We are very excited to bring you What is it? Wednesdays! Every other Wednesday, we’ll explore a different ingredient or product in depth. We’ll be covering the benefits, uses and common misconceptions about each. If you have any requests, leave them in the comments and we’ll work them into the schedule.
I freely admit that I bit off a little more than I intended with this topic. Xanthan gum is a hard one! It has an unusual origin and many, varied applications. We’ll see if I can clear anything up or if I just make it more confusing! Thank you to everyone who submitted questions on Facebook. We had over 80 submissions and they all break down into these basic questions. If you have more questions, leave ‘em in the comments and we’ll get to them.
What is Xanthan Gum? The short, basic version is that xanthan gum is a coating from a particular bacteria- Xanthomonas campestris. This bacteria grows a protective coating. Think of it like an orange peel or the skin of an onion. It’s a protective layer. When fed a particular food, this bacteria’s coating becomes very sticky and makes a great binding and thickening agent in baking. I can get super technical about this, but I don’t think that is necessary. Scientists harvest this sticky layer, dry it out and sell it as a food additive. End of story.
What is this “particular food” mentioned above? Most commonly, Xanthomonas campestris is fed glucose (sugar) derived from corn, soy or wheat. This glucose comes from the starch of the plant and contains no protein, which means if you have a corn, soy or wheat allergy, you can likely enjoy xanthan gum. The bacteria that grows our xanthan gum is fed wheat glucose. There is no gluten in our xanthan gum.
Why use Xanthan Gum? This is a slightly bigger question. Xanthan gum works well in place of gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley that some people cannot tolerate). Xanthan gum helps trap the air bubbles created by leavening agents (baking soda, baking powder, yeast) to allow your breads and baked goods to rise. It helps thicken liquids, which is why it is often found in salad dressings and sauces. This thickening action helps hold gluten free baked goods together and keeps them from becoming too crumbly.
How is it different from Guar Gum? We’ll do a whole post on Guar Gum soon, but a short answer is that they’re made from two different sources- xanthan gum from a bacteria and guar gum from a seed native to Asia. In the kitchen, there are important differences in using xanthan gum versus guar gum. In general, guar gum is good for cold foods such as ice cream or pastry fillings, while xanthan gum is better for baked goods, especially those that use yeast. Foods with a high acid content (such as lemon juice) can cause guar gum to lose its thickening abilities. For recipes involving citrus you will want to use xanthan gum. Read more about how they are different and similar in this post: Guar Gum vs Xanthan Gum.
How should I use Xanthan Gum? Generally, we recommend the following. Every recipe is different. Too little xanthan gum and your baked goods will be crumbly, too much and they’ll be rubbery. If you’re just getting started, we highly recommend following a recipe that calls for xanthan gum to get the hang of how much to use and when.
Cookies………………………………¼ teaspoon per cup of flour
Cakes and Pancakes………………..½ teaspoon per cup of flour
Muffins and Quick Breads………… ¾ teaspoon per cup of flour
Breads……………………………….1 to 1-½ teaspoons per cup of flour
Pizza Dough…………………..…… 2 teaspoons per cup of flour
For Salad Dressings…½ teaspoon Xanthan Gum per 8 oz. of liquid
For liquids, it is best to add xanthan gum to the oil component in a recipe, making complete mix of oil and gum before adding to the rest of liquid ingredients. Using a blender or a food processor is a great way to get the gums to dissolve properly.
Why does it cost so much? This answer is based on speculation, as it’s very hard to pinpoint why some ingredients are expensive. Based on what I know about our ingredients from our Purchasing Department, it is expensive because it is costly to produce (we’re talking specialized labs that must grow, then harvest, this ingredient) and there is a limited supply. Yes, it’s spendy at approximately $15 for a half-pound, but you use very little in a recipe and a bag should last you 6 months (depending on how much you bake).
Xanthan gum is messy, what is the best way to clean it up? I find this question slightly amusing because gluten is very messy and hard to clean up, so it seems rather fitting that its replacement would be equally so. I couldn’t find any good tips for how to clean it up, but one customer did recommend sodium persulfate for cleaning up xanthan gum that has gelled with water. I don’t know who has this laying around the kitchen, but I don’t. I have also heard that peroxide is promising (turns out our awesome test kitchen gals are working on this), so you could try that. No matter what, it’s a total disaster. If you have a good tip, PLEASE SHARE IT WITH US!
How does it affect my body and why can’t some people tolerate it? There have not been any significant studies to determine what effect xanthan gum has on humans, but I did find a good article that talks about the studies that have been done. It appears that there is little to support xanthan gum being harmful to adults, but it should not be fed to infants.
More and more, I meet people who cannot have xanthan gum. It upsets their stomach, causes gas, bloating and diarrhea. These are not all people who follow a gluten free diet. I have heard from several gluten free customers who initially blamed their issues on gluten, but later realized it was actually the xanthan gum. The symptoms are very similar. You’ll see that more and more gluten free food bloggers are not using xanthan gum and are opting to use an alternative or leave it out altogether.
What are some alternatives to Xanthan Gum? First, there is guar gum. It works essentially the same way, but you typically use more guar gum than xanthan gum. The people who cannot tolerate xanthan gum often have similar issues with guar gum. Other people are using psyllium seed husk, chia seed, flaxseed or a combination of these. These work because of their high soluble fiber. When you add water, these ingredients gel up. This works well for binding and thickening for most recipes. Our friend Jean Layton, blogger and naturopath, swears by her Pixie Dust. Her recipe, found here, combines psyllium husk powder, flaxseeds and chia seeds and produces marvelous results (we should know, we tested it to find out!). Depending on the recipe, you can sometimes get away with just leaving it out. Some recipes will be just fine without it. It takes experimentation, but, hey, that’s what gluten free baking is all about!
I hope this helps clear up some of the major questions. As I said above, if you have any others, please, leave them in the comments and I’ll do my best to tackle them.