Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Chia, Flax, and Psyllium as Binders in Gluten-free Bread Making

Xanthan gum and guar gum have been the default binders for gluten-free baking in the United States for years.  However, these substances have their limitations.  They have no nutrient value, for starters.  Then there's the fact that they don't give you much in the way of flexibility or strength in your final baked good.  Did you ever make a gluten-free cupcake that tasted like cardboard and crumbled apart in your hand as you tried to eat it?  Even though you put twice as much liquid into the recipe than you would have for "regular"flour?  You can blame xanthan gum for that.

The best binders out there for your gluten-free baking may not be what you thought they were.  Chia, flax, and psyllium are the "it" girls of gluten-free bread baking right now.   I'll tell you why and how.

Chia Seed 

Origin: Mexico and Central America

Remember the Chia Pet?  The same seeds that you might have used to coat a clay doll to grow green "hair" is now the superfood darling of the moment.  They are chock-full of omega-3s and antioxidants, among a slew of other nutrients.  They are also extremely high in fiber.  As it turns out, chia seed may be more than a fad for gluten-free bakers.

Used as a binder, ground chia seed lends a lot of flexibility to gluten-free dough.  However, it doesn't add as much strength as other binders and is almost always used together with another binder.  What this means is that chia can give your final bread a lot of softness and flexibility but by itself it doesn't lend the raw dough enough strength to hold up the bread as it rises.  In addition to flexibility, chia seed helps gluten-free bread retain moisture and stay fresh longer.

I use ground chia seed as 25% or less of my binder for best results.  Finely ground, I either whisk it into the liquids or mix it with the flour.  Some recipes call for mixing it with boiling water before adding it to a recipe, but I have found no benefit to this method.

Flax Seed

Origin: Probably the Middle East or the Mediterranean

The flax plant has been used by humans for as long as 30,000 years.  The fibers of the leaf are used to make linen, and other natural products such as linoleum.  Ancient Romans used to snack on flax seeds like nuts.  Flax seeds have many of the nutrients that chia seeds do, and they are also high in fiber, though some people find them more difficult to digest.

Flax seed provides moderate strength and flexibility to doughs as a gluten substitute.  While it is effective enough to be used alone in breads baked in a pan, it gives you the best texture when combined with other binders such as chia seed or psyllium husk.

I use ground flax seed as 15-75% of my binder for best results.  Finely ground, I either whisk it into the liquids or mix it with the flour.  Some recipes call for mixing it with boiling water before adding it to a recipe, but I have found no benefit to this method.  For 450 grams of flour, use about 60 grams of binder that is primarily flax seed.

Psyllium Husk

Origin: Europe, Russia, and India

Psyllium is the strongest binder I have found for gluten-free baking.  It provides great strength and flexibility to gluten-free dough.  If you are looking to bake a free-form loaf like a boule, batard, or baguette, psyllium should be your binder of choice.

I use psyllium as 75-100% or of my binder for best results.  Whisk the binder into the liquids or the dry ingredients before combining all your ingredients.  Some bakers claim that grinding psyllium improves its strength, and you should use 1/2 the amount of ground psyllium by weight.  I haven't verified this.  Some recipes call for mixing it with boiling water before adding it to a recipe, but I have found no benefit to this method.  For 450 grams of flour, use about 25-30 grams of binder that is primarily whole psyllium husk.

Edit: Psyllium husk is also full of fiber!


Samantha said...

Well done!!! Finally someone has opened the book up of the latest and best binders for gluten free bread baking!!!

Gina said...

Thanks Samantha! I'm hoping this information will lead to better gluten-free baking!

Michele said...

This is so fascinating! Thanks for the lesson on binders for gluten-free baking!

Gina said...

You're welcome Michele! I wrote this because I think that not enough people know about flax, chia, and psyllium and their usefulness as binders in gluten-free cooking. They are really the best!

Unknown said...

Psyllium husk has been proven to benefit those who suffer from diabetes. In Type 2 diabetes, it can help improve the control of lipids. The fiber content reduces the release of dietary sugar from the digestive tract into the blood stream, thus assisting in the stabilization of blood sugar level.

Psyllium Husk

Gina said...

Alpesh - Psyllium is very high in fiber, just like chia and flax seeds. There are many health benefits to consuming all of these. Some claim chia seed is a weight loss aid. The gel it forms is supposed to cover food and keep it from being absorbed into the body too quickly. It sounds like psyllium husk may have a similar effect. Both psyllium and chia create a gel that can surround other foods. That's what makes them great for gluten-free baking. Lucky for us, they are also healthy!

Rachel Whitehouse said...

Ty for explaining this. I have just started using physilium husks and flax gel when baking all ready love the results. I was unsure of how much to use. Your post will really help as I try more things. My trick for bread is to make a flax gel with half the water for your recipe with a pinch of sugar. Get flax gel to 110-115 degrees. Use the warm flax hell to bloom your yeast. I seems to make a big difference in the strength, stability and rise of the bread.

