The Daley Question

Agar agar leaves reader puzzled

No typo: Seaweed product helps food set, among other uses

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Uses of agar agar

Agar agar is taken from seaweed, is odorless and tasteless, and is often used in cooking in a manner similar to gelatin. Another place you might've seen agar agar: a petri dish, which contains agar jelly for bacterial culture, shown here in a microbiological laboratory in Berlin March 1, 2008. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

Q: I found the recipe for a Dressel's cake in a somewhat recent article of yours ("Reader hankers for a Dressel cake," Good Eating, May 23, 2012.) Exactly what is agar agar, and where the heck does one find that sort of thing? Unless you meant "sugar" and something got mistranslated somewhere? I dunno.

—Scott Buckner, Lansing, Ill.

A: No, Scott, not a typo. Agar agar, also known simply as agar, is a real ingredient. It is made from dried seaweed and has no taste. Agar agar has been used as a thickener for centuries in Japan, where it is known as "kanten." Unlike gelatin, agar agar is vegetarian. It is firmer than gelatin and sets at room temperature.

The Dressel cake recipe called for agar agar to help stabilize the whipped cream filling.

Agar agar is sold as flakes, threads, bars or in powdered form. You can find it at Asian markets, specialty and natural food stores, some supermarkets.

You have likely encountered agar agar but haven't realized it. If not in foods, especially desserts, then perhaps at the doctor's office where agar agar is used to culture bacteria in petri dishes.

Do you have a question about food or drink? E-mail Bill Daley at: Snail mail inquiries should be sent to: Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611. Twitter @billdaley.

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