Gelatine is an unacceptable product to vegetarians as it is a by-product of the slaughterhouse industry, being made of protein derived from animal bones, cartilage, tendons and other tissues such as pigskin. Isinglass, used in fining some alcoholic drinks, is a type of gelatine from the air bladders of certain kinds of fish. Aspic is also unsuitable, as it is made from clarified meat, fish or vegetable stocks and gelatine.
However, there are various alternatives available, which do not contain any animal products whatsoever. These include agar agar, carrageen and a proprietary product called Gelozone.
Agar Agar (E406)
Probably best known to many as the culture growing medium used in petri dishes in school science laboratories! Also known by its Japanese name Kanten, agar agar is derived from the gelidium species of red sea vegetables.
For culinary purposes, it is available in different forms: bars, flaked or powdered, although in this country you are most likely to find it flaked or powdered only. Natural agar agar is unflavoured producing a firm, clear jelly and is rich in iodine and trace minerals and has mildly laxative properties.
The flakes are produced by a traditional method of cooking and pressing the sea vegetables and then naturally freeze-drying the residue to form bars which are then flaked for easier packing and transport. They are preferable to powdered agar agar which, although cheaper, may be chemically processed using sulphuric acid to dissolve the starches, and inorganic bleaches to neutralise the colour and flavour.
Agar agar has stronger setting properties and, unlike gelatine which requires refrigeration to set, it will set at room temperature after about an hour - although it is advisable to store dishes gelled with agar agar in the fridge as it is a high protein food.
The gelling ability of agar agar is affected by the acidity or alkalinity of the ingredients it is mixed with, also by factors such as the season of the seaweed harvest! More acidic foods, such as citrus fruits and strawberries, may require higher amounts of agar agar. Some ingredients will not set with it at all such as: kiwi fruit (too acidic), pineapple, fresh figs, paw paw /papaya, mango and peaches, which contain enzymes which break down the gelling ability (although cooked fruit seems to lose this effect), chocolate and spinach.
Flaked and powdered agar agar need to be used in different proportions, unfortunately many recipes do not specify which is being called for, but here are a few guidelines:
Powdered agar agar can be substituted for the same quantity of powdered gelatine in a recipe.
For every teaspoon of agar agar powder, you should substitute a tablespoon of agar agar flakes.
For a firm jelly you require approximately 2 teaspoons of powder or 2 tablespoons of flakes per 1 pint / 600ml of liquid.
Agar agar should be soaked in the liquid first for 10-15 minutes, then gently brought to the boil and simmered while stirring until it dissolves completely, this will take about 5 minutes for powder and 10-15 minutes for flakes. Unlike gelatine, agar agar can be boiled and can even be re-melted if necessary. If you are unsure as to the setting ability of your gel, test a small amount on a cold saucer - it should set in 20-30 seconds, if not you may need more agar agar, if too firm - add some more liquid.
Carrageen (or Carragheen)
Also known as Irish Moss, this dense, reddish purple seaweed grows in the temperate North Atlantic coastal waters around the West of Ireland, France and off North America's coastline. It is harvested and sun-dried which bleaches it to a yellowish brown colour. Rich in iodine and vitamin A, it produces a softer gel than agar agar.
Carrageen requires thorough rinsing before use. It needs to be soaked and then well cooked with the liquid to be set and does not dissolve completely. Carrageen Mould is a traditional Irish pudding made by soaking 1/2 z/10-15 gm carrageen in water, draining and adding it to 1 pint/600 ml of milk, bringing it slowly to the boil and simmering it for 20-30 minutes, straining it and allowing the strained mixture, which can be sweetened, to set on cooling.
Carrageenan (E407) is a by-product of carrageen and is used extensively as an emulsifying, thickening and gelling additive in ice creams, jellies, biscuits, milk shakes and frozen desserts, even in some cosmetics and medicines!
This is a proprietary product made of carrageenan (E407), locust (carob) bean gum (E410), guar gum (E412).
It does not set as firmly as agar agar and has a slightly cloudy appearance. Gelozone is also prepared differently.
1tsp / 5ml will set 1 pint / 600ml liquid. The powder should be sprinkled onto cold liquid, which is then very gently heated until just steaming, stirring all the time. Do NOT allow the mixture to boil or the Gelozone will not gel. It sets very quickly and requires refrigeration.