If you’ve been on the internet recently, chances are you’ve heard of agar agar. With the rise in veganism and more people trying to make healthy substitutes in their diet, agar agar is more popular than ever.
This seaweed extract is a fantastic substitute for gelatin and can be used in almost the exact same way. Even better, it’s vegan! This means that people who avoid animal products or those that cannot eat gelatin can once again enjoy their jelly treats.
However, it’s not always easy to find agar agar in your local store. Fortunately, several substitutes provide similar results.
The best substitutes for agar agar powder are:
- Xantham Gum
- Arrowroot Powder
- Pectin Powder
- Guar Gum
- Vegan Jel
- Tapioca Starch
- Kuzu Starch
- Instant Clear Gel
What is Agar Agar?
With the rise in veganism and health foods becoming more and more trendy, it’s no surprise that agar agar is coming up.
This substance is made from red algae which is a type of seaweed. The agar agar itself is simply a mix of carbohydrates that is extracted from the seaweed and then processed to be sold. You can find agar agar sold as a powder, flake, bar, or strand.
When water is added to the agar agar, it develops a jelly-like consistency that is very similar to gelatin in function.
Agar agar has several uses and is a very versatile ingredient. The most common use of agar agar today is as a vegan gelatin substitute. When agar agar is rehydrated, it creates a jelly-like substance that is flavorless and colorless.
This means that it is a great base ingredient in foods like jelly and pudding that need that jelly consistency without a flavor that will throw off the rest of the ingredients.
However, this isn’t agar agar’s only use. Agar agar is also frequently used as a clarifying agent and can be used for sizing fabrics and paper.
Agar agar also has the added effects of being a natural laxative and appetite suppressant. If you just want to use agar agar in cooking, these extra effects are something to keep in mind.
What Can I Use Instead of Agar Agar?
While agar agar is a very versatile ingredient, it can be somewhat hard to obtain. The only places where you can consistently find agar agar are in health food stores, and not everyone has access to those in their area. It can also be expensive. Some people may also have an allergy to agar agar which creates the need for an alternative.
Fortunately, there are a couple of different ingredients that you can use as an agar agar substitute.
Of course, the most obvious substitute for agar agar is gelatin. Gelatin is an animal-derived product that can be used to create a jelly-like substance just like agar agar.
Gelatin is made by boiling bones, cartilage, tendons, and ligaments from large animals like cows or pigs. After a while, the bones are removed and the water continues to boil down until only a powder remains.
This powder is processed and then sold as gelatin. It is virtually flavorless and colorless making it a great option for both savory and dessert dishes.
The one downside to gelatin that a lot of people have an issue with is that it is animal-derived. If you are looking for a vegan substitute similar to agar agar, you will want to try out one of the other options on this list.
Agar agar powder is quite a bit stronger than most gelatin. You will usually need about 8 times more gelatin than you would agar agar.
If the recipe calls for 1 tablespoon of agar agar powder, you will want to add about 8 tablespoons of gelatin.
2. Xantham Gum
Xantham gum is a substance that is made in a lab by fermenting sugar. The result of this fermentation is a jelly-like substance that is then dried out and sold as a powder. Xantham gum is often used in baked goods as a way of holding the baked good together without including gelatin.
All you have to do to use xantham gum is mix it into your recipe and add liquid. As the xantham gum absorbs the liquid it will thicken and create a gel substance. This makes it easier to use than some of the other options on this list that need to be activated using boiling water.
The one major downside to using xantham gum is that it can irritate some people’s stomachs. Xantham gum is a soluble fiber and cannot be broken down by the body. For people with sensitive stomachs, this could cause stomach pain and a different substitute should be used.
One of the best parts about using xantham gum as an agar agar substitute is that it’s an exact substitute.
For every 1 tablespoon of agar agar, you will add 1 tablespoon of xantham gum.
If you are making a savory recipe and don’t need it to be clear, cornstarch can be a great agar agar substitute. Cornstarch is made from the inner part of the corn kernel and is ground into a powder.
Cornstarch is a great way to thicken the broth of soups, stews, gravies, and cream sauces. All you have to do is add it to water, cook it with the rest of the ingredients, and it will have a thickening effect on the liquid.
