Whether you chose not to use gums because you are allergic to them (xanthan gum is made from corn), their high cost, or you simply dislike their texture in baked goods, there are some alternatives you can use.
However before you substitute xanthan gum or guar gum, you first need to understand what it does in your baking recipes.
When gums are mixed with water, they turn into a gloopy, viscous mixture, mimicking those similar properties of gluten.
To see for yourself the texture that is created (and to make a great slime for a Halloween party!), place 1 1/2 cups cold water in a tall container and insert an immersion blender (you really need the power from an immersion blender or Vitamix style blender for this experiment to work).
With the machine running, quickly pour in 2 1/2 tsp of xanthan gum. Within seconds it will thicken, and the longer you blend the thicker it will become. This is only to show you visually the properties of gums - when added to recipes they are used in their powdered form and mixed in thoroughly with the flour(s) before the wet ingredients are added. Otherwise you'll end up with a gloopy mess in your batter that won't blend smoothly.
That fun little experiment showed us a few of xanthan gums 'glutinous' properties - its thickening ability, and how the mixture expanded, almost doubling in size. Now lets review what the real stuff (gluten) does…
High-rising cakes with a smooth texture and delicate crumb, beautifully shaped (even braided!) bread loaves that are soft and tender, crunchy pizza crusts with pillow-y soft insides, are just a few of the delicious baked goods that can be created with wheat flour...and more importantly, gluten.
Above describes the outcome of baking with gluten, so lets understand the structural functions gluten preforms during the mixing and baking process that enables it to create such wonderful baked goods:
- Binding - keeps ingredients combined together in a smooth, thick & viscous mixture.
- Elasticity – dough can be stretched and shaped, allowing its form to be maintained as it bakes. Batters are able to stretch significantly and rise as they bake.
- Structure – allows the air pockets that are created by the leveners to hold its shape while the mixture bakes, thus creating loft/rise.
- Retains moisture – keeps baked goods fresher longer, prevents a crumbly texture.
When baking with gluten-free flours, all of those functions need to be replaced with something else or you will end up with baked goods that are dry, flat, crumbly and very dense. Which brings us back to adding gums, like xanthan and guar gum to replace the gluten.
Before you completely dismiss the idea of using gums, here is one last attempt at changing your mind (since it really does produce a better tasting and textured gluten free product)...
Xanthan gum acts as a thickener, a stabilizer, an emulsifier and a foaming agent - and it's able to maintain all these properties at a wide range of baking temperatures. Its strong network of protein enables trapped gases and steam to form pockets (and be maintained), thus creating a better rising product. In comparison, gum substitutes are generally gel-like in consistency and are much weaker in their structure. This lack of structure, produces baked goods that are denser because they aren't able to rise as well.
For more information you can read our article What's the Difference Between Xanathan & Guar Gum (contrary to their names they are natural!).
Simply omitting gums from your recipes is an option, however gums not only affect the appearance and texture of your baked goods, but also taste. So if you want to avoid gums, then you really need to replace it with something else.
Keep in mind there is not one substitute that is right for every recipe - each substitute has its own properties, taste and texture, and reacts uniquely with different ingredients. A substitute that works well for one recipe, may not work the same for another.
Try One of These Substitutes...
Derived from algae or seaweed, it is a flavorless product sold in powdered form, flakes and sheets. It is a vegan alternative to gelatin.
How it works in gluten-free baking: acts as a binder and thickener. Produces stretchy dough, chewy breads and moist cakes. If too much is used it will cause excess moisture to be retained in your baked goods, making them soggy.
How to prepare: in jelly-like dishes, it first must be dissolved in a liquid, boiled for 3-5 minutes, cooled (see agar's package for more detailed instructions). However to use in baked goods, it can be used in its dry form.
How to substitute: For breads use 1 tsp powder for each cup of gluten-free flour. For cookies, cakes, and muffins use 1/2 tsp powder for each cup of gluten-free flour. Add in with the dry ingredients.
Harvested from a plant in the mint family, these flavorless seeds are extremely high in fiber and omega-3.
How it works in gluten-free baking: helps to bind and thicken.
