Xanthan Gum

It’s hard to know where to start with an ingredient as incredibly versatile as xanthan gum. Yes, it’s a thickener, but really it’s much, much more than that. Add water and it becomes an elastic goo that works as a thickener, an emulsifier, a gluten replacer for gluten-free breads, a foam reinforcer, a fat replacer, a moisture enhancer, the list goes on. Notice I said “add water” and not “heat” for xanthan gum will thicken a liquid of any temperature, hot or cold. It doesn’t clump, so it can simply be whisked into a cold salad dressing or a hot sauce. A few seconds later — presto chango — you have an increase in viscosity.

Just how much of an increase of course depends on how much xanthan gum you add. And it’s here that some cooks get into trouble as too much xanthan gum creates not a sauce but a mucous. So it’s best to tread carefully. Happily xanthan gum allows you to do that, adding a little more and maybe just a touch more until you achieve the consistency you want. One thing xanthan gum won’t do is create a JELL-O like gel. Actually I should amend that: eventually xanthan gum will do that, but the result will be so gluey and dense you wouldn’t want to eat it.

Using xanthan gum is quite easy. On average it’s about six times as powerful as any pure starch thickener when it comes to thickening liquids. Like starch thickeners it creates a smooth, shiny and transparent “gel” but where you might use three teaspoons of cornstarch for a given recipe, you’d only need half a teaspoon or less of xanthan gum. It creates gels of medium clarity that are remarkable acid-resistant. Used in combination with guar gum it forms gels that are both stringer and more elastic.

In breads — and this is where xanthan gum is especially cool — you add one teaspoon of xanthan gum to a cup of any gluten-free flour to approximate a weak, low-gluten flour, and up to two teaspoons per cup if you want something more like a strong, high-gluten flour. Quick breads require less, about 3/4 teaspoon per cup of gluten-free flour, and 1/2 teaspoon for cakes and cookies.

There’s so much to be said about xanthan gum, but I’ll stop here for now. I may well supplement this post over time as I think of more stuff to add!

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14 Responses to Xanthan Gum

  1. Maggie says:

    Cool. I had no idea. I have a bag full of xanthan gum but not quite sure how to use it. I bought it a while ago to make a vegan cake. My daughter is allergic to eggs, so I’d tried various eggless cake recipes. Eventually, I came across a recipe she likes but it doesn’t use xanthan gum, hence, a bag full is sitting in my pantry. As always, you’re full of information. Thanks.

    • joepastry says:

      Hey Maggie!

      Yes, don’t throw it out — that stuff’s expensive! And it’s got a zillion uses, especially when you consider that so many things need either thickening (even just a hint of ‘body’) or an added sensation of moisture. Have fun playing with it!

      Cheers,

      - Joe

  2. Brian Shaw says:

    Hi Joe… I’ve used this “miracle of modern science” a bit as an thickener and emulsifier. My understanding is that it works based on shear energy (I think that is the correct technical term) meaning whizzed in a blender or beaten to a pulp by a hand wisk. When I first experimented with it I thought stirring or gentle whisking would be sufficient. True or my imagination?

    The more I use it, the more I like it… and the more I’ve learned that a little can go a long way compared to other thickeners.

    • joepastry says:

      Hey Brian!

      You’re definitely right that a little can go a long way. My experience with it is that it doesn’t need much whisking to incorporate it into liquid. The interesting difference in its behavior is that where a conventional gel, once it’s set, will break when it’s agitated (and never thicken again to its full strength) a xanthan gum gel will thin as it’s agitated but then thicken up again as it’s allowed to sit. This behavior is called thixotropy, which is a kind of shear thinning that takes longer to occur, both the thinning and the thickening. I’m pretty sure I remember that corruptly! ;)

      – Joe

  3. Evan says:

    I’ve read that in synergy with locust bean gum, xanthan can create an elastic gel.

    I don’t know when you’d prefer that over any other gelling substance though.

  4. Amanda says:

    Could you add xanthan gum to regular, all purpose flour to get a springier, stretchier final product? I find that often my homemade bread comes out kind of crumbly, and I’m wondering how to remedy that.

    • joepastry says:

      You can indeed, and commercial bakeries often do to soften loaves. Start small on the quantity! ;)

      - Joe

  5. Frankly says:

    So, if I added Xanthan to my regular wheat bread recipe would I get larger air pockets? What would be the result of adding a couple of tsp to the dough?

    • joepastry says:

      Not knowing for sure how elastic xanthan gum is compared to gluten I can’t say for certain how large the air pockets would be, though you’d certainly get more volume, even if the holes were small. Does that make sense?

      - Joe

      • Frankly says:

        Yeah, I think so.

        One of my great disappointments is I can never get baguettes with those great caverns. Its good bread just not great bread so I am looking to cheat.

        • joepastry says:

          Totally understand that, Frankly!

          Baguettes are probably something I should return to one of these days. I might be able to do better than I did last time! ;)

          - Joe

  6. Jeannine says:

    Since you’re doing thickeners, can you explain why cinnamon gels things? When I add some to wine or grape juice (alcoholic and non-alcoholic spiced “wines) or to my coffee it gels so hard that the french press dregs go gloop, and a slime mat forms on top of the ipocras. *shudders*

    • joepastry says:

      Hey Jeanine!

      I’ve never actually heard of that, but now I’m interested. I’ll see what I can find on the subject!

      - Joe

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