The one downside to using cornstarch as your thickening agent is that it has a corn flavor and is not completely clear. When added to water it will make the water a cloudy white and will also give it a slightly savory flavor.
For this reason, it is best to only use cornstarch in savory recipes with other strongly-flavored ingredients. That way, the other ingredients will be able to cover up the flavor of the cornstarch.
Cornstarch can also be used as a 1:1 ratio agar agar substitute.
For every 1 tablespoon of agar agar that the recipe calls for you will use 1 tablespoon of cornstarch.
4. Arrowroot Powder
Another great substitute for agar agar powder that you can use is arrowroot powder. This powder is made by extracting the starch from the arrowroot plant and turning it into a powder.
Arrowroot powder is a great substitute that can be used for both savory and sweet dishes. It is virtually flavorless and white in color making it very versatile. It can also be added directly to the recipe, much like xantham gum, making it an even easier prep process than you’ll get with agar agar.
The one downside to using arrowroot powder is that while it is a good thickening agent, it won’t produce the same jelly-like substance that agar agar does. It will thicken, but won’t fully solidify so it is not the best substitute for true jellies.
Arrowroot powder is not quite as strong as agar agar. You will need to use it in a 2:1 ratio to achieve similar results.
For every 1 tablespoon of agar agar the recipe calls for, you will will use 2 tablespoons of arrowroot powder.
5. Pectin Powder
For a true jelly powder, look no further than pectin powder. This is one of the best substitutes for agar agar powder if you are trying to make a jelly that will fully solidify, not just thicken.
Pectin powder is made from starch that is extracted mainly from citrus plants. When added to water, it will thicken and create a jelly-like consistency that is great for making vegan jello and pie filling. It is most frequently used in desserts due to its strong jelly properties.
The one thing to consider with pectin powder is that you will need quite a bit more of it to create the same effect. For every 1 tablespoon of agar agar powder, you will need to add 3 tablespoons of pectin for the same effect.
Pectin powder is not as strong as agar agar so you will need to use more of it. Typically, a 3:1 ratio will create similar effects.
For every 1 tablespoon of agar agar the recipe calls for, you will use 3 tablespoons of pectin powder.
6. Guar Gum
Another great plant-based agar agar substitute is guar gum. This substance is made by grinding up the seeds of the guar bean plant. The seeds are ground until they form a white powder which is then processed and sold as guar gum.
Guar gum is one of the most common thickeners sold on the market. It fulfills a very similar role in baking to gelatin as it helps keep the baked good moist and acts as a binder. If you check your store-bought baked goods and even some candies, you’re likely to find guar gum on the ingredient list.
It also does not require heat to activate and can be added directly to your recipe.
One thing to keep in mind with guar gum is that it is a very potent thickener. On average, you will only need ½ tablespoon of guar gum for every cup of agar agar powder that the recipe calls for.
Carrageenan is another agar agar substitute that is actually very similar to it in terms of composition. Both carrageenan and agar agar is extracted from a type of seaweed. However, instead of being extracted from red algae, carrageenan is extracted from a type of seaweed called Irish Moss. This type of seaweed is native to the British Isles and has been a staple food there for centuries.
Unlike agar agar, carrageenan does not need to be heat activated. Like some of the other substitutes on this list, all you’ll have to do is add the carrageenan powder to your recipe and it should thicken up as soon as the water is added.
One downside to consider with this alternative is that carrageenan powder is known to cause gastrointestinal distress in some people. Due to this, it is less commercially available than some of the other substitutes. However, you can still order it online and have it delivered to your house fairly easily.
Carrageenan powder is not an exact substitute, but it is close. Start out with a ½:1 ratio of carrageenan to agar agar then slowly increase it until you get your desired consistency.
8. Vegan Jel
The one downside to most of the substitutes on this list is that unlike agar agar and gelatin, they don’t actually create a true jelly. Instead, they act as more of a thickening agent but will never become fully solidified no matter how much you add.
In an attempt to rectify this problem, Vegan Jel was created. This is a product that is created with a blend of ingredients in an attempt to make a perfect vegan gelatin substitute. It comes in packets very similar to those you’ll find with gelatin and is flavorless and colorless. This makes it great for foods like jello and marshmallows.