How to prepare: in a small dish mix together 1 part chia seeds to 2 parts boiling water, stir vigorously then let sit about 5 minutes until thickened. Allow to cool to room temperature before using. Ground chia seeds are best, but whole can be used as well.
How to substitute: For breads use 1 tsp prepared chia seed mixture for each cup of gluten-free flour. For cookies, cakes, and muffins use 1/2 tsp prepared chia seed mixture for each cup of gluten-free flour. In place of xanthan gum, replace at a 1:1 ratio (dry). Prepare seeds as directed above before adding in with wet ingredients.
How it works in gluten free-baking: acts both a binder and a riser. Best in cakes and breads. Egg whites alone might not be enough for certain recipes to achieve the desired results. In those cases it is best to add in another substitute like chia seeds for a cake recipe or psyllium for bread.
How to substitute: In addition to any other eggs called for in the recipe, whip 1 egg white and fold into the batter at the very end.
Because of their thick outer shell, they must be ground before using. You can buy them already ground, or use a coffee/spice grinder to grind your own.
How it works in gluten-free baking: used to bind ingredients together, add moisture and softness.
How to prepare: in a small skillet mix together 1 part ground flax seeds to 2 parts water. Stir and let simmer about 5 - 10 minutes until thickened. Allow to cool completely before adding to recipe.
How to substitute: For breads use 1 tsp prepared flax seed mixture for each cup of gluten-free flour. For cookies, cakes, and muffins use 1/2 tsp prepared flax seed mixture for each cup of gluten-free flour. In place of xanthan gum, replace at a 1:1 ratio (dry). Prepare seeds as directed above before adding in with wet ingredients.
Derived from the collagen in animal tissue (mainly pig skin), it forms a thick jelly-like mixture and is most commonly used in Jell-O type recipes and aspics.
How it works in gluten-free baking: helps mixtures to bind, creates stretchy dough and helps to retain moisture. Great for bread recipes. If too much is used it will cause excess moisture to be retained in your baked goods, making them soggy.
How to prepare: when using in jellies or mousse the gelatin must first be dissolved in cold water then left to thicken. Once set, gently warm the mixture to liquefy it again before adding to the recipe.
How to substitute: in bread recipes it can be added directly to the dry ingredients in its powdered form - 1 tsp per 2 ½ cups of gluten-free flour. For all other baking recipes add the liquefied mixture in with the room temperature wet ingredients.
Derived from a complex carbohydrate naturally found in many fruits (like in citrus peel), it is a vegan alternative to gelatin. More commonly used in jam and jelly making to thicken, it can also be used in making gluten-free breads.
How it works in gluten-free baking: helps mixtures to bind and retain moisture.
How to substitute: in bread recipes it can be added directly to the dry ingredients in its powdered form - 1 tsp per 2 ½ cups of gluten-free flour.
Psyllium Fiber/Psyllium Husk Powder
Psyllium is the husk from the seed of the Plantago ovata plant (also called ispaghula). It is most commonly used as a laxative and fibre supplement - it is the main ingredient in Metamucil. Besides using as a gum substitute, you can add it as a supplement to any bread recipe to improve its texture.
How it works in gluten-free baking: helps to bind and improve structure.
How to prepare: in a small dish mix together 1 part psyllium husk powder to 2 parts boiling water, stir vigorously until thickened. Allow to cool to room temperature before using.
How to substitute: When using as a dough improver for bread, add 1 Tbsp in its powdered form to the dry ingredients. When using in place of xanthan gum, in bread recipes add 1 tsp psyllium husk powder for each cup of gluten-free flour, prepared as above, added to the wet ingredients. For cookies, cakes, and muffins use 1/2 tsp psyllium husk powder for each cup of gluten-free flour.
Time to Start Baking (& Testing)!
Just like substituting wheat flour for gluten-free flour, the overall taste, texture and appearance of your baked goods will be affected – which is why xanthan and guars gums are added.
Gums are your best chance at producing successful gluten-free baked goods, so when you further substitute the gums for another product, be aware the results will be affected once again.
But with a little trial and error on your part, you are sure to find a substitute that you like the taste and texture of, as well as what works best for your recipe!
Ciabatta Slices - Vincent Talleu, Wikipedia
Agar Agar - Unkky, Wikipedia
Psyllium Husts - Cary Bass, Wikipedia