Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Xanthan Gum in Gluten Free Cooking and Baking

Getting started with gluten free baking and cooking can be challenging, especially when it comes to new ingredients, such as xanthan gum. I had no idea what xanthan gum was the first time I saw it listed in the ingredients for a gluten free recipe or in packaged gf products at the store. I thought it was a gum from some kind of plant—similar to rubber tree gum!

What is Xanthan Gum?
Just what is xanthan gum? According to Wikipedia, xanthan gum powder is “a polysaccharide secreted by the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris, used as a food additive and rheology modifier, commonly used as a food thickening agent (in salad dressings, for example).” In other words, xanthan gum is a type of carbohydrate (sugar) that’s created by Xanthomonas campestris, a type of bacteria responsible for black rot in broccoli and other vegetables.

Xanthan gum is created by adding Xanthomonas campestris to a base of carbohydrates (made from corn, wheat, rye, etc.), after which the bacteria begin the fermentation process. After fermentation, the xanthan is made into a solid by the addition of isopropyl alcohol. The solid is then dried and ground into a powder. Doesn’t that sound yummy?

It may not sound yummy, but xanthan gum is a useful ingredient for many products, including gluten free foods.

Xanthan Gum Uses
Xanthan gum is used as an emulsifier and stabilizer to improve texture, as a thickener and a binder in products ranging from cosmetics and personal care products (makeup, toothpaste, shampoo, etc.) to frozen foods (including ice cream) and more.

Where Can You Buy Xanthan Gum?
Xanthan gum can be found at most health food stores; many regular grocery stores now carry it in their gluten free food section. It can be pricey; however you don’t have to use too much at a time—a box/bag will last for quite a while. Xanthan gum has a long shelf-life, so you won’t have to buy it too often.

Is It Safe?
Animal and human studies have continued to show that xanthan gum is safe for most people. Both the European Union and the U.S. have listed xanthan gum as a safe food additive;however, it can cause problems for people allergic to wheat, corn or soy, as these grains are often used as the base used to create xanthan gum.

In addition, xanthan gum can have a laxative effect and may cause unpleasant gut issues, including gassiness, diarrhea, etc. in some people. However, most people can safely ingest xanthan gum without unpleasant side effects.

In case you can’t tolerate it, there are substitutes for xanthan gum available. I’ll cover those in another post.

Xanthan Gum in Gluten Free Baking and Cooking
Xanthan gum improves the texture and elasticity in baked goods—you can also use it to thicken sauces and salad dressings.  It works to replace the gluten found in “regular” flours (wheat, rye, etc.); it acts as a binder, giving gluten free baked goods a similar texture to their gluten counterparts. It’ll also keep your baked goods from crumbling apart.

Xanthan gum is easy to use in recipes and you don’t need very much of it. Putting too much in a recipe can make cakes, breads, etc. come out with a gummy, sticky texture. One important note: if you use store-bought gluten free flour mixes, be sure to check the product’s ingredient list. Some gluten free flour mixes contain xanthan gum. If your flour mix includes xanthan, you won’t need to add more xanthan gum to your recipe.

Cleaning Up Spilled Xanthan Gum
Spilled xanthan gum can be hard to clean up. I’ll share a short tale with you about my own experience cleaning up a xanthan gum mess. One time I was baking some cookies and managed to spill xanthan gum all over the counter and the floor--I can be quite a klutz sometimes. I tried to use a damp cloth to clean up the spill, which was a huge mistake. The moisture in the cloth acted with the spilled xanthan gum to create a slippery, gooey gel, making the mess go from bad to worse. It took me quite a while to get rid of that yucky mess. These days I’m very careful when using xanthan gum!

I found some clean-up advice on Bob Redmill’s site. They recommend the following steps to clean up spilled xanthan gum: first, sweep/vacuum/scrape up as much of the powder as possible. Then pour a generous amount of dishwashing liquid (not dishwasher detergent) onto a damp dish cloth or sponge and use this to clean up the remaining residue. Xanthan gum will not turn into a gel if you use dishwashing liquid or even vinegar/lemon juice to clean up the spill. Once you have the initial mess cleaned up, thoroughly wipe the counter and you should come out with no messy, gooey residue.

Summing It Up
Xanthan gum is a helpful ingredient in gluten free baking and cooking. It’s safe for most people; however, some people are sensitive to it and may experience some unpleasant side effects after eating foods that include xanthan. While it can be expensive, you don’t use much of the powder in recipes, so one bag/box will last for quite a while (depending on how often you bake or cook). Xanthan gum can be easily bought at your local grocery and health food stores, and is also available online from sites such as Amazon.

One note--I do use xanthan gum when baking, as it doesn't cause me any digestive problems. I use Bob's Redmill xanthan gum and have been using it since I was diagnosed about 14 years ago.

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