Let’s Talk Gluten-Replacers in Gluten-Free Baking

NOTE:  I created a table at the end of the post with info on various companies’ xanthan gums and their growing medium.  You will be surprised to find that not all of them are grown on corn.

As you know, gluten-free baking is challenging mostly because we can’t use a flour that contains gluten, that magical protein that has many qualities that are difficult to replicate. Gluten performs four primary functions in baking in addition to a couple other functions:

First, it is a binder—it holds baked items together.

Second, it provides structure. This works in tandem with the binding function—it serves as the tent pole structure that starches adhere to and create the tent covering for leaveners to work on and push on to create the loft.

And third, it has elasticity. It can be stretched and still hold together.  And gluten is a champ in terms of elasticity because not only can it be stretched, it is malleable. It can be formed into shapes that stay in shape.  This is why you can do things like form a wheat dough into a round loaf of bread on a cookie sheet and it will maintain its round shape during the rising and baking process.

Gluten also has a function in moisture retention in a baked item, which helps with prolonging the shelf-life of the baked item.  This is why gluten-free items tend to go stale more quickly than gluten-containing ones.

In addition, wheat flour contains natural gums, which help facilitate all of the tasks gluten does.

Without gluten (in wheat) or the gums/seeds (added to gluten-free flours), baked goods are flat, crumbly, dry, and as heavy as hockey pucks.  And this is what gluten-free baked items are like when nothing is added to make up for the lack of gluten and gums.

This is why gluten-free baking requires the use of what I call “gluten-replacers.” In order to get baked items that behave in ways we want them to, we need to add something to mimic gluten/gums properties.  Currently, there are three primary gluten-replacers used in gluten-free baking: xanthan gum, guar gum, and ground seeds like psyillium, flax, and chia. And, while they all are used as gluten-replacers, they don’t behave in the same ways.  They each are better or worse at particular jobs.  Below is a quick rundown of how each works in gluten-free baking.

Xanthan gum is the product created from the fermentation of the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris in a sugar solution.  In my opinion, xanthan gum is the one that behaves most like gluten. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s the best that we have currently.  It has excellent binding and structure-building capabilities. And it is pretty good in terms of elasticity. It creates baked items that do not have a taste or gumminess that can be attributed to the gum. And for most baking recipes you only need to use about ¼ teaspoon of xanthan gum per cup of flour. After over 15 years of baking and researching gluten-free baking, I have come to prefer xanthan gum for the type of gluten-free baking I do–that which mimics its wheat counterparts and tastes like I remember wheat baked items to taste. And I do this by using classic techniques and ingredients that behave in a classic way.

Xanthan gum has a shelf life.  I have found that if I use it past the date on the package, it doesn’t work as well.  So, be aware of the expiration date and don’t use old xanthan gum.

Guar gum is made from the guar bean plant.   It is pretty good at binding and structure-building. But it is much less elastic than xanthan gum.  The image that comes to mind for me when I use guar gum is that of old chewing gum.  Old gum is pretty hard to chew and is not very elastic.  It’s good in a pinch, but it’s not great and it’s not my first choice.  When I use it, I use the same amount of guar gum that I use of xanthan gum per cup of flour–about 1/4 teaspoon.  But, it never feels like that’s the correct amount for everything.  For me, it requires more tweaking than I’m interested in doing of each thing in which it’s used in order to get it to work well. That said, if you are interested in using guar gum in your baking, check out my pal Karen’s site, Blackbird Bakery and book, Blackbird Bakery Gluten-Free: 75 Recipes for Irresistible Gluten-Free Desserts and Pastries

She is a wiz at delicious gluten-free baking with guar gum.

I’m not sure if guar gum has a limited shelf life, but I’m assuming it does since it is made from beans.

There are some gluten-free bakers, including Carol Fenster–one of my gluten-free idols–who use both xanthan gum and guar gum in tandem.  In a nutshell, they feel that xanthan gum provides good structure while guar gum provides a “fluffy” factor.  I haven’t experimented with using both of them, but you might want to if this is of interest to you.

At first glance, various combinations of psyllium, chia, and flax seeds seem to be the holy grail of gluten-replacers, although you do have to use a lot (several tablespoons in a recipe). They are good at binding and seem to be good at structure building. And, at first, they appear to be excellent in terms of elasticity. I have made breads with the seeds that can be kneaded (although kneading gluten-free bread isn’t necessary because there is no gluten to develop) and shaped by hand. And they rise and bake up to look just like a wheat loaf. But, where they fail is in the end product.  First, baked items using seeds always has a taste of the seeds (which isn’t necessarily horrible, it’s just not what I want).  Also, there is an undertone (or overtone) of gumminess in the mouth feel, which I find to be unpleasant. Finally, after a day or two, the baked item crumbles in a funky way—it separates into chunks of gummy crumbles. Therefore, the seeds produce baked items that look good but that do not taste or feel like I want baked items to taste or feel. This is why I don’t use the seeds as gluten-replacers.  I do, however, use them as egg replacers, where I think they do a great job.

