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I've made several mold (shaped) desserts with both gelatin and gelatin substitutes, and the substitutes have always failed to hold the shape of fully domed chocolate molds and the like. Are there any real vegetarian substitutes here, or only relatively weak alternatives?

The primary subsitite I've used is agar-agar. Some others are suggested here, but I have no experience with them. (A good comment below suggests that is not the best link b/c all the non-agar substitutes listed at this link are just thickeners.

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4 Answers 4

up vote 29 down vote accepted

This depends on what you mean by a gelatin "substitute".

What you have to understand is that while most hydrocolloids have gelling and stabilizing properties, they are not simply interchangeable. You can't substitute one of them 1-for-1 where you need gelatin and expect everything to just work.

A great place to start would be the Hydrocolloid Recipe Collection which, despite its name, is almost more of a cookbook, because it has detailed information on the properties of each hydrocolloid.

Agar is actually a stronger gelling agent than gelatin in the sense of having to use less of it to get the same strength, but you need to use it properly. The most important property of agar is that unlike gelatin, which gives hydration at temperatures as low as 50° C, agar requires a temperature of 90° C. In other words, you need to heat the water all the way to a rapid boil before the agar will actually "activate". A light simmer is not enough.

The other notable property of agar is syneresis, which is the loss of moisture over time. Agar sets extremely fast compared to gelatin and above room temperature, but unless you combine it with a small amount of Locust bean gum, it will actually dry out. Otherwise, though, you can absolutely, definitely substitute agar-agar for gelatin if you actually get pure agar (I made the mistake of buying the "dessert agar" once, which is not the same thing) and hydrate/set it properly. In fact, the biggest concern with using agar as a substitute for gelatin is that you might end up with something too stiff, since gelatin produces a much softer gel.

Perhaps the closest hydrocolloid to gelatin in terms of its properties is iota type carrageenan. Here's a side-by-side comparison of the most important characteristics (this is all taken from the HRC):

Property          | Gelatin   | Carrageenan | Agar
------------------+-----------+-------------+---------
Thermoreversible  | Yes       | Yes         | Yes
Strength          | Soft      | Soft        | Hard
Elasticity        | Elastic   | Elastic     | Brittle
Shear Thinning    | No        | Yes         | No
Hydration         | 50° C     | 70° C       | 90° C
Setting Temp.     | 15° C     | 40-70° C    | 35-45° C
Setting Speed     | Slow      | Fast        | Fast
Melting Temp.     | 25-40° C  | 45-80° C*   | 80-90° C
Viscosity         | Low       | Medium      | Low
Gelling Conc.     | 0.6-1.7%  | 1.0-1.5%    | 0.2%
Syneresis         | No        | No          | Yes

You should be able to see by this how much closer carrageenan is to gelatin; trouble is, it's difficult to find, and you have to get the right kind (the kappa type and other types have very different properties).

There's actually an even better type of carrageenan to use a gelatin substitute, if you can find it: It's called Ceambloom 3240 and it's specifically designed to be a gelatin replacement.


I'd like to also note for the record that the answer in your ochef link is not really appropriate for gelatin desserts that need to hold their shape. Xanthan gum is a fantastic and versatile hydrocolloid but (to the best of my knowledge) it does not "set" the way that gelatin, agar, or carrageenan do. It's more of a thickener/emulsifier/stabilizer, at its highest concentrations being used to produce foams (but not gels). It's often used to stabilize other gels/foams but I've never heard of it being used to create a gel on its own.

Guar gum is also largely just a thickener, that you could use a stabler replacement for corn starch or arrowroot, which is also mentioned in that answer. None of these are appropriate at all for gels (desserts), they are only useful as thickeners.

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Excellent answer, very interesting to see the properties. Although I tend to favour it, carrageenan does have a few concerns surrounding it from a health perspective, I think the current advice is to moderate intake. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrageenan#Health_concerns –  Orbling Jan 7 '11 at 20:49
1  
Lots of great details, well done. One big way that both iota and agar differ from gelatin, unfortunately is the melt temperature. Body temperature is around 37 C, which you can see from @Aaronut's chart is in the band for gelatin, but not the others. So you don't get that wonderful melt-in-the mouth characteristic. –  Michael at Herbivoracious Jan 7 '11 at 21:33
    
Very true about the melting point, @Michael. Not that I've ever tested this theory, but methylcellulose causes melting at lower temperatures, and I suspect some combination of that and carrageenan could create a gel with two melting points, possibly with one near mouth temperature. This paper seems to suggest that such a "double thermal transition gel" is possible, although the abstract doesn't tell us much about its characteristics (I can't understand anything on the chart). –  Aaronut Jan 7 '11 at 23:22
    
+1 Excellent amount of detail. This is the sort of answer I love to see on this website! :) –  calico-cat Jan 21 '11 at 10:23
    
As of December 2014, Ceambloom from P.L. Thomas is now called NCPLT-5, and it is now an improved formulation. PL Thomas's website is plthealth.com. –  Eric Dec 8 at 19:40

Best place to get good vegetarian gelatin is MaryJanes Farm. Just go to maryjanesfarm.org, look for products then click on food pantry and check out the "chillover" product. It is the best I have found.

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That's just agar, as far as I can tell. –  lemontwist Oct 29 '12 at 13:02

From a culinary standpoint, agar agar is usually used as the substitute for gelatin, Although its not quit the same. Most vegetarian preparations often use agar agar.

Gelatin is the consistency of jello, or runny jello if not enough is used. It's soft. Agar agar firms up quite a bit more- has a rubbery texture. Is a lot stronger, feels, less watery.

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The other ones are usually used as sauce thickeners, or for purees. –  Chef Jan 10 '11 at 6:02

If agar-agar isn't holding for you, either you haven't hydrated it sufficiently or just aren't using enough of it. Agar can make an extremely firm, brittle gel. Try doubling the quantity in your current recipe.

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Agar is also very sensitive to acidity. If you're trying to add some citrus juice to balance out an overly sweet liquid, the gel will fail. –  Joe Dec 8 at 20:55

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