Jelly, or gelatin, comes from animal bones and skin, and therefore is not vegan in any way imaginable. Gelatine is derived from collagen, the “glue” that holds both our and other animal’s bodies together.
Other gelling agents are 100% plant-based and behave the same and can easily substitute gelatin with no additional recipe alterations. At the top of the list is agar or kanten, which comes from red algae and therefore completely vegan.
How Jellies Are Made
Once upon a time, Georgian and Victorian cooks would make their jelly creations by boiling animal hooves, bones, and other discarded parts to extract the collagen from those tissues. Practically, it’s the same process that is used in glue factories.
Today, someone else takes over that task and creates ready to use gelatin that you can pick up everywhere. Though some cooks use gelatin sheets at home, in the industrial setting, powdered gelatin is the norm.
To make jelly, a manufacturer adds flavor and color to water, then heats it before blending the powder into it. Then, the jelly is left to cool down and set.
Depending on the liquid to gelatin ration, gelatin produces anything from liquid gels (like those fancy modernist cuisine sauces), traditional jelly deserts, and demi-glace reductions, to even gummy candy.
In the last case, there is usually another stabilizer present, because gelatin is very sensitive to heat. Depending on the concentration, it will already start to soften at about 100 degrees Fahrenheit, while a store-bought jelly cup can go fully liquid with just a little time in the microwave.
This feature can be troublesome for us and our ability to preserve collagen (aka the source of origin for gelatin) since they are both very sensitive to heat. but are rather desirable in the food industry, as well as to the traditional book, furniture, and string instrument makers.
What other products contain gelatin?
A lot of items that you will find on your supermarket’s shelves use gelatine as a thickener. You will find it even in products that are supposed to be animal product-free, like margarine, fruit jams, instant veggie soups, etc.
By law, gelatin must be clearly listed on the list of ingredients, but if it’s in there in trace amounts (ie because another food item is produced at the same factory) that doesn’t have to be noted anywhere.
His Highness, Agar
Agar (aka agar agar or kanten) is the best substitute for gelatin in almost all applications. What is the only time when it doesn’t work? When you need to re-melt your creation. Once agar sets, it doesn’t melt again. Well, at least not in the traditional kitchen setting. Also, agar sets a bit cloudy without that clear jelly gloss finish.
Agar comes from red algae. It was discovered in Japan in the 17th century and since then it became the primary gelling agent in the cuisines of several East and Southeast Asian countries.
The most famous agar products are wagashi – traditional Japanese sweets that are actually ALL 100% vegan. The rich world of colorful wagashi is mostly based on sticky rice, adzuki beans, and agar, with some of the most famous jelly products being mizu-yokan (red bean jelly), kingyoku (sweet clear agar cubes), kohakutou (traditional Japanese gelly candy), and multiple types of water cakes.
In the West, it’s no widely used in food production, and it’s mostly available either in specialty vegan products or in the pantries of modernist chefs.
However, switching from gelatin to agar in almost any recipe is very easy – all you have to do is use the same amount by weight. Doing so by volume is not very practical because agar comes both as powder and flakes, and if you end up working with flakes you’re bound to make an error. And since the differences between a liquid gel and a regular one, or a classic jelly and a hard gel are so tiny when it comes to the liquid to agar ration, it’s better to be safe and stick with the scales.
If the original recipe calls for gelatine sheets, you have to convert that first. A one quarter of an ounce of gelatin powder is what’s in an envelope or a tablespoon, and that converts to 3 gelatin sheets.
Agar also needs to “bloom” before it goes into the rest of the mixture, so if you’re using it recreate a recipe, don’t forget this step.
The good news is that even though gelatin use is so widespread, it’s the only animal-based gelatin agent that you will encounter in the wild. There are far more plant-based gelling agents and thickeners that you can either find in prepackaged products or can even use at home.
Most closely related to agar since it also comes from a type of seaweed known as Irish Moss. Carrageenan is often found in savory foods, especially in various began cheeses.
There is a bit of a debate of its safety and impact on our health, but all studies show that all concerns stem from a super processed version of carrageenan that was put in some medicine.
To use it at home, you can either buy it in powdered form or if you can get your hands on the seaweed itself, you can make the gel from scratch. All you have to do is to rinse the seaweed thoroughly, and then leave it to soak until it swells. Then transfer into a pot with the liquid you want to set (or plain filtered water) and boil for about 10 minutes.
One ounce of raw seaweed is enough to set 1 cup of liquid.
Konjac aka glucommanan
Mostly known to the westerners as the main ingredient in zero-calories noodles, In Asia, it has been used for centuries as both a cooking ingredient and health supplement, with it most recently becoming the main ingredient of “diet jelly drinks”.
Glucomannan is packed with insoluble fiber which none of our bodies can absorb. This is why it’s often used either to treat constipation or to suppress appetite.
When used as a gelling agent, glucomannan is most suitable for creating liquid gels. However, if you need it to set (like it’s set in those “skinny” noodles), the gel will have to boil in a solution of baking soda and pickling lime for a bit.
Yes, it’s a starch, but it works almost the same way a jelly (tapioca pearls, anyone?).
It’s essential if you want to create glossy sauces like the ones that are made with demi-glace and butter or use instead of fruit pectin in your next jam or fruit pie.