Added 2/28/13: There is also a product on the market from Orgran called “Gluten Substitute.”  Its ingredients (with my comments in []):

“Rice flour, Maize [corn] starch, Pea flour, Vegetable derived stabilisers & Cellulose: Methylcellulose [dietary fiber, mainly from cotton and wood], Carboxymethylcellulose [gum made chemically], Guar gum, Emulsifier: Vegetable derived mono and diglycerides of fatty acids.”

As far as I can tell without having used it, this is a mix of gums and other dietary fiber, plus some flours to hold it together.  It doesn’t look all that different from using a mix of xanthan gum and guar gum.  If anyone has experience with this, let me know.

Pectin/gelatin: There are also folks who have experimented with using pectin or gelatin as gluten replacers.  In my experience, they seem to have the same type of problems that the seeds have and therefore, I don’t use them.  That said, I haven’t done a lot of research with these.

So, let’s talk about xanthan gum. It’s what I use and what I feel works best in the baking I do. And, there is a lot of misinformation floating around about xanthan gum that I want to clear up.  Clearly, you need to choose what’s best for you, but I really want folks to make a truly informed choice.

As described earlier, xanthan gum is made from the fermentation of the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris. What this means is that the bacteria is introduced to a sugar solution—which is most often made from wheat, corn, soy, or dairy. The bacteria is broken down during the fermentation process, creating a by-product—xanthan gum. The xanthan gum is then harvested and dried into a powder.

What is important to note about the process is that the xanthan gum is a product of the process that uses Xanthomonas campestris and the sugar medium. It is not, itself, either of these things. It is something new. What this means is that xanthan gum is no longer the sugar it’s grown on. This is one of the reasons why xanthan gum can be grown on something like wheat sugar and still be gluten-free. The other reason is that the growing medium is sugar. And the sugar is not the part of the food that people react to when they have a food allergy/intolerance/sensitivity—including celiac. The part of the food people react to is the protein (in wheat the protein we react to is the gluten). Since there is no protein in sugar, there is no gluten in wheat sugar.

According to the food scientists I’ve spoken to and the research I’ve done, this means is that no matter what sugar medium the xanthan gum is grown on, scientifically there is none of the protein associated with that growing medium in the sugar or the resulting xanthan gum. Therefore, if you avoid xanthan gum because you think it’s a corn product: it’s not. And, if you avoid xanthan gum because you’re allergic to thing that provides the sugar for the growing medium: you may not have to.

Statement from Bob’s Red Mill about their xanthan gum:

“6/11/12 UPDATE: Regarding corn in xanthan gum: The microorganism that produces [Bob’s Red Mill] xanthan gum is actually fed a glucose solution that is derived from wheat starch. Gluten is found in the protein part of the wheat kernel and no gluten is contained in the solution of glucose. Additionally, after the bacteria eats the glucose, there is no wheat to be found in the outer coating that it produces, which is what makes up xanthan gum. The short answer here is, there is no corn used at all in the making of [Bob’s Red Mill] xanthan gum.”

Of course, you could be sensitive to the xanthan gum itself (or to guar gum or to the seeds). But I think it’s important to be clear with yourself about what you’re sensitive to. If you avoid xanthan gum simply because of reading incorrect information about it, you might want to give it a chance.

As I’ve said, about a 1/4 teaspoon of xanthan gum per cup of gluten-free flour works best for most non-yeasted recipes.  Yeasted recipes require more (often 1 teaspoon or more per cup of flour) and I tweak each amount as I develop a recipe.

NOTE: I have found that xanthan gum does lose its properties after awhile.  Check the expiration date on your package and replenish as needed.

Important Note: I’m not a medical doctor. If you are allergic to any foods, you need to discuss this with your doctor before eating anything you’re not sure of.

Up until recently, it’s been hard to get information about the growing medium for various xanthan gums. I was able to find the following information (as of 1/12/13).

Xanthan Gum Sources
Source Sugar Medium Other info
* Bob’s Red Mill wheat
* Authentic Foods cabbage
* Tic Gums corn Ticaxan Xanthan NGMO is grown on non-GMO corn
* NOW Foods corn/soy
* Hodgson Mill corn available in 1 tablespoon packets

For what it’s worth, I use Bob’s Red Mill xanthan gum a great deal and I’ve had no reactions to it–and I’m wheat allergic. I also use Authentic Foods and Tic Gums xanthan gum, again with no reactions.

