Gelatin and Agar Agar in Gluten-Free Cooking

These two products can imitate gulten's properties

Agar Agar powder
Agar Agar powder. Philippe Desnerck/Photolibrary/Getty Images

If you are keeping a gluten-free diet, you may be searching for an ingredient to mimic the properties of gluten itself when cooking and baking. Gluten, which is found in grains, especially wheat flour, performs certain functions in cooking and baking that are somewhat unique to gluten itself. Thus, it can be tricky to find just one ingredient to add when making gluten-free foods. There are two products, however, that can perform similarly to gluten: gelatin and agar agar. These two additives can be used interchangeably in gluten-free recipes, but there are differences between the two. Before diving into gluten replacements, however, it is best to have a clear picture of what gluten does.

Understanding Gluten

Gluten is a mixture of two proteins (it is these proteins that people with celiac disease are allergic to). When present in a recipe, such as with flour in a cake, it carries out a few different tasks: it provides a binding agent, structure, elasticity, and moisture retention. Gluten helps bring and keep the ingredients together, creating a sort of structural pole that starches adhere to, allowing leavening agents to do their job. The elasticity means that the mixture can be stretched but still hold together, as well as be molded into a shape (and stay that way), like when we make an elongated loaf of bread or a round pizza. Foods with gluten will actually last longer than those that are gluten-free because the gluten retains the moisture in the food, delaying it from going stale.

Replacing Gluten

Without gluten, baked goods are dry, dense, and heavy, and will crumble apart when out of the oven. That is why cooks and bakers have found that adding an ingredient to take its place is the best solution (vs. changing, increasing, or decreasing other ingredients in the recipe). These may include xanthan gum and guar gum, as well as gelatin and agar agar. Because of certain concerns over xanthan and guar gum safety and reports over causing digestive issues, many people have turned to natural gelatin and agar agar.

Using Gelatin

Most of us know gelatin as a colored powder that turns into Jell-O. But gelatin itself is used as an additive to certain recipes. Gelatin is processed into a powder from animal bone, hooves, and connective tissue (which makes it unsuitable for vegan diets). The powder has no flavor or color and dissolves in water. You should be able to find gelatin in virtually any market, usually as Knox brand gelatin. 

When combined with water, gelatin becomes a gel that actually traps the water resulting in a stretchier dough. Thus, it is used in gluten-free pizza crust recipes as it makes the dough more pliable and easier to shape without cracking. Gelatin is also used in gluten-free recipes to bind and thicken batters and dough.

Using Agar Agar

Agar agar is a flavorless vegan alternative to gelatin that is commonly used in processed foods. It is made from red algae (or seaweed) and processed into sheets, flakes, and powder. The powder and flake forms are easy to work with and are high in proteins and fiber. When cooking a gluten-free recipe, follow the directions on the product packaging for use, but a good rule of thumb is to use 1 tablespoon agar flakes to thicken 1 cup of liquid. If powder form, use 1 teaspoon agar to thicken 1 cup of liquid. 

Agar agar is used in processed foods to gel, thicken, texturize, and stabilize confectioneries, dairy products, baked goods, sauces and dressings, meat products, and even beverages.

Tips

  • Whether you are using gelatin or agar agar, there are a few tips you can follow for successful results. Make sure to add the gelatin or agar agar to dry ingredients and whisk to combine well before mixing with any liquids.
  • Both gelatin and agar agar can make gluten-free breads soggy, so be sure to measure carefully when using these gelling agents and don't use more than a recipe calls for. Also take note you are using the flavorless gelatin when adding to a recipe—you don't want your dough pink and berry flavored! And if you are baking for someone who keeps a vegan diet, be sure to choose agar agar over the gelatin.