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

by Jeanne on February 4, 2013

NOTE:  I created a table at the end of the post with info on various company’s 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 and the gums, 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 12 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.  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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