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Food Science! Agar Agar Solo Cups

I apologize for advance for the heinous quality of the following pictures. The compact flash card on my camera crapped out on me while I was shooting the meatballs last week and I didn’t figure out how to fix it until after I had already done this project. You will be back to your regularly scheduled food porn in short order.

A month or so ago, my food blog circles were all a-flutter with this idea for edible, biodegradable drinking cups. I thought it was a great idea, but who just throws cups in their yard when they’re done drinking? Oh yeah. Frat boys. I started thinking about every time I drive down the main street of the town where I went to college (and still live, ahem) on a Monday morning, and am always horrified by the carpet of red plastic on the front lawns of all of the frat houses. So then my mind gears got turning, and I thought it would be even cooler to make edible, biodegradable Solo cups. The cups turned out really well, and if the one on my windowsill is any indication, they degrade quickly and awesomely. The results of my grand food experiment after the jump:

The cups are made from agar agar, which is a seaweed extract used in Asian cuisines to thicken jellies, sauces and desserts. It’s a great vegetarian alternative to gelatin, and apparently it’s also the stuff that’s on the bottom of petri dishes used to culture bacteria and stuff (super nerdy)! It’s allegedly readily available at health food stores, but I searched all of the hippie co-ops around here to no avail. I had better luck at an Asian grocery store, where I got it in little packets like the one above. It’s super cheap, so get plenty, because you need a LOT of powder to make a gel thick enough to make a cup.

“Hello hello baby you called I can’t hear a thing. I have got no service in the club you see see” — oh, uh, hello there. Anywho, yes. The recipe is pretty easy. You want 5 tablespoons of agar agar powder for every 2 cups of liquid you use. Then let it boil in a pot until it becomes super thick and pasty.

While it’s boiling, you want to get a hot water bath set up going. Agar agar hardens at a much higher temperature then gelatin does, so you want to keep it as hot as you can for as long as you can. I set two measuring cups in a sautée pan with about an inch of water simmering in the bottom, but you can use bowls or cups or whatever you have around the house. After it reaches the wallpaper-paste phase, you want to transfer it into your hot cups. I added some gel food coloring (used for cake icing) so that it didn’t alter the viscosity of the mixture. This would also be the point at which you could add some sort of flavoring, like essential oils, if you were so inclined. If I had something special to make these for, I’d totally put a slice of lemon on the bottom of the cup, or some basil leaves on the sides or something.

Now! For the mold! I didn’t really have anything really cool or official. I just used a Solo cup. Don’t worry about lubricating the cups or anything, just slap the paste right in the cup. For my first try, I thought I’d sandwich some of the paste in between two cups, but the heat of the it made the inside cup buckle, and the finished cup ended up falling apart. For my second try, I poured some of the blue paste in the bottom of the cup and spread it up the sides with an offset spatula (AKA, at least #27 in the top 50 best things mankind has ever created). This ended up being the best method for getting maximum coverage in the cup. As the paste cools down, it kind of shrinks off of the plastic of the cup and makes holes, so take a minute to spread the paste around for a minute or so in the cup to make sure you get maximum coverage.

After you are done molding your cups, don’t be a dummy like I was and put them in the freezer to cool faster, because then they just start freezing, and when you take them out, they melt neon food coloring all over your beige counters. Stick them in the fridge for about 20 minutes so they get nice and set, and then pop them out of their cup molds with a little gentle massage. Et voila! Awesome squishy edible cups! If you want to, you can trim the rim to make it more uniform, but I was lazy so I just left it ragged.

These are what my three attempts looked like. The third one turned out the best because I spread the paste on super thickly inside the cup. It ended up being a lot sturdier than I thought it would, and it held beer beautifully.

At this point in the experiment, you’re probably going to be thinking, “Holy shitballs! What a horrific mess!” but the really awesome thing is that if you just let the agar agar harden onto whatever it’s on, it just peels right off in a big sheet. Which, if you’re one of those people like me who likes to mess with the sheets of skin that slough off when you get sunburned (it’s only for a second, don’t judge me), then this will be like the holy grail.

Now go have a beer! These cups are fairly squishy, so if you’re clumsy, or have a bad habit of thinking that you’ve got a good handle on a glass when you go to pick it up and then realizing that you don’t after it slips out of your hand and you spill your gin and lemonade all over the fucking carpet, just be careful.

Or you can use them to decorate your windowsill. Or just put them on the windowsill because that’s the only spot in your kitchen that has good enough light for your shitty iPhone camera. Then take a picture and send it to me.

If there was any doubt that these things biodegrade quickly, here’s what my cup looked like after 4 days:

I’m pretty sure that’s some sort of salmonella culture growing there on the outside. I guess that’s why they use agar to cultivate bacteria! Don’t worry, I threw the cup away after that. Yikes.

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  1. emma reich says:

    I love this! Thank you so much for all of the helpful tips and expediting my learn curve on this. You are a GREAT writer and I look forward to reading more. Thanks for keeping me laughing on a hungover Sunday morning. 😉

  2. Lynnie says:

    Oh I so want to try this! Thanks!

  3. GKL says:

    Nice! to see the different stages of it

  4. Patti says:

    Those cups are pretty cool! One suggestion: Why now put the measuring cups in a hot water bath using an electric skillet set to simmer? Just a thought. I use mine to keep chocolate melted when I make candy. Same principle. Hot water bath. Anyway, I’m not sure I’ll be able to find agar agar powder in Algonac, but I’ll look for it.

  5. Ah, when I think about the hours of effort that have gone into mitigating the retardation of college aged men . . .

  6. alunsina says:

    hahahaha. love it. i made a similar project in highschool. it wasnt remotely near funny then but now i realize that it is. 😛