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 affects the texture, taste and structure of baked goods, which is why a binding ingredient is so important in a recipe.
Binding Ingredients: A Little Background
Just as the name implies, a binding agent helps ingredients stick together. Gluten is a protein, but it’s also a binder. It is the very thing that traps air bubbles inside of a batter to create the perfect balance of air, wet and dry ingredients. (That’s that fluffy dinner bread or light yeast bread!)
When you remove gluten from a baked good, it can turn into a runny mess if you don’t replace it with something else. The lack of a binding agent not only affects the appearance of your baked goods, but it can affect the taste too.
Alternatives to Xanthan Gum and Guar Gum
Popular alternatives to gluten as a binding agent exist in the form of Xanthan gum and Guar gum. While they’re widely used, like gluten, some people 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 light, airy and melt in your mouth texture you crave.
Psyllium Fiber (Psyllium Husk Powder)
Psyllium fiber is 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 husk powder 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 husk powder. 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 husk powder):
“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 strong scientific backing, it’s clear that psyllium husk powder is an effective alternative to xanthan or guar gum.
Here are two recipes that use psyllium husk powder:
You can buy Psyllim husk powder for about $15 at Amazon.com.
Chia seeds are used for everything from sprinkling into flour mixes to add a nutritional boost to substituting for an egg. 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.
Besides being very high in soluble fiber, they are also hydrophilic (water absorbing). Chia seeds can absorb up to 12 times their own weight in water, forming a gel like substance which locks in moisture.
In baking, this improves the overall structure of breads, pastries and cakes as it eliminates dry or crumbly results due to lack of moisture.
While they are very small and, unlike other seeds, have no real ‘shell’, their ‘seedy’ appearance may not be most desirable thing to use in some recipes. Chia seeds can also be ground and added to flour blends although grounding 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 $14.00 for a 16 oz. package.
More Chia Seed info here: How to Make Substitutions for Xanthan Gum in Baking
Ground Flax Seeds (Flax Seed Meal)
Flax seeds are far more common than their chia counterparts. While we tend to associate them with baking, flax seeds are healthy too.
In gluten-free baking, ground flax seeds do a great job of binding ingredients together and mimicking that desirable ‘gluten effect’ by adding moisture and softness to your baking.
But be warned: Flax seeds tend to be rather large in comparison to chia seeds and they also have an outer shell. As a result, just adding them in their natural form to a gluten-free flour blend won’t work as a binder.
They actually have to be ground for the binding effect to take place. Ground flax seeds are also known as flax seed meal.
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 meal is one of our favorite alternatives to xanthan or guar gum. Here a couple recipes using ground flax seeds:
Flax seed meal will last a long time – here is a good one to use: Flax Seed Meal
You might also like: Tips for the Best Gluten-Free/Xanthan Gum-Free Dinner Rolls
Gelatin frequently appears on the ingredients list of some popular sweet snacks such as wine gums and jelly beans. It’s the 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.
Gelatin is frequently used as an egg replacer and for this reason, it functions well as a binder.
A drawback is that gelatin is derived from animals and is therefore not suitable for vegetarians or vegans. Also keep in mind that not all gelatin is created equal – the stuff you see in the grocery stores is not suitable for baking with. Aspen Naturals is a good variety. But avoid any flavored gelatin. It is not the same thing!
Gelatin is on the high end in terms of cost, so be prepared to make a lot of eggs with it!
Agar agar is a vegan alternative to gelatin (and less expensive!). 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 available here and since a little goes a long way, you’ll have it for a while.
Xanthan and guar gum may be the heavy hitters when it comes to binding agents for gluten free bakers, but they aren’t the only game in town! What’s more, these solutions promise to deliver results which are just as tasty as using xanthan gum or guar gum in your breads, rolls, muffins, cakes and pretty much anything else you’d like to substitute it for.
Ready for a mouthwatering recipe? This one is a great one to start with Healthy and Delicious Apple Quinoa Breakfast Muffins