Did You Know … Agar is an Alternative to Gelatine?
By Andy Whittard
As we approach the festive season, my thoughts like many I’m sure have no doubt turned to enjoying the festivities as well as a welcome break. Preparing the Christmas day feast is a key part and, for all the cooks out there, a little bit stressful. Getting the roast potatoes perfect (duck or goose fat?) and everything onto the table hot and at the same time is a real challenge.
Uses as a cooking ingredient
As I have a bit of a sweet tooth, leaving space for dessert is always a must! Unfortunately, my repertoire is limited, although I can knock up a pretty mean Crème Brulee. This got me thinking about gelatine and an alternative which is suitable for vegetarians. It is agar, or as it’s known in culinary circles agar-agar or by its Japanese name of Kanten. Not only is agar a key component in prepared media - it is the setting agent within the dehydrated culture media (DCM) and something we know a bit about at Cherwell – but is also an increasingly used ingredient in cooking.
Comparing against gelatine
Agar-agar is derived from seaweed and in the case of both DCM and for cooking specific species of seaweed is used. For DCM, purity and mineral contents are important as they contribute to the performance of the product, as well as the gel strength which determines the quality of the finished filled plate. Soft gel makes the plate difficult to use, especially if you are sub culturing colonies.
When compared to gelatine, agar-agar has certain benefits that make it easier to use. The first and most obvious is that it is of vegetable origin and not animal. It also sets at a lower temperature, approximately 40ºC - a benefit we see when manufacturing our Redipor prepared media – whereas gelatine requires refrigerating to set. Agar-agar is supplied as a powder making it easier to handle and forms a gel at a lower concentration than gelatine. However, it is worth noting that agar doesn’t work with chocolate, or spinach – I can’t imagine why you would want to set spinach! As gelatine softens at room temperature, the desert or jelly created will also soften, which in the case of desserts such as Crème Brulee or Panna cotta would be desirable.
So agar-agar is a useful alternative, especially if you are vegetarian, but it will probably produce a slightly different result. If you'd like to keep your agar in a dish in your lab then have a browse through our eBook The Pharmaceutical and Cleanroom Industry's Pocket Guide to Prepared Media. We unpack everything about prepared media from logistics to best practices.
Happy cooking and a Merry Christmas!
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