Xanthan gum is a crucial ingredient in gluten free baking and one that I use in the majority of my gluten free recipes. It acts as a binder that greatly improves the texture of gluten free bakes. Here, I’m sharing everything you need to know about xanthan gum – from how it’s made and its function in gluten free baking, to how much you actually need to use depending on what you’re making.
Today, we’re continuing the Gluten Free Baking Basics series by talking about one of the most important topics in gluten free baking: xanthan gum.
By the way, if you haven’t seen the first post in the series, I definitely recommend having a look! I took a deep dive into everything you need to know about making your own homemade gluten free flour blend, and also shared my favourite, go-to blend recipe that you can use in most of my gluten free recipes.
Let’s start by stating the obvious: in gluten free baking (unlike in wheat-based baking), there is no gluten. That means that you’re removing an ingredient that is responsible for holding your bakes together (essentially acting as a glue), for giving them elasticity and flexibility, and also – to some extent – for keeping your bakes moist.
So, in order to prevent your gluten free bakes from crumbling away to nothing, you need to replace the gluten with an alternative binder – and in most cases, that binder will be XANTHAN GUM. You’ll see xanthan gum used in almost all of my gluten free recipes and over the years, I’ve received numerous questions about what it is and about the role it plays in gluten free baking.
Today’s post will cover everything you need to know about xanthan gum: from how it’s made to its function in gluten free baking. We’ll bust some xanthan gum myths (and there are quite a few out there, annoyingly enough) and I’ll share my rough guide for how much xanthan gum you need to use depending on what you’re baking.
So, let’s talk xanthan gum!
Before we get to the bits and bobs of what is xanthan gum – if you like what you’re seeing, subscribe to my newsletter to keep up to date on the latest recipes and tips!
What exactly is xanthan gum?
Xanthan gum is a polysaccharide – basically a type of complex sugar. It’s made through a process of fermentation with the help of bacteria called Xanthomonas campestris.
It’s a food thickening agent that’s used to keep foods uniformly thick. It’s also used as a stabiliser, as it stabilises emulsions and prevents products from separating (for example, it prevents the oil in salad dressing from separating out). In addition to being used as a food additive, it’s sometimes also used in non-food products, such as cosmetics.
All of these useful properties are due to the fact that xanthan gum is a hydrocolloid: it binds water and even at very low concentrations (0.1-1% by weight) it can cause a significant increase in the viscosity of a liquid. In simple terms: it forms a gel.
In gluten free baking, we’re not really interested in its thickening properties – instead, it’s the ability to bind water and form a sticky gel that helps to give gluten free bakes that I-can’t-believe-this-is-gluten-free quality.
The role of xanthan gum in gluten free baking
In gluten free baking, xanthan gum acts as a binder – a gluten substitute that holds the bakes together, prevents them from being too crumbly and greatly improves their texture. It gives them elasticity, extensibility and flexibility, and it’s all down to its hydrocolloid properties and its ability to form a sticky gel.
Note that xanthan gum isn’t a 1:1 gluten substitute and it most certainly doesn’t give the same degree of elasticity as gluten. However, in the case of cakes, muffins, cookies, brownies and similar, that’s not a problem at all. After all, you don’t need much elasticity in your average sponge cake. You just need enough binding power to prevent it from being too delicate or crumbly. And that’s exactly what xanthan gum provides.
All that said: xanthan gum isn’t the best binder for gluten free bread. There, it’s psyllium husk that’s the star of the show – it’s the ingredient that allows gluten free bread to be kneaded and that gives gluten free dough enough extensibility to be able to proof properly. (A blog post all about psyllium husk is coming soon!) Xanthan gum still has its uses in gluten free bread (especially when it comes to soft, enriched, brioche-like bread), but it’s more of a helping hand rather than the heavy-lifter.
Finally, xanthan gum also helps with moisture retention in gluten free baking: it basically helps to make your bakes moist and keeps them that way for longer.
How much xanthan gum do you need?
The amount of xanthan gum you need to use depends on two things: what you’re making and whether or not your gluten free flour blend already contains xanthan gum. In my own gluten free recipes, I use blends that don’t contain xanthan gum – this allows me to tailor the amount of xanthan gum very precisely to each individual recipe (yes, I am something of a control freak).
However, many people prefer gluten free flour mixes that have xanthan gum already added. Generally speaking, commercial gluten free flour mixes contain about 1/4 teaspoon of xanthan gum per 120g (that is, per about 1 cup). So, if you’re using a gluten free flour mix that already contains xanthan gum, you’ll need to decrease the amount of xanthan gum in my recipes by 1/4 teaspoon per 120g of gluten free flour blend.
Below, I’ve listed the typical quantities of xanthan gum required for the different bakes.
If your gluten free flour blend doesn’t contain xanthan gum:
- Cakes, cookies, cupcakes, muffins, brownies: add 1/4 teaspoon per 120g of gluten free flour blend (per about 1 cup)
- Pastry (like flaky pie crust and similar, where slightly more elasticity is required): 1/2 teaspoon per 120g of gluten free flour blend (per about 1 cup)
- Exceptions: with bakes like choux pastry, where you need more elasticity, you’ll need more xanthan gum – make sure to follow the recipe and use the quantity listed.
