When I first began baking gluten-free, I was intimidated by all the different flours and additives it takes to create a successful gluten-free baked good. I’d come from the Pollan school of thought (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”), and thought of extra ingredients as being somewhat unwholesome. Xanthan gum? Monocalcium phosphate? Carboxymethylcellulose? What the heck is this stuff? Why is it in my food?
I was a food science geek long before ever thinking of becoming gluten-free, thanks in large part to a healthy obsession with all things Alton Brown. I’d perused molecular gastronomy blogs and knew that there was a different culinary culture out there, one which focused on using a half-dozen of these food additives to turn unexpected ingredients into familiar forms. The more familiar I became with gluten-free baking, the more I realized that gluten-free baking and molecular gastronomy often overlapped. After all, aren’t gluten-free bakers trying to turn unexpected ingredients like bean flours and cornstarch into familiar forms?
Gluten is sort of miraculous stuff, when you think about it from a science point of view. It’s a protein that forms a network of cells to traps gases released in baking. It produces the snappy crust and the tender crumb; the bane of the soft, delicate pastry and the hero of the baguette. Other things can mimic it, here and there, but nothing acts quite like gluten in baking. It’s that same protein that those with celiac and gluten-intolerance can’t eat, even in the smallest quantities. I can remember when it really sunk in that I couldn’t eat gluten. I was pretty heartbroken when I realized that my love affair with a sourdough baguette was over.
The first food additive that I came across in gluten-free baking was xanthan gum. “It acts like gluten in your baking,” I was told. But what is xanthan gum? It’s been a common food additive since the late 60s, seen often in products like salad dressings and ice cream. Does it act like gluten in gluten-free baking? Well, sort of. Xanthan gum is a general purpose thickener, emulsion stabilizer, and binder. When added to a gluten-free batter, it helps to develop a carbohydrate mixture that works somewhat like gluten.
Xanthan gum is a polysaccaride derived from a bacteria known as Xanthomonas campestris. Wikipedia that one if you feel like it; it’s a bacteria that forms certain types of plant diseases (if that bothers you, just remember that the first antibiotics came from bread mold. Bacteria isn’t necessarily bad). The bacteria is combined with a fermented sugar — usually derived from corn, but occasionally from wheat or soy. It chomps through the sugar and converts it to gum, then the bacteria is killed off by pasteurization, and the gum precipitated out with an alcohol substance.
When purchasing xanthan gum, make sure that the gum you pick up is gluten-free. Store it sealed tightly and away from moisture. I find that a half-teaspoon per 5 ounces or so of flour mix is usually fine for chemically leavened baked goods; yeast breads take a bit more. Depending on what you’re making, you may find you need more or less, perhaps none at all. When you use xanthan gum, add it with other dry ingredients. You can also use it to thicken pan sauces. This is one of those cases when a dab will literally do.
Some people find that they can’t tolerate xanthan gum, even in the small amounts used in gluten-free cooking. Because it’s a fermented product, it may not be suitable for those dealing with Candida overgrowth. Xanthan gum is used as a laxative, so eating too much of it may result in bloating, gas, and other – ahem – intestinal discomforts. It’s also not good to breathe the stuff in, as it can irritate the nose, throat, and lungs. If you find that you can’t tolerate xanthan gum, don’t despair! I’ll be covering other food additives that can take place of xanthan gum, ranging from gums produced from beans to fruit pectin, gelatin, and a thickener derived from algae.