Those who have tried and failed know all too well the challenge gluten-free baking presents. Even the most seasoned gluten free baker sometimes experiences cupcakes having the hardness and dryness of a biscuit and breads that are flat and dry. Baking without gluten greatly affects the texture and structure of the baked goods which increases the need for alternatives to be found.
Just as the name implies, it helps ingredients stick together, hence the term ‘binding agent’. And the lack of a binding agent not only affects the appearance of your baked goods, but it can affect the taste too.
Popular alternatives to gluten as a binding agent exist in the form of Xanthan gum and Guar gum. While widely used, like gluten, some people may experience problems with these too. The good news is that many alternatives DO exist and most of them work just as well, giving your gluten-free baking the texture you desire.
Psyllium fiber is usually found in most health stores as a dietary fiber supplement. It’s popular among bodybuilders and athletes as it helps maintain their digestive health while actively helping to reduce cholesterol. It may come as a bit of a surprise that psyllium fiber has been shown to be a great binding agent which improves the baking quality of bread.
A study conducted in Kuwait proved just that. The scientists had started the research with a totally unrelated agenda – they wanted to increase the fiber content in bread. In their experiments, one of the ingredients they added in their blend of flour was 5% psyllium fiber. The results were completely unexpected and in many ways, serendipitous from a baking perspective. Not only did the bread rise a little higher, it also retained more moisture and had more volume overall.
That’s not all. An additional study was performed at the University of Milan and Michigan State University. This particular study sought to improve the structure of gluten-free dough. Upon completion of the study, the researchers had this to say about psyllium fiber:
“Psyllium fibre generally enhanced the physical properties of the doughs, due to the film-like structure that it was able to form, and the most complex among the experimental formulations looked promising in terms of final bread technological and nutritional quality even when compared to two different commercial GF mixtures,”
With scientific backing, it’s quite apparent that psyllium fiber is effective at improving the texture and the overall quality of your baking. You can buy Psyllim fiber for about $14 at Amazon.com.
The use of chia seeds in baking is quite common. They are usually sprinkled into flour mixes to add a nutritional boost to cakes and cookies. From a nutritional perspective, chia seeds are as close to a ‘superfood’ as you can get. They are rich in Omega 3 fatty acids (more than 2.5 times that of flaxseed), protein and fiber just to mention a few. On top of all that, they can be used as a binding agent too.
This is because they are very high in soluble fiber and they are also hydrophilic (water absorbing). They can absorb up to 12 times their own weight in water, forming a gel like substance which locks in moisture. In baking, this would improve the overall structure of breads, pastries and cakes as they wouldn’t turn out dry or crumbly due to lack of moisture.
While they are very small and unlike other seeds, have no real ‘shell’, their texture may not be desirable in some recipes. Chia seeds can also be ground and added to flour blends although it is not required for their ‘binding’ to take effect.
It is also worth noting that they have a very mild, nutty flavor which generally does not alter the overall taste of the food items they are added to.
Chia seeds will run about $13.50 for a 16 oz. package.
Flax seeds are far more ubiquitous than their chia counterparts. We tend to associate them with health supplements so likewise, most people will be familiar with their popular derivative – flax seed oil. In gluten-free baking, ground flaxseeds do a great job of binding ingredients together and mimicking that desirable ‘gluten effect’ by adding moisture and softness to your baking.
Flax seeds tend to be rather large in comparison to chia seeds and they also have an outer shell. As a result, adding them in their natural form to a gluten-free flour blend will produce a small to negligible binding effect. They actually have to be ground for the binding effect to take place. The preparation involves adding ground flax to boiling water in order to form a thick paste which can then be mixed with gluten-free flour.
Nutritionally, ground flax is rich in Omega 3 fatty acids (though not as high as chia seeds), iron, fiber and zinc – just to name a few.
Flax seed is a very economical purchase – $13 for a 4 pack of them!
Gelatin frequently appears on the ingredients list of some of popular sweet snacks such as wine gums and jelly babies. It is gelatin which gives them their sticky, moist-on-the-inside texture. When mixed with water, it forms a gel-like substance which can be used in baking to make doughs stretchy and to retain moisture in baked food.
The only drawback is that gelatin is derived from animals and is therefore not suitable for vegetarians or vegans. Interestingly, it also comes in various flavors, however, for breads, it is best to use the unflavored variety.
Gelatin runs about $13.99 for a 1 lb. container.
Agar agar is a vegan alternative to gelatin. It is derived from seaweed and is a common food additive in food processing plants. Much like gelatin, agar agar can be found in a flavorless variety and it acts as a thickener, stabilizer, texturizer, forming a gel-like substance when mixed with water.
In gluten-free baking, this would result in a stretchier dough, chewier breads and (more) moist cakes. That said, it’s a good idea to exercise caution when using agar agar as using too much can result in excess moisture being retained, making your bread or cakes soggy.
Agar agar is the priciest option of the bunch at $8.59 for a 2 oz. bottle.
Those unable to use xanthan gum or guar gum in their baking are still left with a lot of options. What’s more, these solutions promise to deliver results which are just as desirable as using xanthan gum or guar gum.
Being intolerant to these ingredients shouldn’t necessarily signal an abrupt end to your baking endeavours. If anything, you’re likely to have a lot of fun experimenting and you’ll undoubtedly find a binding agent that works best for you.