Ask Peter: Agar agar
Why don’t more chefs use agar agar as a setting agent? So many cooking programmes have the chefs on tenterhooks because they don’t know if their jelly dessert is going to set. If they used agar agar, which sets at room temperature, they’d get it right every time! I grew up eating lovely agar agar milk jellies flavoured with coconut milk or cocoa or left plain. They were cut into squares and eaten with your fingers because they didn’t melt in your hand. Great for picnics too.
Thanks, Della Kidd.
I first came into contact with agar (it can be called either by the singular or double agar — which is actually the Malaysian name for the seaweed it’s made from) down near Cape Palliser. Our family used to stay in a woolshed in Ngawi on holidays and in different seasons the shed would be used for storing different goods — wool, or seaweed, harvested from the coastline. Shipped off to Japan it sold for more per kilogram than the wool. The aroma coming off the bales couldn’t have been more different too — we got either damp woollen socks or briny sea air.
The first time I cooked with agar was in Melbourne, after eating some brightly coloured jellied sweets at an Indonesian restaurant. The jellies were odd because they were crunchy (to a point) and also — served at room temperature on a balmy summer’s day — hadn’t melted. They were incredibly brightly coloured, with layers of garish green, red, yellow and white. I played around with this “new to me’’ vegetarian gelatine over several years but it wasn’t until I travelled through Southeast Asia that I really understood its appeal and usefulness.
Unlike regular gelatine, which comes from the collagen of various animals’ skin, bones and connective tissue (from cattle, fish, pigs and chicken), agar is vegetarian.
In the fairly complex kitchens of Asia, where some don’t eat beef, others pork and many are vegetarian, agar fills the gap in providing desserts that otherwise wouldn’t be possible to make. However, agar is also quite different, so I’m yet to have a wobbly soft panna cotta made from it or a creamy bavaroise.
Agar seems to hold the liquid to which you add it to in a tight clench and when you cut into it, it tears apart as like a chasm in a hillside. Gelatine is a much softer hold and is more flexible, hence its wobblyness. Having said that, I love the texture of a an icy cold lychee agar jelly served with coconut cream and diced mango. Or a slightly warm lobster and crab jelly packed full of fried chilli flakes that sets as you eat it. Agar sets while still warm, unlike gelatine, and it won’t melt if exposed to the sun — another advantage for the Asian chef.
As you say, it’s great to take on picnics and to serve to kids and I’ve even heard of agar-based diets in recent years which make you feel more full than you are (as it contains enormous amounts of fibre which swells up in your stomach). But a balanced diet will do more good than an exclusive one, which seems a step too far.
Agar is also what is used in laboratories around the world to grow bacteria and the likes on in petrie dishes. And as I type this I realise my first encounter would have been in the third form at Whanganui High School, so I have been handling it even longer than I thought.
Agar comes in various forms, from thick strands of what looks like puffed spaghetti, though to 3cm square long tubes, as well as in powdered form. I prefer to use the latter. Depending on your recipe you’ll mix the powder into a cool liquid then slowly bring it to the boil and rapidly simmer for a few minutes. I tend to use a small whisk to avoid any lumps. The agar protein needs this boiling to happen in order that it dissolves into the liquid. At this point, add sugar, colourings, and things like coconut milk or dairy cream. It can also be boiled in milk and used to make sure custard thickens, or boiled in lemon juice to thicken buttery curd.
It is a fun ingredient, though it will never really replace gelatine as they’re quite different. But if you’re vegetarian, you should be experimenting with it now!
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to [email protected] and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.