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  1. Lisa Slavick says

    hello, do you have any suggestions for me…I am trying to put together a gf flour blend however I cannot use potato, tapioca, or white rice flour/starch due to sensitivity.


    • says

      Lisa: I would recommend using arrowroot starch in the place of the tapioca starch and brown rice flour in the place of the white rice in my mix. :)

  2. Cathie says

    Thank you for this information. I just wanted to mention that I do not have a gluten sensitivity but it seems I react to Xantham Gum – stomach cramps, GI disturbance, headache and a general sense of lethargy. This is similar to when I have sinus and allergy problems, so I acknowledge I have sensitivities. I found out that after I ate products that I had baked with Xantham Gum for my daughter in law, who has been medically diagnosed with coeliac disease, that I became unwell.

  3. woodsidermum says

    Have you tried modified Cassava starch? In the UK, we have Isabel’s and I think that in the US, you have Expandex (or something else that sounds like pantyhose!). I tried it because I found that xanthan was a bit heavy and psyllium breads go crumbly after a day unless they’ve got large numbers of eggs in them. I found that it was lighter than xanthan but maybe not quite as good at binding. I was thinking of mixing the two to see if I can get a balance of them together, wondered if you’d tried something similar? The best bread I made, texture wise had flax/linseed in it but I then had an allergic reaction, so flax is out for us.

    • says

      Woodsidermum: I have experimented with it. The flour itself holds structure quite well, but it still isn’t a binder. You still need to add something to hold things together like gluten does. I like xanthan gum for this–I would recommend using it in tandem with xanthan gum–maybe use less that you normally do–and see how it goes.

  4. betty says

    has anyone made a sourdough gluten free bread? I make dough in the breadmaker and then bake it. I made some starter, with gluten free flour mix, but have not tried to use it yet. still trying to find the 1 tbl packet of xanthum.

  5. Deborah says

    re: gluten replacers

    I would like to know if you have experimented with Konjac(Konyaku) powder as a gluten replacer. I have some old xanthan gum but my Konyaku powder is fresher. It might be interesting to have this item added to your gluten replacers post.

    • says

      Deborah: I haven’t tried that. It sounds like it is somewhat like gelatin–which doesn’t give the results in baking that xanthan gum does.

  6. Diana R. says

    I was wondering if you notice a difference in baking performance when using different brands of xanthan gum? I have always used Now Foods because it is less expensive. I notice many cookbooks recommend Bob Red mills you mention you have used a variety what is your opinion ? Do you feel they all work the same of they do perform differently?

    • says

      Diana: I usually use Bob’s xanthan gum so I can’t really comment on how the others work. They are each made from a different sugar medium, which may or may not affect the performance. I’m guessing that books recommend Bob’s because it’s the most well known.

  7. says

    l am somewhat confused by your substitution for sweet rice flour. Do l use 1 cup of potato flour in place of 1 cup of sweet rice flour? Or do l substitiute 1 cup of potato starch for 1 cup of sweet rice flour? l tried replacing 1 cup of potato starch for l cup of sweet rice and the result was amazing. “Best bread ever”, said my two boys aged 15 and 26. Today l reread your blog and realized it should have been potato flour? So l am trying it now but it is very heavy and did not rise as high as the potato starch bread. And l had to add almost 1 extra cup of water..have you actually tried rice flour in place of sweet rice flour yourself?
    Thank you so much for sharing your recipes. There is a lady where l live who makes really good gluten free bread but guards her secret and will not share. l cracked the code so to speak and now l share it with everyone. And your recipe (with my substitute of potato starch) is so far the winner. May God bless you for being so sweet-no pun intended-and sharing your wonderful recipes.
    Natalie from Alberta, Canada

    • says

      Natalie: I would use what works for you. I usually recommend potato flour in the place of sweet rice flour. But if you used potato starch and you liked it, then continue to do that. Potato starch and potato flour are different from each other.

  8. Kim says

    Can I use it with pure almond flour to make pasta? Has anyone tried this? I can’t use arrowroot etc bec of the carb count

  9. peggy alen says

    I’m gluten intolerant I use Gradpas gluten free flour mix. Will the receips work the same with this flour mix? The bag says can be used cup for cup in any wheat recipe.

  10. L kaya says

    Do you have any info on whether guar gum looses it’s properties as it ages? I have a plastic bottle of NOW Foods bramd that is about 8 years old and I don’t want to waste time using it if it can get stale.

    • says

      L Kaya: I don’t. Does the container have a “use by” date anywhere? I’m going to assume that it does get less effective as it ages since xanthan gum does. I would get some new guar gum and go from there.