Gina said...

GF Mommy - I have never tried proofing the yeast in the flax gel. That is great that you are experimenting with new methods!

Boris said...

Thanks for taking the time to list this, very helpful! appreciate it very much

Mike Lucas said...

Gina, thanks very much for this article. My first couple attempts at gluten-free sourdough (based on your recipes) have turned out pretty great, however both my wife and I have noticed some minor indigestion from eating it. We tend towards a paleo/primal diet so are pretty much grain free, except for a small amount of white rice, so it could just be that we are not used to the whole grains and/or the insoluble fibre in the psyllium. I think my next loaf I will use less psyllium (and maybe grind it too), and combine with some ground chia and flax to make up the difference, as those are more "real foods" than psyllium.

Gina said...

Mike - Some people can't tolerate psyllium husk all that well. I have done some experimenting with using less psyllium, so I'll let you benefit from my experience.

Ground psyllium is a stronger binder than whole, so you can use less. I use 20g finely-ground psyllium for 450g flour instead of the 30g whole psyllium.

I've replaced up to 30% of the whole psyllium with chia or flax seed without impacting the rise. In fact chia seed gives the crumb a bit of a more tender feel. I have only tried this with whole psyllium, as I've just started experimenting with ground psyllium again recently.

I don't use flax seed much because I have some indigestion from it on occasion. This is also pretty common for people to experience. It helps to grind it really well before using it.

I hope this info helps and happy baking!

Mike Lucas said...

Thanks again for tips Gina. I was thinking along those lines but your experience, and some actual numbers to try, will definitely help.

I also notice that bananas help to bind other gluten free baked goods (muffins, pancakes) so I'm thinking of trying the "banana pain au-levain" recipe from TFL. I made it once several years ago (back when I used wheat) and it turned out fantastic, the banana taste was both subtle and delicious. I'm thinking it *might* make a good GF bread too, and the bananas definitely add some nutrition.

Gina said...

Mike - Wow that banana pain au levain looks amazing! I'd love to know how it turns out for you, along with any other experiments you perform! Thanks for your comments and I'd be happy to give any additional information I can if you have any more questions or ideas. Good baking!

Unknown said...

I use all three of these combined to make "Pixie Dust" and I replace all gums with it. Works like a wonder!

Gina said...

That's a great way to do it, Jenny!

Unknown said...

Absolutely loved the psyllium husk in gluten free cooking. To be honest Guar gum and Xanthan gum do nothing. If the dough has to be rolled out, it needs to be elastic and pliable. Psyllium makes the dough like wheat dough - pliable and elastic. Wonderful.

Making chapatis (aka roti) with psyllium husk and any gluten free flour is a joy. I can't tell the difference between wheat chapati and gluten free glour with psyllium chapati. Magic!

smplocher said...

Hi, I found a Focaccia Bread recipe and it uses 2 c of ground flax seed as the dry ingredient (also 1T coconut sugar, 1T baking powder, 1t salt) 5 eggs 1/3 c butter and 1/2 c water. It's got a great texture but it tastes a bit "fishy" - I'm wondering if I can sub any of these like Chia or Psyllium for some of the flax seed to cut down on the fishy taste. I have a feeling that the oven heat is destroying the delicate oils anyway so from that aspect it isn't an issue. I have no idea where to start b/c I don't really know how they work together. If anyone has any insight, I'd sure appreciate some help! Thanks!

Lena said...

Thank you Gina, I enjoyed the article and came back for this here info specifically :) So glad I could find it quickly and easily! :)

Unknown said...

I can't tolerate psyllium at all. Any non-gum, g.f. binders besides the chia and flax that could be used?

L J said...

Hi! I know these posts are a little older, but I am just now finding your recipes ( I found you on TFL!), and I have tried your sourdough bread with great success! I made a sorghum/teff loaf that is amazing. Now today I have 2 loaves on their second rise- an all-sorghum, and a sorghum/buckwheat. I had a sorghum starter that I have been using for few months now and it is working well with your recipes. I am wondering if you have been working on perfecting this psyllium/flax/chia binder. I would like to try it next. I previously used only flax in my sourdough, and your recipe is the first time I have used psyllium. I am interested to see how it changes the texture. So if you have updated the percentages, can you please let me know what has worked best!
And thank you for these wonderful and descriptive recipes. YOur writing is very clear & understandable. I am severely gluten intolerant, and I am so happy to have soem wonderful bread again!

Gina said...

I haven't changed my use of psyllium much since I wrote this post years ago. I almost always use just psyllium. I have used ground psyllium more, mostly because it improves/lightens the texture of the bread. I've also reduced the amount of psyllium used a little to improve texture, so for 450g flour I use about 25g whole psyllium or 18g ground psyllium. I hope that helps!