If your gluten free flour blend does contain xanthan gum:
- Cakes, cookies, cupcakes, muffins, brownies: you don’t need to add more
- Pastry (like flaky pie crust and similar, where slightly more elasticity is required): 1/4 teaspoon per 120g of gluten free flour blend (per about 1 cup)
Is xanthan gum bad for you?
One of the most frequent questions I get asked about xanthan gum is about whether or not it’s bad for you.
Now, before anything else, a disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor. If you are in any way concerned about the effects of xanthan gum on your health, consult a medical professional.
Okay, with that out of the way, here’s what I think: from the research I’ve done myself (reading articles from reputable sources), there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of any harmful health effects associated with xanthan gum. In fact, according to a 2017 study titled “Re-evaluation of xanthan gum (E 415) as a food additive” by the European Food Safety Authority Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to Food, “there is no safety concern for the general population… of xanthan gum (E 415) as a food additive” – even at high intake amounts. You can read the research paper here.
There have been claims of xanthan gum lowering blood sugar and reducing cholesterol – whether or not that is actually true remains to be seen. What definitely seems to be true is that for the average person, xanthan gum is safe to consume, especially in the rather small amounts typically used in gluten free baking.
However, if you find that for whatever reason xanthan gum doesn’t agree with you (some have reported that they seem to be sensitive to it and that, for them, it causes stomach upset and GI issues), then of course don’t use it. And I would definitely encourage you to do your own research if you have any doubts about using it – or any other ingredient, for that matter. Just make sure that you’re using a reputable, reliable source of information (not just the first click-baity Google result that crops up).
Substitutes for xanthan gum
Unfortunately, there are no perfect substitutes for xanthan gum. I will list a few possibilities below, but the truth of the matter is that none of them will give as good of a result as xanthan gum. That said, I am still exploring all the different substitution possibilities and if I do discover one that works really well, I’ll be sure to update this section.
Here are the possible (and most popular) xanthan gum substitutes:
- Psyllium husk. Now, don’t get me wrong: I *LOVE* psyllium husk. It’s a magical ingredient in gluten free bread. However, in cakes, cookies and similar, I haven’t managed to get the same beautiful crumb as with xanthan gum. Whether or not that will change… only time (and lots and lots of experimentation) will tell.
- Chia or flax seeds. Similar as for psyllium husk, whereas both chia and flax seeds can act as binders, I don’t find them very convincing xanthan gum substitutes. However, some readers have had good success with them, so you can definitely give them a try and see for yourself.
- Guar gum. I haven’t done much testing with guar gum (yet!!!) but a few some bakers have had some success with using it in gluten free baking.
Busting some xanthan gum myths: don’t believe everything you read!
Okay, here’s the thing: the amount of misinformation about xanthan gum out there is just scary. So, let’s clear up a few things.
In gluten free baking, you can’t replace xanthan gum with cornstarch.
The myth that you can replace xanthan gum with cornstarch in gluten free baking seems to be incredibly widespread. And that’s because xanthan gum can be used in two ways: as a thickening and stabilising agent (to thicken sauces and stabilise emulsions) or as a binder in gluten free baking.
Now, when you want to use a substitute for its thickening action, cornstarch is definitely a good option. Cornstarch is an excellent thickening agent, and you can use for everything from thickening sauces to making the perfect pastry cream.
HOWEVER (!!!) cornstarch is not a binder. And in gluten free baking, we’re not all that interested in xanthan gum as a thickening agent – we’re interested in it as a binder. So, when you try to replace xanthan gum with cornstarch in gluten free baking, you’re basically removing the binder and adding a starchy flour – making your gluten free bake both drier and crumblier. (And that’s definitely not something you want to do.)
So, in short: cornstarch is NOT a xanthan gum replacement in gluten free baking. You can’t swap one for the other. They’re completely different things. (Rant over. Can you tell that this is a huge pet peeve of mine?)
Xanthan gum and baking powder/baking soda have COMPLETELY different functions.
I’m honestly not sure where (or how) the idea that they’re somehow interchangeable originated… is it because they’re all white powders?
In any case, xanthan gum and baking powder/baking soda fulfil completely different roles in gluten free baking: xanthan gum is a binder (acting as a “glue” that holds your bakes together), and baking powder and baking soda are raising or leavening agents, making your bakes nice and fluffy.
So, they are in no way related and have no direct interaction or effect on each other. Just because, for example, your gluten free flour blend contains xanthan gum, that doesn’t mean that you need to change the amount of baking powder or baking soda in the recipe in any way. Okay? Okay.
Popular gluten free recipes that use xanthan gum
Here’s a selection of some of the most popular gluten free recipes that use xanthan gum to achieve the perfect, most delicious texture:
- The Ultimate Gluten Free Chocolate Cake
- The Ultimate Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Cookies
- The Best Gluten Free Lemon Drizzle Cake
- Extra Flaky All-Butter Gluten Free Pie Crust
- Small Batch Gluten Free Boston Cream Pie
I hope this clears up any questions you might have had about xanthan gum and its role in gluten free baking. It’s truly a wonderful ingredient which, when used correctly, can help give your gluten free bakes a texture that’s virtually indistinguishable from their gluten-containing equivalents.
And if you have any questions that I haven’t answered, leave a comment below!