    • Atourina says

      Not sure if you ever tried your guar gum— but I just ruined an entire batch of cake mix by adding expired guar gum to it— my husbands birthday cake at that :( It definitely expires!!! I purchased mine online from TIC Gums late last year and unfortunately didn’t notice that it had been manufactured in 2012 and would expire in April of 2014. I will be contacting them tomorrow as that is a rip off! Needless to say, if it’s expired you will be able to tell as it reeks of rancidity.

      • says

        Atourina: I’m not a huge fan of guar gum. It makes things too “tight”–with no elasticity. Also, yes: most of the time, an expired thing will smell (but not all of the time).

  11. says

    I’m pretty new to this game – I’m on a low-FODMAP diet, which includes no wheat products, so I’ve been experimenting with other flours. A lot of what I’ve baked turned out terrible (I never realized you had to actually do research first!) until I made banana cupcakes using gelatin and flax seeds, and cream of tartar to keep the eggs whipped. They were SO good! Now, after reading this, I’m eager to get some xantham gum and try that, as well as try some of your recipes. Thank you!

  12. April says

    My hubby and I are trying gluten free baking just because we get enough wheat in our lives and could stand to do without a bit. My question is, we have found oat flour to work really well to replace wheat but no one seems to be using it in any recipes. Is there a reason for this?

    • says

      April: one of the problems with oats is that many folks who cannot tolerate gluten also cannot tolerate a prolamine in oats (avenin). If you can tolerate oats then I would say go for it. It sounds like you aren’t gluten-free, so I’m guessing you can probably tolerate oats. :) More info on the topic can be found in my Oats post.

  13. Samantha Matete says

    I have never experienced what you mentioned about psyllium or chia ever! I have only found these to be much better than gums, so much its has been a huge improvement in the gluten free bread baking world! Texture, adaptability, structure, strength, rise……no crumbly mess when you try to get a knife to it! And no need for added extra ingredients like eggs and milk etc! Psyllium, chia and flax are wonderful to GF bread baking!

      • Samantha Matete says

        It is! I’m on a quest to create a GF bread of simple measures and ingredients but with all the same characteristic’s of gluten bread. From sandwich loaf to a rustic boule to baguette’s and rolls! And of course I want it to be healthy, affordable and adaptable. I don’t want much really 😉

    • LysiaLoves says

      Samantha, you’re a girl after my own heart! Your name sounds really familiar too… I’ve been GF baking from scratch for several years and though I started with xanthan, I was never really happy with it myself. Even with the recommended amounts. Since learning about psyllium, my baked goods turn out great! Gluten Free Girl has some great info – that’s where I first learned about it. I haven’t tried cookies, mostly quickbreads and muffins. I also use flax but not so much chia because it does get very gummy. The key with all of them is to grind them finely. If you’re using whole seeds then you’re def gonna have a problem! IMO. I find I can add a Tbsp or 2 of ground flax without having to change any other amounts (again, for quickbreads/muffins). I generally use ~1 tsp psyllium husk powder in an average recipe, depending on how much starch I’m using (more whole grain needs more binder). My Berry Bran Muffins have lots of ground flax but also very little starch and I pre-soak the flour so they need a little more psyllium. My grain-free Banana Nut Spice Muffins have a small amount of ground flax and no psyllium and hold together perfectly. I think the quinoa flour, coconut flour and extra egg helps that one. The more you play, the more you’ll get a feel for how much to use. Some of my recipes need very little, some need more. I don’t always want to use flax, esp if I’m trying to get a really clean flavor like Lemon Ginger Blueberry muffins, and the psyllium on its own worked fine. Anyway, just my 2 cents :)

  14. Tiffanny says

    I don’t necessarily want to substitute anything in your all-purpose flour, but I was interested in how I could utilize flax into your recipes without ruining the final product. I wasn’t sure if just adding a few table spoons or teaspoons of flax meal or whole flax seeds to the original recipe would work, or if I had to reduce the amount of something else. The reason I ask is because I am on a very high-fiber diet and I want to be able to make all my own GF foods without losing the fiber intake.

    • says

      Tiffany: I think the best way to add flax as a fiber increaser is to add it in the final mix of something as the last ingredient (as you would nuts or a chocolate chips). That way it is an add-in versus an ingredient that affects the chemistry of the thing.

  15. Eileen says

    Thanks for the useful list, and for sharing your experiences with the various gluten replacers. We’ve had some good results with GFG (Gluten Free Gluten) from Orgran, which has methylcellulose with guar gum & small amounts of other flours. Have you tried these with your methods?

    • says

      Eileen: I’m so glad it was helpful! And I haven’t used the GFG–although I do know that it contains corn and pea starch, which I’m trying to avoid in my mix. But, I will do more research!

    • W Estes says

      With chia seed, they absorb huge amounts of water. I find that if I add chia to a bread mixture the mixture goes completely dry quickly, and I need to then add some liquid to soften the dough. Do you have any guidelines on this?


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