Monday, April 30, 2012

A Word About Xanthan Gum

If you've ever done any gluten-free baking, or checked the ingredients of a packaged gluten-free product, you will have seen the ingredient xanthan gum.  It's everywhere.  It is used as an emulsifier, a thickener, and a gluten replacer, depending on what kind of product it inhabits.  You will see it in sauces as an emulsifier and thickener.  It's often found in ice creams - especially low-calorie or non-dairy ice creams - to smooth and thicken it for a creamy texture.  For gluten-free cooking it's used to replace the gluten in your baked goods to give the product structure.  Some people claim that you can't cook gluten-free without it, but I'm here to tell you that's not true!

Think about the first two uses I of the gum that I described.  In both cases, the gum is used to give the substance more body and form.  However, both sauces and ice cream are liquids, and xanthan gum is used to thicken them.  Breads and baked goods are not liquid in their finished state, and they don't need thickening as much as strength and flexibility that gluten normally provides in regular wheat flour.  Xanthan gum only lends one of these things to your breads and baked goods: strength, or stiffness.  It allows your baked good to hold its form, but it doesn't add flexibility.

In fact, if you use too much, or you don't make your dough very wet, your final product will be hard and dry.  Don't listen to people who tell you that you can't get bread to rise without it.  Your bread will rise - sometimes even better than without it - but without some help from a dough enhancer your bread will collapse in the oven.

Some people avoid xanthan gum because it doesn't agree with them.  Shauna at Gluten-free Girl has a post about it here.  She has made a lot of headway in using other things besides gums to replace gluten when needed.

There are lots of recipes where gluten doesn't need to be replaced at all, which is the case for my new pancake recipe.

I tried it with gums first, and it was a complete fail.  You're much better off with a good blend of flours that is balanced out between starches and whole grains, and which has a tasty flavor.  Visit my shop to find my flour blends.  My No. 1 All-purpose Flour doesn't have any xanthan gum in it, and can be used on its own in lots of recipes.  My No. 2 Pastry Flour has the xanthan gum already added at the minimum level so you don't over-do it.

Don't get me wrong.  I still use xanthan gum.  It's just that I have some rules about how to use it.  For instance, xanthan gum sucks up a lot of liquid, so you have to adjust for that in your recipe.  There are lots of things you need to adjust for in your recipes for liquid, like whole grains vs. starches, so it can get complicated.  You have to try a few times before you hit the nail on the head.  Here are a few guidelines:
  • Use the minimum amount of xanthan gum necessary for your baked good to hold its form, no more.
  • Xanthan gum works better in a sticky, tacky or wet batter.  If the dough is dry when raw, xanthan gum will make it into a brick when cooked.
  • Your dough with xanthan gum in it will become more soft and flexible if you put some oil or butter in it.  This is why almost every GF bread recipe has fat, but traditional breads don't.
I'll also list a few things that don't need xanthan gum, or which xanthan gum can hurt:
  • flours or batters for deep-fried foods
  • gravy
  • sauces
  • pancakes
  • anything not baked
Basically if you think of xanthan gum as lending structure, not flexibility, you will get on the right track with your gluten-free cooking.

As a teaser, I'll show you some photos of a bread recipe I'll share with you later this week.  This one does not have any xanthan gum.
One of these slices of bread has xanthan gum, and the other doesn't, but they both rose.  Check back later this week for the recipe.


Van Waffle said...

Good to know! By the way, I like the pancake recipe a lot.

Gina said...

I'm glad you like the pancake recipe! I just had pancakes for dinner tonight. It was hard to stop eating them.