Agar-Agar: Jello for Grown-ups
Updated: Aug 4
I should start this post by letting you all know that my deathbed meal - the last food that I want to savor before I leave this world one day - is without a doubt Stouffer's Mac & Cheese and a big ol' bowl of Jello. I love Jello. In general, I like food that you don't have to chew much (which I suppose bodes well for this being my deathbed meal). Jello is, as far as I am concerned, nectar from the gods. This is all to say that I have a natural propensity to gelatinous things that perhaps not everyone shares. Nevertheless, you should try agar agar. Yes... you.
Though I do appreciate the charm of plain old Jello, I am going to put this out there: agar-agar is Jello for adults. It is less sweet, less floppy, and it's made from algae. It actually involves chewing! It has similar health benefits as seaweed. It's an all-around classy jelly. Agar-agar: the algae so good, you get to say its name twice.
Agar-agar is common in desserts throughout much of Asia. Oh, but wait, it has a few other uses, too. Agar is also used as (I'm pulling this straight from Wikipedia, FYI, so you know it's true) a solid substrate to contain culture media for microbiological work, a laxative, an appetite suppressant, a vegetarian substitute for gelatin, a thickener for soups, a clarifying agent in brewing, and for sizing paper and fabrics. This stuff is magical. I learned about agar-agar from my magical friend, Netanel. She had made a dessert with the stuff and was not a fan, so she gifted me an entire pack of powder that she was not planning on using. She must have been aware of my predilection toward food I do not have to chew. Don't listen to Netanel, though - this stuff is good and super easy to make. Go get yourself some agar-agar (at any Asian market, specialty grocer, or Wegmans - god, I love Wegmans) and try this recipe with me.
NOTE - I learned a very important lesson about agar-agar during this project. Read to the end to find out what not to do.
1.) Assemble your ingredients:
2 cups of water
4 grams/2 teaspoons of agar-agar (also known as agar, agar agar, dai choy goh, kanten, Japanese gelatin, Japanese isinglass, Chinese gelatin, Chinese isinglass, vegetable gelatin, and angel's hair. Yeah, I know. That's a lot of aliases. Clearly agar-agar is hiding from something in its past.)
6 to 8 tablespoons of sugar (it's a choose-your-own-sweetness adventure)
Fruits - I went with strawberries, blueberries, kiwi, gooseberries, apricots, and dragon fruit. Looking back now I realize that I chose some queerass fruit. Something to think about when choosing fruits: agar-agar will break down if exposed to the enzymes in raw kiwis, papayas, pineapple, peaches, mangoes, guavas, and figs. You can destroys the enzymes if you cook the fruit, though, so if you plan to add any of these fruits, maybe buy them canned. Or just screw it and go raw like I did.
2.) Mix 2 cups of water with the 2 teaspoons of agar-agar.
3.) Whisk together and bring to a boil. Let the mixture boil for 2 minutes or so. Make sure all the agar-agar is dissolved.
4.) Turn the heat off and add the 6 to 8 tablespoons of sugar. Whisk the sugar in the hot water-agar-agar mixture until it is completely dissolved.
5.) This is what-not-to-do step #1. I used a tart pan as a mold because I was excited to take advantage of the bottom popping out. This meant that I had to cover the mold with plastic wrap so that the liquid agar-agar mixture wouldn't leak from that out-popping bottom. The downside to covering the mold with plastic wrap is that your agar-agar will have plastic wrap wrinkles in it. Agar-agar is not sticky, so it is likely you could put it in any old mold and just pop it out by flipping the mold. Let me know if this is true.
6.) Pour part of the agar-agar mixture into the mold. If your mixture has already solidified while you were putting plastic wrap on your tart pan like a dope, just heat it up again and it will re-dissolve. There should be about a quarter inch of liquid covering the bottom. Put the mold in the fridge.
7.) While agar-agar layer one is setting, prepare your fruit. I got really excited and cut my dragon fruit with little cherry blossom cutters. Later I got even more excited and cut the kiwi into little bird shapes. I don't advise you do this. It was weird.
8.) Take the solid agar-agar out of the fridge and place your fruit on top. This is the beginning of what not to do #2. I learned that you should not place your fruit so close together. Your fruit should not be touching each other. Learn from my mistakes. Still, it's super pretty, isn't it?
Dragon fruit is just so crazy. How can it be so pink on the outside, and so Dalmatian on the inside? It blows my mind. I don't even really like the way it tastes. I just like to look at it. I've felt the same way about some of the people I've dated. Hey-oh!
9.) After you are satisfied with the placement of your fruit (i.e. not touching), pour the rest of the agar-agar mixture over top. Again, if it has solidified already, just heat it up again. Make sure the agar-agar is covering all your fruit. Put that bad boy in the fridge.
10.) In about 10 minutes, your agar-agar will be ready to go. This is another perk of agar-agar that Jello does not have. Jello takes 4 hours to set. Agar-agar take 10 minutes. If you, like me, sometimes just need a quick gelatinous fix and you can't wait 4 goddamn hours, remember this property of agar-agar.
Anyway, take your mold out of the fridge and let 'er rip/de-mold.
11.) Admire it.
But no one wants to eat a gelatinous dessert like a cake, right?
Now that I am saying that out loud I realize that, in fact, I would like to eat a gelatinous dessert as a cake. Well, it's too late now.
12.) Cut your agar-agar cake into shapes! The shape can be a square, I don't care. I chose hearts and cats because I love my cat.
It is around this time that I noticed something weird. My shapes looked fine... until one by one the top half of the agar-agar started sliding off the shapes and flopping sadly to the plate. It was really sort of heart-wrenching to watch as the tops of my cats just plopped off. Additionally, the fruit that was not completely encapsulated by agar-agar (the fruit that I sliced to make the shapes) kept sliding out as well. This is when I learned that, unlike Jello, agar-agar is not actually sticky. It will not adhere to the fruit, it will only adhere to itself.
This was my major mistake. I ended up with half the batch having fruit that was partially exposed and falling out and half the batch having no fruit at all. Learn from my mistakes! To make fruit-filled agar-agar treats, make sure that the fruit is completely encapsulated by agar-agar and that you are not cutting into the fruit.
That said, these treats were completely delicious. Heed my warnings, then go make some for yourself!