by Emma Chow
While gelatin is the predominant setting agent commonly used in Western food, there are a number of other products which will set or thicken food. These are all vegan and largely gluten free products.
It’s tricky finding something that adequately substitutes gelatin. Mostly the problem is that in the Western modern world, we have grown up on gelatin products, and so are very used to the texture and mouth-feel of gelatin. However many thickeners and gelling agents have been used by different cultures around the world, and have produced firm set liquids of all sorts, though not with the same properties as gelatin.
For more on Gelatine and how it can be used, read our guide, here.
Made from red algae. Was originally discovered in Japan in the 1600s, and is known there as ‘kan ten’. The agar is obtained from the algae through boiling. The seaweed that is often used to extract agar is part of this red algae family. You can get it in a powder, flakes, or it brittle cakes. It’s best to use it quite fine, as the chunkier it is, the less smoothly it blends and sets the liquid.
Things set with agar should be firm within the hour and you can do it outside the fridge. The amazing thing about agar is that if you don’t set it properly, you can melt it down again by putting it on heat gently, and then set it again.
You should use about 1 teaspoon of agar to firmly set 1 cup of liquid. The flakes grind down to a ratio of about one tablespoon of flakes to 1 teaspoon of powder.
Similar to gelatin, the enzymes in kiwi, mango, pineapple and papaya prevent agar from setting properly. Acidic ingredients can also affect gelling. You can cook these before combining with agar to neutralise the acid and enzymes.
Generally as a gelatin alternative, I would recommend agar.
I’ve read a lot of people recommending kosher gelatin for Vegetarians and Vegans, but with this advice you must be cautious. Most kosher gelatins are often extracted from fish bones, and many Jewish authorities have actually denounced many providers of ‘kosher gelatin’ as not acceptable as they are not made under Rabbinical supervision. I’ve found one ‘kosher gelatin’ that is made with locust bean gum, adipic acid, and carrageenan (see below), which is indeed technically vegan. However it is made in the US and is quite difficult to find here.
This product is made from a type of vegetable gum, adipic acid, tapioca starch, calcium phosphate and potassium citrate. So a lot of ingredients that sound like things you would have used in a chemistry experiment. However it comes highly recommended by many Vegans and achieves the closest texture to animal extracted gelatin. You use it at a ratio of 1 and a half teaspoons of vegan gel to 1 teaspoon of regular gelatin.
This is also known as ‘Irish moss’, and like agar is extracted from a seaweed. It is actually used in the binding of meat products (think of those loaf things you get sliced for sandwiches) as well as some organic yogurts similar products, to promote a thicker texture. However there are a lot of arguments against carrageen as it has zero national value and has been thought to cause gastrointestinal problems. It can be found in a powder of in large pieces and should be boiled together with the liquid to extract the parts of it that will set. However I would recommend using this with care. It’s not easy to find here.
There are other things that thicken liquids, such as pectin (extracted from citrus fruits), locust bean gum (a product of the carob plant), cornflour, potato flour, ground flax seeds, chia seeds, tapioca starch, arrowroot, and kuzuko (an extract from the root of the Japanese kudzu plant). For the most part these ingredients are not suitable for gelling liquid in the same way as gelatin. With varying quantities of these ingredients, you could probably get a liquid to set firm, however you won’t achieve a delicate, smooth texture; it will mostly be lumpy or quite hard.