Xanthan gum and the world of substitutes in baking

I have done some fine gluten-free baking this week!  I have finally stepped into the world of xanthan gum.  I have long seen this in  ingredient lists.  I would look at it and think “I don’t know what you do.  I’m avoiding you.”  But I bought a bag anyway.  It sat in my fridge staring at me for the longest time.  Then finally, it happened.  I found an explanation of the ingredient that made me know I needed to use it.  In the “Gluten-free Pantry” section of  “Living Without” magazine were the words,  “Xanthan gum is the key to successful gluten-free baking.  It provides the binding needed to give the baked product proper elasticity, keeping it from crumbling.”  This made sense.  But I was having no trouble with  that attribute because of the flour blend I was using.  I took out the bag and held it.  Right there, on my previously scary bag of Bob’s Red Mill xanthan gum were the friendly words  “Gum, Xanthan is used by people who are allergic to gluten to add volume and viscosity to bread and other gluten-free baked goods. It is made from a tiny microorganism called Xanthomonas campestris and is a natural carbohydrate.”  That word.  Viscosity.  I knew this was the product for me!   It was no longer a mystical ingredient but a functional ingredient.  If you put some on your hand and you wet your hand, you can feel the texture it will add to your baked good.  A very modest amount (about 1/2 teaspoon per cup of flour) is  going to function as a gum or glue in gluten-free baking.   I had , of course, read this before.  But today it had meaning.   I was ready.  All I needed to know was if it was vegan.   As far as I can tell, it is vegan.  It is derived from corn sugar.

I used xanthan gum in my  sesame-peanut cookies.  This is a pretty well held together cookie.  Lots of nut butters.  Rice syrup.  I kind of  liked the chewy texture but could see how it could be slightly enhanced.  Most recommendations for usage say to use 1/2 teaspoon per cup of flour in cookies.  I was conservative and used 1/2 teaspoon for two cups.  You have to trust your instincts in these things.  I was very happy with the results.  It changed the texture just a bit so there was a crunch to the cookie that surrounded the chewy inner.  Truly awesome.

crunchy and chewie sesame-peanut cookies

crunchy and chewie sesame-peanut cookies

I read a lot about vegan and gluten-free baking.  There is plenty out there.  It was in my reflection on my experience with the xanthan, and in reading a nice post on vegan baking at The Vegan Nutritionista, that it all came together. The most important thing to understand is why you’re using these ingredients.  So when you make a vegan recipe, think of what you are replacing.  For example eggs.  They bind the product and they can aerate the product.  Is the substitution you are about to make going to do this too?  In my vegan brownies, I substitute the eggs with pureed dates.  I whisk the liquid portion of the recipe until it is well aerated.    But it doesn’t hold the air the way a whisked egg does.  So I have chosen to add a small amount of leavening to replace the second function of the egg.   And so it goes.  To omit an ingredient, you need to know what it does before you replace it.  I usually just go with my instinct, because this kind of scientific method is my instinct.  But if its not yours, it is an important element to consider.

And so I go forth. I’m gonna put xanthan gum in something else so I can see what it does! I might even alter my gluten-free flour mix. It is a little dense right now.   The phrase on the label “add volume to a bread” interests me.   And if I want to make cakes…….

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