I'm starting to make homemade ice cream, salads, and DIY versions of Jell-O creations more often. But what if you're a vegan, vegetarian, or simply can’t tolerate normal gelatin, but you want to make homemade Jell-O?
There are options.
The first, most common substitution is agar-agar. Agar-agar has a great gelling ability, so it's perfect for using to make homemade gelatin. It has long been used in Asian desserts, and since then, it has become a popular thickener and addition to many different food preparations, including ice cream. It's derived from red algae.
It's recommended that you grind agar-agar to a powder (you can use a coffee grinder or a food processor) for best results. You can then substitute agar-agar in equal amounts for powdered gelatin. 1 tablespoon of agar-agar flakes is equal to 1 teaspoon of agar-agar powder.
To use it, the following ratio is a good starting point:
For 2 cups of liquid use 2 teaspoons of agar-agar powder, 2 tablespoons of agar-agar flakes, or one bar. It is dissolved in the liquid (such as fruit juice) on the stove, and then chilled.
One advantage to using agar-agar over gelatin is that it stays firm even when it's warm. This opens up a lot of culinary ideas, such as a savory gelatin served along side warm side dishes or sauces.
The other option is using Irish moss. It's a marine lichen and the dried fronds contain carrageenans, which are polysaccharide complexes. This is what helps it gel. It has long been used as a health promoting ingredient. "Mrs. Rorer's Diet For The Sick," published in 1914, included two recipes using Irish moss. It was claimed that one of her recipes was “especially nice in cases of tuberculosis, tonsillitis, quinsy, and whooping cough.” Hopefully none of us will have to find out if that’s true or not! It's also a demulcent and emollient, and so has been used to soothe coughs and gastric ulcers.
It sounds like a great alternative, right? Well, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a recent study that linked carrageenans (which are found in Irish moss) to a host of health issues, including cancer because it causes inflammation. This is concerning, and while I know that there are a lot of opinions flying around about whether this traditionally well-regarded lichen is as problematic as the processed form, I would hesitate to use it on a consistent basis.
If you did want to use it to make a vegan Jell-O, here are two resources:
No matter which method you choose for your gelatin, you've got plenty of cooking options to try.