickening agent.
In most cases, agar-agar cannot be used in its powder form in baking or cooking. To activate or “let it bloom,” agar-agar needs to be brought to a boil for several minutes with a liquid like water, milk, or stock, and then whisked vigorously to incorporate it.
Using different amounts or types of agar in a recipe can affect the dish’s consistency. These velvety, gelatin-based desserts, custards, and puddings can help us imagine the differences in use, malleability, and shape that agar lends.
- For replacing eggs in a Vegan Caramel Flan.
- To give a fluffy yet firm texture to Dark Chocolate Pudding, Passion Fruit, and Lemon Mousse Cake.
- To stabilize Key Lime Pie Bars or Panna Cotta.
- Agar-agar gives gummies and jello their gummy texture. Try these jelly-based desserts – Mango Coconut Jelly Cubes or Buco Pandan Salad (Coconut and fragrant Screw Pine Salad).
- Macerated Strawberry Cheesecake – you can use the agar-agar for macerating the berries as well as stabilize a no-bake cheesecake.
- To thicken Smoked Bourbon Peach Jam.
Experimenting is part of the journey when you are substituting agar-agar, so exercise prudence. In many recipes, using half or even a third of the amount of agar-agar as a substitute in a recipe that calls for gelatin will suffice.
When using agar powder for savory applications like soups and stews, a little bit goes a long way. Stir in a teaspoon of agar powder for every 4 cups of broth while it’s cooking, then add in increments of ½ teaspoon to adjust thickness. Starting small when cooking agar will help you better adjust your recipe to your desired consistency.
Just note that agar flakes do not dissolve as quickly as agar powder (or gelatin, for that matter). By the time the flakes dissolve in a soup or other hot dish, it may have reduced to a thicker consistency than desired.
Here are additional, helpful tips when cooking with agar-agar:
- Use proper tools, such as a chemist’s spatula or high-accuracy scale.
- 0.9g agar-agar powder to 100 ml of neutral liquid.
- 1.3g of agar-agar powder to 100 ml of acidic liquid.
8 Best Agar-Agar Substitutes
We’ve compiled several helpful substitutes for agar-agar in your recipes. While you might need to quickly prepare a slurry with a few agar substitutes, the majority of these are excellent choices for vegans and vegetarians, and can directly be added in powder form.
The most common non-vegan alternative for agar is gelatin. Already available in many homes, gelatin is the boiled form of collagen (the connective tissues of animals), often from cows.
It’s a flavorless, colorless, and clear protein used as an ingredient in many baking and cooking applications. Most often used to thicken, stabilize and bind desserts, it can be easily purchased in the grocery store to replace agar-agar.
To use unflavored gelatin as a substitute for agar, sprinkle the powder into cold water to let it bloom before adding it to your cooking or mixing it into a hot liquid to fully dissolve. Use unflavored gelatin powder in a 3:1 ratio in place of agar-agar in any recipe.
When looking for a thickening agent, one of the best choices is cornstarch. It’s readily available and easy to swap as a thickening agent for gravies, soups, and sauces, and it provides stability and some texture.
Cornstarch is an extremely starchy white powder extracted from the center of the corn kernel. Just note that this neutral-tasting starch can’t perform well in recipes with high-acidity fruits such as lemons, berries, tomatoes, or pineapple.
To use this agar-agar substitute, make a slurry with 2 teaspoons of cornstarch and cold water to sub for each teaspoon of agar-agar. Don’t skip this step, because adding the cornstarch directly into hot liquids will cause the starch to clump.
Most people associate the thick, chewy texture of tapioca starch with tapioca pearls. This popular gluten-free flour is also made from the starch of cassava root and makes for a great replacement for agar-agar.
It works well as an allergy-friendly thickener for sauces, soups, cold desserts, and stews, though it needs high heat to activate completely. It will not produce the same gelatin consistency as agar-agar, but it will lend a similar thickness.
Its ability to thicken lies in what it’s mixed with. Tapioca starch does well when mixed with dairy, but can’t stabilize recipes with highly acidic foods, like citrus fruits or acidic sauces. Use tapioca starch in a 2:1 ratio when replacing agar-agar.
Making it onto our list along with cornstarch is another pantry staple, white flour. It’s an ideal thickener for rich and creamy sauces and is used in many if not most baking recipes. Flour doesn’t produce the same glossy shine as cornstarch and has less of the thickening power of agar, but still, it can be used as an easy swap in a pinch.
Flour should be made into a slurry and not added directly into a recipe, otherwise, it will clump together. It also needs to be cooked for at least 30 minutes to properly “cook” the flour flavor out & fully activate its thickening power. Use this agar-agar replacement in a 2:1 ratio in your recipe.
Another neutral-tasting starch, arrowroot starch is extracted from the roots of the arrowroot plant, Maranta arundinacea. It’s gluten-free, easily digested, and can tolerate acidic ingredients and prolonged cooking better than tapioca flour.
Arrowroot is an extremely versatile ingredient that can be used as a flour substitute, flour enhancer, or thickening agent in puddings, soups, sauces, and gravy. It has almost identical properties to agar-agar powder as a thickener and stabilizer. One difference is that arrowroot starch can be added directly to a recipe, making it an excellent substitute for agar.
This starch also doesn’t lend a murky color to your dishes; use it in a 1:1 substitution for agar-agar.
A naturally occurring fiber found in the inner skin of fruits and vegetables, pectin is one of the most suitable vegan replacements for agar-agar. Commercially used for thickening foods, medicine, and sweets, it’s most commonly associated with jam, marmalade, and jelly making. It’s actually responsible for giving these sweet condiments their mildly jelly-like consistency, including our beloved applesauce.
One big difference between pectin powder and agar-agar is that pectin has sugar added to it. Therefore, while it works well in baking, skip it in cooking savory dishes. Pectin powder may be used instead of agar powder in a 3:1 ratio; pectin, like arrowroot starch, can be added directly to any recipe.
Xanthan gum is a vegan-friendly and gluten-free alternative to agar-agar. This polysaccharide is made by fermenting sugar with a specific bacteria (from which it gets its name) and is quite highly processed. While it’s most often used in commercial applications as a thickener for liquid foods, it’s now gained popularity for use at the household level.
It’s sold in powder form, and you can usually find it in the baking aisle of major grocery stores or specialty baking stores.
To use xanthan gum as a substitute for agar, dissolve 2 parts powder in 1 part water to form a gel, and then stir the liquid into your recipe. Alternatively, you can stir it into the liquid directly when cooking a recipe; it will thicken water-based liquids at any temperature without the need to cook them.
The great thing about xanthan gum is that it’s a simple 1:1 swap for agar powder. Plus, it doesn’t require any extra prep before use.
Xanthan gum and guar gum are used interchangeably as thickening agents in gluten-free baking. A cheaper agar alternative, guar gum is a natural substance extracted from the tropical guar plant. While it’s odorless and has a somewhat bitter taste, it doesn’t generally get used in quantities large enough to affect the flavor of the dish. It’s a popular gluten-free option, used to substitute for the gluten content of wheat flour in gluten-free recipes.
You’ve likely seen guar gum used to thicken and stabilize foods, including baked goods, soups, stews, salad dressings, jello, and even dairy products like milk, yogurt, ice cream, and sauces. Guar gum doesn’t need to be cooked, helps keep large particles suspended in mixtures, and will gel on its own once dissolved in liquid.
Simply dissolve a pinch of guar gum in water and then add it to your recipe. This alternative thickens quickly, so use it sparingly.