Secret ingredient: Agar agar

RACHEL PRIESTLEY
Last updated 13:58 15/05/2013
agar agar

READY, SET, GEL: Agar agar is used in ice cream.

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Most people are familiar with agar agar from science class rather than cooking class; in science it's the thick gelatinous substance usually found lining a petri dish (a shallow glass cylindrical lidded dish used to culture bacteria).

Where agar agar has proven useful in the world of science, it also has a long and rich history in desserts, as it is a key ingredient in jellies, custards, sweet drinks and puddings in Burmese, Japanese, Indian, Philippines, Vietnamese and Russian cuisine. Used as a vegetarian substitute in place of gelatine, it is used commonly as a thickener and stabiliser in processed foods and also adds that silky, smooth mouth feel to ice cream.

WHAT IS AGAR AGAR?

Agar agar, also referred to as agar, is made by boiling a type of algae until it becomes gelatinous.

WHAT DOES IT TASTE LIKE?

Agar agar is flavourless and odourless with a silky smooth texture.

WHERE CAN I FIND IT?

It's widely available in Asian food stores and health food stores as well as some specialty food stores and delis. It can be bought in flakes, high strength powder form, in seaweed strips and in gel blocks.

WHAT CAN I USE INSTEAD?

Often referred to as vegetarian gelatine, regular gelatine can be used in the place of agar agar (though where agar agar holds a food gelled at room temperature, foods gelled with gelatine will eventually melt).

HOW CAN I USE IT?

Agar agar is used as a thickening agent in many foods and as a setting agent in set sweet and savoury jellies and jelly drinks, desserts, and puddings. It can be put through an ice cream base before setting to give that smooth mouth-feel.

Sprinkle the flakes or powder into a liquid before bringing to the boil. Once dissolved, blend thoroughly in a food processor or with a mixing wand. See here for a recipe for Gelled Tomato Gazpacho using agar agar.

Food and wine consultant Rachel Priestley is a professional member of the New Zealand Guild of Food Writers. She has her own range of gourmet specialty products, Prodigal Daughter Organics.

Is there an ingredient you're confused by? Send us an email - be sure to put Secret Ingredient in the subject line - and we'll investigate it for you.

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