Agar agar is a popular ingredient in Japanese dishes, especially desserts. Known in Japan as Kanten, this gelatin-like substance has several uses in the kitchen. It is also the perfect vegan substitute for gelatin, as it is derived from a form of seaweed, rather than animal byproducts. Coffee jelly made with agar agar is a common use of this wiggly ingredient, but exactly how well do agar agar and coffee really go together?
Agar agar and coffee get along only under certain circumstances. Coffee jelly? Absolutely! But just mixing agar agar into your cup of joe… not so much.
This is because agar agar, in any of its forms, requires a bit of legwork before adding it to a hot liquid in order to activate it.
What is agar agar?
First, a science lesson. I could just say, “Agar is a galactose-based heterogenous polysaccharide derived from red algae… composed of agarose and agaropectin polymers,” but that would be ridiculous. Even if you’re an actual scientist, I’m not, so let’s break that down a bit!
Agar is a combination of carbohydrates extracted from red algae, a form of seaweed. When properly prepared, it turns into a gelatin-like substance, which can be used for a wide variety of recipes and other uses. It is white in color before activation, but when properly dissolved and set, can appear mostly clear. It is naturally flavorless but can be sold in flavored forms as well.
Agar agar comes in many forms
With agar agar, you have your pick of powder, strands, or flakes. If you tried adding agar agar powder to a hot cup of coffee, it would sadly clump, providing no benefit at all except for lumpy coffee. Powdered agar agar must be stirred into room temperature water and then brought to a boil in order for it to activate. By skipping the gradual boiling, powdered agar agar in coffee just isn’t going to provide you with a desirable outcome.
For strands or flakes, they have to soak in room temperature water for 10 minutes to soften and then, similar to powder, brought to a boil to activate. Strands or flakes of agar agar would be even less desirable in a cup of coffee and would likely just get in the way of you drinking it!
Wondering about iced coffee? Yeah, don’t bother. No matter the form, agar agar will do nothing for your beverage except make it harder to drink.
Nutritional benefits of agar agar
Believe it or not, agar agar is considered a superfood or functional food due to its many health benefits. Not only is it low-calorie, fat-free, and mostly made of fiber, but it can also help to reduce your appetite by helping you to feel full longer and can promote a healthy digestive tract due to its laxative properties. Agar agar is also packed with vital minerals and omega-3 fatty acids.
It has also been shown to:
- Lead to better blood glucose management in type 2 diabetes;
- Reduce the risk of certain cancers;
- Promote liver health; and
- Lower cholesterol levels
Where to find agar agar
You can typically find agar agar from big box stores and large online retailers. If you’re searching your local grocery store, check out the baking aisle, international aisle, or vegan section if it has one.
Another great option, however, is to visit a nearby Asian or Indian market, which is almost guaranteed to have it. Plus, it’s actually more likely to be cheaper there than at a larger retailer! Yet another reason to support local businesses!
Recipes with agar agar
Now if you remember, I mentioned that coffee and agar agar do exist together very harmoniously under certain circumstances. I now introduce to you: coffee jelly. Those might be two words you never thought you’d see together, but hear me out.
Oftentimes when dining out, after dinner we’re invited to enjoy a cup of coffee and dessert. They’re a natural pair and coffee jelly simply combines them into one!
Coffee-flavored desserts, from ice cream to tiramisu, are incredibly popular. Now it’s coffee jelly’s time to shine. It’s a light, refreshing dessert with just the right amount of coffee flavor. Plus, it’s caffeinated, so you won’t be falling asleep before the night has concluded.
If coffee isn’t your thing or you prefer a different flavor profile, agar agar can be used to make a number of other tasty treats, including coconut milk agar jelly, mango panna cotta, and fruity agar agar jelly.
Substitutes for agar agar
If you’re fresh out of agar agar and really in a bind, these ingredients can act as a good substitute, depending on the recipe:
- Gelatin – if you aren’t worried about the recipe being vegan, this is a solid substitute
- Konjac – another common gelling agent
- Pectin – best for jams and jellies
- Xanthan gum – good as a thickening agent
- Guar gum – another thickening agent
- Cornstarch – thickening agent best for savory recipes like sauces and soups
- Arrowroot powder – yet another thickening agent
Bottom line, gelatin and konjac are most like agar agar for its most common use, but if you typically use it as a thickening agent in cooking, many of these ingredients can produce a similar result.
So even though agar agar shouldn’t really be mixed directly into your coffee, the two aren’t completely incompatible. Coffee jelly is your best bet when it comes to combining the two, and it’s certainly not a bad option at all!
Agar agar is relatively simple to find, easy to work with, and produces unique dishes that you can totally impress your friends with. Not only that, but it’s a superfood that won’t have you counting calories and can provide a number of other health benefits at the same time. Treats made with agar agar are a total win-win and definitely worth looking into.
Now that I know about coffee jelly, I can’t wait to give it, along with other agar agar recipes, a try. So why not expand your horizons and try it with me?