While the gluten-free diet was first introduced in 1941, the prevalence, availability and demand for gluten-free foods has increased tremendously over the past 20 years, with the gluten-free food and beverage industry growing to over $10 billion in 2013. There are now many gluten-free options on restaurant menus and grocery shelves, but it can be difficult to make your own gluten-free baked goods at home. However, thanks to xanthan gum, those looking to eliminate or reduce gluten in their diets can still enjoying homemade breads, cakes and pastries.
But first, what is gluten?
Ever wonder what’s behind that rustic, satisfying crust of artisan breads? Or why pizza can be so chewy? Or how cake batter can transform into a tall, fluffy dessert? The answer to all of these questions is gluten.
A protein found in grains such as wheat, rye and barley, gluten provides structure and elasticity to finished products. It does so after being activated by the addition of liquid and heat. For instance, when a pizza maker adds water to flour, it triggers changes in the flour’s gluten that creates an elastic dough. Then, when the dough is placed in the hot oven, the gluten acts to trap air bubbles in the crust, creating structure and allowing the crust to rise. As you can imagine, making gluten-free pizza crust isn’t as easy as simply removing gluten from the equation. As with all baked goods, creating gluten-free alternatives involves not only choosing a gluten-free flour, but also ensuring the technical function of gluten is appropriately replicated.
A Natural Replacement
One common ingredient than can reproduce the elasticity and binding power of gluten is xanthan gum. Xanthan gum is a product of fermentation that stabilizes and thickens foods – providing desired texture and even dispersion of flavors. It is made from a microbe found on the leaf surfaces of green vegetables. This microbe is fermented – as we’re used to experiencing with wine and cheese – then dried and ground. While xanthan gum is used widely across the commercial food space for everything from salad dressings to ice cream, it is sold separately in stores and can also be used at home for gluten-free baking and cooking.
Using Xanthan Gum
Xanthan gum is known for being extremely versatile, and works well in recipes that use highly acidic ingredients (such as buttermilk, lemon juice or cream of tartar) and are exposed to high oven temperatures. When added to a gluten-free recipe, it works to lock in structure and moisture, making sure the final product won’t crumble and fall apart. When combined with leavening agents (such as yeast, baking powder or baking soda), xanthan gum can trap in air, helping gluten-free goods rise while maintaining shape and consistency, just like their gluten-containing counterparts. It is such an effective replacement for gluten, many store-bought gluten-free flour mixes already contain xanthan gum.
The best way to use xanthan gum is to find a flour blend or a recipe that already includes it. However, for those who want to create their own recipe using a gluten-free flour that doesn’t already contain xanthan gum, below are some recommended measurements for using xanthan gum with gluten-free flour.
- For cookies, start with a ratio of ¼ teaspoon for every cup of flour.
- For cakes and pancakes, substitute ½ teaspoon per cup of flour.
- For muffins and quick breads, use ¾ teaspoon per cup of flour.
- For breads, try 1 to 1 ½ teaspoon per cup of flour.
For gluten-free bakers looking to have their cake and eat it too, xanthan gum is here to help!
Have more questions about xanthan gum? Learn more here.