Having been gluten and wheat free since February 2010, I’ve had to learn Gluten Free baking basics, including using new ingredients that replace the binding ability of gluten. Most GF baking mixes rely on either Xanthan Gum or Guar gum to replace the wheat gluten. Xanthan Gum is also a thickener and used in both GF and non-GF food mixes, salad dressing, gravies, sauces, and even ice cream, and gives these foods a smoother texture. This posting is about my recent adventures, or rather mis-adventures, in using Xanthan Gum, in which I had a recipe for GF almond flour bread and called for a small amount (1/4 teaspoon) Xanthan Gum. The stars must have been mis-aligned the evening I tried to make this bread, for I had been using Xanthan Gum successfully for over a year in all my other GF baking.
When I first went gluten-free, I studied up on all the ingredient must-haves every GF baker needs in their pantry. Xanthan Gum was high on the list of must-haves for successful baking. Xanthan Gum was readily and easily available at all the local grocery stores and through online stores. It wasn’t very expensive and a little amount goes a really long way. I bought Xanthan Gum (2 packages, in fact) to have on hand for my GF baking. I had been using it with no problem, until the fateful GF almond flour bread. Mind you, I tried a new recipe (found on the Web) and I was a little suspicious of the ingredients and consistency while putting it together.
One thing led to another and I accidentally spilled a fairly large pile of Xanthan gum on my countertop and then accidentally spilled a little more in my sink while trying to secure the Xanthan Gum package. Xanthan Gum is a very fine powder and seems to make little puffs of powdery particles in the air, every time you move or open the package. I try to seal the package very well between uses, but alas, this time was born for disaster. The packaging led me to spill the small piles of Xanthan gum. Honest, Ma!
After the great spill, I then used my regular kitchen sponge and some water to wipe up the powdery pile on the countertop. The powder promptly turned to goo, and I mean, a sticky gloppy goo that took some stubborn arm action to clean up. The same for the spilled pile in the sink. This was hard stuff to clean up. I spilled a significantly higher amount than would be used in a regular recipe, but the sticky, gooey mess made me really wonder what I was working with here. I’m not sure why I never Googled “Xanthan gum” before this, or even questioned it really.
That led me to write Bob’s Red Mill, who has excellent customer service and a dedicated Gluten Free line of products and grains. I knew Bob’s Red Mill would be able to tell me just exactly what Xanthan gum really is and why it becomes slimy when wet, and I was right! Within a few hours of submitting my question online at the Bob’s Red Mill web site, I had my answer complete with fact sheets.
So, what is Xanthan gum? Simply put:
Xanthan gum is a polysaccharide, derived from the bacterial coat of a tiny microorganism called Xanthomonas campestris. It is produced by the fermentation of glucose, sucrose, or lactose by the Xanthomonas campestris bacterium. After a fermentation period, the polysaccharide is precipitated from a growth medium with isopropyl alcohol, dried, and ground into a fine powder. Later, it is added to a liquid medium to form the gum. This organism is grown in a lab so that large amounts of the cell coat can be removed, dried, and milled to a powder called Xanthan Gum. [Source: Xanthan gum, Wikipedia] and Bob’s Red Mill Xanthan Gum fact sheet.
This process gives Xanthan Gum a special strength which renders it useful in food preparation and works to hold particles of food together, making it a stabilizer, useful for gluten free recipes.
Interestingly, Xanthan Gum was discovered by USDA researcher Allene Rosalind Jeanes and her team and was brought into production under the trade name Kelzan in the early 1960’s, approved for food use in 1968. It is now accepted as a safe food additive in the US, Canada, and Europe.
Even more interesting, the Xanthomonas campestris microorganism is the same bacterium responsible for causing black rot to form on broccoli, cauliflower and other leafy vegetables. The bacteria forms a slimy substance which acts as a natural stabilizer or thickener. [Source: Xanthan gum, Wikipedia] When Xanthan Gum gets wet or immersed in a liquid, it does indeed turn a bit slimy.
Now, this is not to discourage anyone from using Xanthan Gum or using GF baking mixes… this is purely food science, biology, and fact at work. My own personal jury is still out on this and I’ll most likely continue using Xanthan Gum for my GF baking. In fact, I’ve already made several recipes with Xanthan Gum, post-research (no spills!) and my taste buds and tummy still approve. Xanthan Gum does a great job when mixed in with all the other ingredients. The powder spill was relatively minor in the scheme of things and the clean-up just gave me reflection time. However, in case you’re wondering, a good substitute for Xanthan Gum is Guar Gum, which is made from an East Indian seed. You can read more about Guar Gum vs. Xanthan Gum on the Bob’s Red Mill blog for even more particulars, including specific substitution amounts. Another substitution choice is arrowroot powder. Dear readers, what are your experiences with gluten free baking ingredients? Have you tried Xanthan Gum, Guar Gum, Arrowroot powder and/or any other suitable substitutions? Your feedback is certainly welcome!
You may be wondering what happened to my fated GF almond flour bread. I managed to add the right amount of Xanthan Gum to the ingredients and popped it in the oven and had a stunning show of bread rising, only to be let down to bread falling. I mean collapsing. This was not the fault of Xanthan Gum, may not have even been the fault of the baker, but rather a faulty recipe or again, perhaps the stars were simply misaligned. I did eat the bread and with the exception of its shape, it wasn’t bad. (Our food appearance really does affect the level of appetizing appeal.) However, my silver lining is that I didn’t waste (much) food (only a little bit of Xanthan Gum was lost, when said and done), and I learned more about the science of GF baking through this whole process. Will I continue on? Of course… and happily!