The major downside to Vegan Jel is that, unfortunately, it is still not widely available. You will likely have to order it online to get your hands on some of this product.
Since it has various ingredients, it is also more likely to upset your stomach. Make sure to carefully read the ingredients label before consuming this product to make sure you’re not sensitive to any of the ingredients.
The strength of the Vegan Jel will vary depending on what flavor and brand you purchase. Your best bet is to follow the instructions on the box and then adjust based on your results and the recipe you want to use it in.
9. Tapioca Starch
Tapioca starch is another common vegan thickening agent in baked goods. This agar agar substitute is made by extracting the starch from the root of the yuca plant, a root vegetable native to South America.
This substitute is flavorless, but does have some color to it so is best used in opaque dishes. It is commonly used in both sweet and savory dishes to thicken things like pie fillings, soups, and puddings.
Tapioca starch doesn’t need to be heated in order to activate, all it needs to do is be added to liquid. If you want an exceptionally thick mixture, you can heat your tapioca starch over low heat to thicken it more, but it is not necessary to bring out the ingredient’s thickening effects.
When you are shopping for tapioca starch, make sure to not confuse it for tapioca flour. Although people sometimes reference them interchangeably, there are differences.
Tapioca flour is made by grinding the entire root without extracting the starch. This means that it has significantly less thickening power than tapioca starch and is best reserved for use as a flour substitute.
Tapioca starch needs to be used in a 2:1 ratio of tapioca starch to agar agar powder.
10. Kuzu Starch
A lesser-known but highly effective substitute for agar agar powder is kuzu starch. This is most commonly used in Japanese cuisine and is made from the root of the kudzu plant. Although kudzu originated in Asia, it has now spread over the rest of the world and is often considered a pest plant.
Kuzu starch is traditionally used to make Japanese sweets and thicken the fillings of foods like red bean paste. It can also be eaten plain and cut into strips for a quick treat.
Kuzu starch can be used in the same ways that cornstarch can, in stews and soups, but also makes a great agar agar alternative in desserts. As long as the dessert doesn’t need to fully solidify, the starch can be used to thicken the ingredients and make them hold together better.
The main downside to using kuzu starch is that it just isn’t as available in the western world. You may be able to find it in your local Asian market, but it’s unlikely that you’ll find it on the shelves of your local grocery store. However, if you ever get the chance to take a trip to Asia, be sure to try some while you’re there.
It can be tricky to figure out the perfect ratio with kuzu starch. However, it is less potent than agar agar and is more similar to cornstarch in terms of functionality. Start out with a small amount and slowly add more until you reach your desired consistency.
11. Instant Clear Gel
Similar to Vegan Jel, this is one of the best true jelly substitutes for agar agar and gelatin. It is made from modified food starch to create a clear jelly replacement that can be used for both jello and other recipes that call for agar agar or gelatin.
It is typically sold in two forms, the non-cooking and the cooking form. The cooking form is formulated to withstand high temperatures and is ideal for foods like baked pies and cakes that have gelatin as one of the ingredients.
The non-cooking form is best for things like refrigerator-set jellies and pies that don’t need to withstand any heat. If you use the wrong form, you may not get the correct results and need to scrap the recipe.
Since this is made from a modified starch, there is the possibility that you will be sensitive to the ingredients. Make sure to read the ingredients list of whichever brand you purchase to make sure that you are not sensitive or allergic to any of the ingredients.
To prepare Instant Clear Gel as an agar agar substitute you will want to follow the instructions on the package. This will create a perfect jelly consistency making it easy to get the perfect dessert.
The next time you see a recipe that calls for agar agar don’t think you have to run out to your nearest health food shop and scour the shelves. Chances are, one of the ingredients that you have in your home will work perfectly fine as an agar agar substitute.
The most important thing to pay attention to when using an agar agar substitute is how much is required. Some of these substitutes are significantly stronger so you will only need a fraction of the called for amount of agar agar. Some of them are quite a bit weaker and will require several cups to produce the same effect.
Also, be careful to read the ingredients of each substitute carefully. Some of them are not easy to digest and could cause gastrointestinal problems if you are not careful. The most prone to causing stomach pain are xantham gum and carrageenan.