When making vegan cheese you will often come across agar and carrageenan as vital ingredients. They are both vegan gelling agents. What’s the difference and which is better to use?
Agar is a gelling agent sourced from algae, specifically Gracilaria, a bright red seaweed. It is very useful as a replacement (using the same quantities) for gelatin in vegan jellies, custards and desserts. It doesn’t require refrigeration to set and sets in about an hour at room temperature. Agar can be boiled and can even be melted again if necessary.
Note that fruits with highly acidic or alkaline qualities affect the gelling ability of agar. Recipes calling for citrus fruits (oranges, lemons, etc) and strawberries, may require higher amounts of agar to set. The following fruits completely negate the gelling ability of the agar: fresh mangoes, papaya, pineapple, kiwi fruit, fresh figs, paw paws, and peaches. Cooking these fruits beforehand seems to help.
The health benefits of agar are numerous. It is a good source of calcium, iron, is rich in iodine and trace minerals. It is very high in fiber and therefore aids in digestion and acts as a mild laxative as it carries toxic waste out of the body. Agar is also known to reduce inflammation.
Carrageenan is commonly used in vegan foods to replace gelatin, as a binding agent in vegan cheese and thickener or stabiliser in desserts. There are 3 types of carrageenan and Kappa-carrageenan is the best type for cooking. Just like agar, it is also derived from red seaweed.
However, carrageenan has a particularly bad reputation in the health industry. In animal studies it has been found to accelerate cancer formation when ingested with a carcinogen, as well as causing stomache ulcerations and inflammation. It is approved by the US FDA and this is probably because it is less harmful when consumed with protein and apparently harmless when ingested in small amounts when it is used as a food additive.
Carrageenan vs Agar
Carrageenan makes a better quality melting cheese. It is also better for aged hard cheese as it can be added directly to the recipe while agar needs to be dissolved first, thereby introducing more liquid which will negatively affect the texture and aging process, and could encourage mould.
Replacing Carrageenan With Agar
If you would rather not consume carrageenan, or are not able to find it, then you can replace it with agar. You will need to experiment with the quantities and preparation of the agar, and will probably need to compromise on the consistency you are looking for.
In a small saucepan add ⅔ cup water and 2 Tbsp of agar powder. If you are using the flakes grind the agar in a coffee grinder or food processor before cooking — 6 Tbsp of agar flakes will yield 2 Tbsp of agar powder.
Cover with a lid over medium heat and bring it to the boil. The agar will first turn solid then liquify into a thick gel. Very quickly whisk your room temperature (not cold) cheese into the agar, making sure that it is incorporated quickly and thoroughly without setting. Continue to heat the cheese for a few more minutes to halt the culturing process. Continue to follow your recipe as per normal.
The Future of Vegan Cheese
Whichever ingredient you decide upon, enjoy your 100% cruelty-free and cholesterol-free vegan cheese! Food technologists have experimented for years with omnivorous recipes, however vegan cheese is still in its infancy. As people turn their attention to creating healthy and ethical vegan solutions we will begin to have more options available to us. In the meantime we make the best decisions we can while still living in a non-vegan world. The priority for us is to be healthy and positive vegan role models by combining the abundant variety of fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods that are so easily accessible for us.