When I was little, I hated going to a friend’s birthday parties because lunch was almost guaranteed to be hot dogs and jell-O, two of my least favorite foods as a kid. While I didn’t know it at the time, both foods come from the leftover bits of animals as they are processed into meat.
Yes, you read that right, gelatin is extracted from the unused parts of pigs, cows and horses such as the nails, skin and cartilage. If you’ve ever wondered why gelatin tastes a bit like leather, now you know why. But gelatin does something pretty cool. By turning a liquid into a gel, gelatin lets us turn things we’d normally drink into a food that we can eat. The increased viscosity, allows liquids to linger on your tongue, which allows us to perceive their taste more clearly.
As cool as gelatin can be, I’ve always been a bit turned off by the smell. My solution is to use agar instead. It’s a gelling agent that’s extracted from algae and has the benefit of being almost completely odorless and flavorless.
For those of you who have tried agar gels before you may have found the texture off-putting. Most recipes (including the ratios specified on the packaging) include far too much agar, resulting in a very firm gel. Unlike gelatin, which tends to have an elastic texture once set, agar sets into a firm brittle gel. By “brittle” I don’t mean it shatters like glass, but instead of giving under pressure like gelatin, a gel set with agar will crumble. This combined with the high melting temperature of agar results in a strange mouthfeel as the gel crumbles, rather than melts away.
To get around this, I use a very small amount of agar relative to the liquid. This creates a tender gel that isn’t firm enough to be unmoulded, but melts in your mouth into a luscious pool of flavor. The best part of using agar is that it sets at room temperature, so it’s ready to eat in about an hour.
The recipe below is for a grape flavored jelly, but you could do this just as easily with any combination of fruit juice and fruit you like.
Vegan Grape Jelly
Forget Jell-O mix from a box! With just three ingredients, you can make your own grape jelly.
- 2 grams Agar powder (about 3/4 teaspoon)
- 2 cups grape juice
- 150 grams grapes (I used 2 prune-sized grapes per ramekin)
- Put the agar powder and grape juice into a small saucepan and let the agar hydrate for 2 minutes.
- Peel the grapes if you want, and divide them between four 4 ounce ramekins.
- Whisk the grape juice mixture to disperse the agar and then bring the mixture to a boil over high heat.
- Continue to boil for 3 minutes.
- Divide the mixture between the prepared molds and let them cool a bit before placing them in the refrigerator to chill.
Marc Matsumoto is a culinary consultant and recipe repairman who shares his passion for good food through his website norecipes.com. For Marc, food is a life long journey of exploration, discovery and experimentation and he shares his escapades through his blog in the hopes that he inspires others to find their own culinary adventures. Marc’s been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and has made multiple appearances on NPR and the Food Network.