What Is Agar, and How Do You Use It?

Ever since a 17th-century Japanese innkeeper discovered some leftover seaweed soup had gelled overnight (or so the legend goes), agar has been used as a gelatin-like setting agent in the kitchen. The tasteless, odorless seaweed derivative is a staple throughout Asia, where it’s used to thicken sauces, drinks, jellies, custards, and candies. It made its way to Western cuisines in the 20th century as a plant-based alternative to gelatin. Read on for more info about agar (also known as agar-agar), plus recipes to try.

Agar vs. Gelatin

Gelatin is typically made from the collagen of cows and pigs, making it unsuitable for vegetarians and vegans. Agar is derived from seaweed and free of animal products, making it a handy ingredient for the plant-based home cook.

Types of Agar

Agar comes in two main varieties: powder and flakes.

Powdered Agar

Powdered agar is the more potent of the two. A single teaspoon of the powder will set a cup of liquid to a firm jelly.

Agar Flakes

Agar flakes are less concentrated than the powder and allow more control over the final texture of a recipe. The powder and flakes can be used interchangeably in recipes as long as you adjust the amounts to account for their differences. (See Conversion Chart, below.)

Conversion Chart: Agar Flakes vs. Powder

Per 1 cup liquidSOFT + JIGGLY
(custard,  panna cotta)
(pie filling, jellied desserts)
EXTRA-FIRM + SLICEABLE (vegan cheese, veggie pâté)
Agar Flakes2 tsp.1 Tbsp.4 tsp.
Agar Powder½ tsp.¾ tsp.1 tsp.

Where to Find It

Agar powder is sold in small packets and can also be found with the bulk spices in natural food stores. Agar flakes are often stocked near the seaweed products in the international aisle. It can also be ordered online.

Vanilla Panna Cotta With Agar

Cooking with agar is as easy as boiling a liquid on the stove. Give it a whirl with this simple vanilla panna cotta recipe.

  • 2 Tbsp. agar flakes or 1½ tsp. agar powder
  • 3 cups unsweetened plant milk
  • 3 Tbsp. pure maple syrup
  • 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
  1. In a large saucepan whisk agar flakes or powder into unsweetened plant milk.
  2. Slowly bring mixture to boiling; boil 5 minutes, whisking constantly. (The heat activates agar’s setting properties.)
  3. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve to remove any lumps.
  4. Whisk in maple syrup and vanilla.
  5. Divide among six ramekins. Chill at least 4 hours before unmolding and serving.

More Agar Recipes to Try

Put agar to delicious, luscious use with these healthy vegan recipes from Forks Over Knives.

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About the Author

Headshot of Mary Margaret Chappell

About the Author

Mary Margaret Chappell

When Mary Margaret Chappell first started out in the plant-based food world as a writer, editor, and recipe developer, she was a bacon-loving former pastry chef who didn’t think she could ever cook without butter. Fourteen years, four cookbooks, dozens of cooking classes, and hundreds of recipes later, her favorite thing in the world is sharing the tips, techniques, and recipes that show just how easy and delicious whole-food, plant-based cooking can be. The former food editor of Vegetarian Times magazine has done away with her dependency on butter and is honing her skills at baking with natural sweeteners. Chappell lives in France, where plant-based eating can often be a challenge, but the fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes available are simply amazing. Find her on Instagram and Facebook.
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